Written for my SNHU M.A. in Creative Writing. English 510
The Catcher in the Rye has become a sort of litmus test for all Young Adult literature published after 1945. Many books have mimicked its literary mechanics, with an angst-driven main character and themes of mental illness. A similar work of fiction, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, encapsulates similar devices to deliver its message. The Catcher in the Rye and The Perks of Being of a Wallflower handle the teen experience in powerful ways, not shying away from topics considered shocking in their time. Through the use of storytelling elements, themes, and stylistic choices J.D. Salinger and Stephen Chbosky successfully handle themes that teens from the 1940’s and now struggle to deal with, which include suicide, sexuality, alcohol abuse, drug abuse, date rape, and abortion.
The conflict, climax, and resolution in The Catcher in the Rye helps lead the reader through the downfall and mental illness of its main character, Holden Caulfield. At the beginning of the novel, Holden has learned he has been kicked out of his private school, Pencey Prep. He tells the reader he’s been kicked out of many prep schools before, which helps the reader to know Holden is not at all concerned with the expectations that are placed upon him: “I was flunking four subjects and not applying myself and all.” (Salinger, 6). The conflict of losing his place at Pencey Prep sends him into a very cold, wintry New York City, where he can’t find anyone who truly cares and which causes him to feel completely alone, despite the many people he came across in the city. The coldness of the city and the desperation for human contact work to create a mood of despair. In the climax of the novel, Holden watches his sister, Phoebe, ride the carousel, creating a breaking point for him, where he realizes he must pull himself together and disrupt his plans to move west. “I’m not going away anywhere. I changed my mind. So stop crying and shut up.” (Salinger, 228) If not for himself, he needed to mature for Phoebe. She gave him a reason to mature, a more powerful statement than if Salinger had chosen this moment to occur between Holden and an adult. Using Phoebe made the moment feel real and heartfelt. The resolution shows Holden in a mental hospital, at this point the reader learns the entire novel has been a conversation–a retelling of his life to a hospital employee. Revealing one of the most important parts of the novel at the end drives the reader to review the book looking for clues missed during the first reading; it creates interest and a lifelong infatuation with the novel.
The Catcher in the Rye is written in first person point of view, using Holden as an unreliable narrator. “I’m the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life. It’s awful. If I’m on my way to the store to buy a magazine, even, and somebody asks me where I’m going, I’m liable to say I’m going to the opera. It’s terrible.” (Salinger, 14) The reader cannot trust Holden’s words, his entire story is a version of the truth, or maybe a complete fabrication, the reader can’t be sure. Alternately, the reader also becomes aware that Holden is not exactly sure of his surroundings and own personal actions. He has little knowledge of how he is behaving as evidenced here: “Don’t shout, please,’ old Sally said. Which was very funny, because I wasn’t even shouting.” (Salinger, 117) Sometimes Holden doesn’t know why he reacts to events in the way he does, as evidenced in this quote: “When I was all set to go when I had my bags and all, I stood for a while next to the stairs and took a last look down the goddam corridor. I was sort of crying. I don’t know why.” (Salinger, 46) All of this demonstrates why the reader cannot trust Holden’s narration of events. Holden is young, not sure of the world around him, but also feels as if he is more mature than he is, which is normal for his age. It is not unreasonable for a teen to be confused by his reactions, or to lie, adding in a mental illness creates a character who is unreliable, but also mirrors teens in his age range, making him a believable character.
The Catcher in the Rye represents the cusp of change in America and matches those conventions in literature: a time when the nation’s ethics and morality were challenged, when society itself was considered too impersonal, and when the art and literary world began to fight against that cold impartiality. The creative world was struggling to move beyond the staunch rules and practices of the late 1800s early 1900s. As Baldick observes “Modernist literature is characterized chiefly by a rejection of 19th-century traditions and of their consensus between author and reader” (Baldick 159). The Catcher in the Rye shows the modernist characteristics clearly. The novel extremely conversational, written as if the main character, Holden Caulfield, is verbally telling his story. Catcher is a break from the expected norm, it is now, it is different, and certainly avant-garde for its time period. This becomes evident immediately upon picking up the book: the first sentence tells the reader so. “IF YOU REALLY WANT TO HEAR about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like…” (Salinger, 3) Here Caulfield is telling the reader “IF YOU REALLY WANT TO HEAR…” (Salinger, 3) It feels as if Caulfield is talking to the reader, when in reality, he is speaking to someone at the psychiatric hospital. This method is extremely effective in helping the reader to understand fully how Caulfield’s depressed mind is working. Throughout the novel, he continually lets the reader know he is depressed, “… I was crying and all. I don’t know why, but I was. I guess it was because I was feeling so damn depressed and lonesome.” (Salinger, 169). Salinger wrote Holden Caulfield with a raw emotion and ragged mental state during a time when mental illness was shushed and swept under the carpet. Through first-person narrative, Salinger gave Caulfield a voice while giving the world insight into the realities of depression and mental illness. Salinger’s decision was against the norm of the time, a convention of modernist literature.
While The Catcher in the Rye showcases a teen running away from his responsibilities, The Perks of Being a Wallflower introduces us to a teen fully immersing himself in life. In The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Charlie, a 15-year-old high school freshman, finds himself alone at the beginning of the school year. Through letters written to a stranger, the reader follows Charlie through his first year of high school. Stephen Chbosky spins a postmodern tale using unconventional storytelling methods and contemporary themes to create Charlie’s world in an immensely believable manner. Chbosky draws both Charlie and the reader through the conflict, crisis, and conclusion to show that friendship is indispensable to surviving life’s harder moments. His storytelling elements help the reader to fully understand the characters and themes of the novel to produce a work that speaks to its readers.
The conflict, climax, and resolution of Wallflower are in line with Charlie’s growth process socially as well as psychologically. The conflict in Wallflower occurs with the suicide of Charlie’s friend, Michael. Charlie is left dealing with the suicide as well as the long since the death of his aunt Helen. He is feeling alone and awkward with flashbacks plaguing him. Two climactic moments occur in his novel, with the first climax being the most important to the story. This is an unconventional storytelling method. For the first, most important climax, Chbosky sets a party scene. Dared to kiss the most beautiful girl in the room, Charlie chooses to kiss someone other than his girlfriend, he kisses Sam, his good friend, the person he is been dreaming about. This starts the progression of downfall in the story, causing Charlie to lose friends who had become a safety net protecting him from bad memories and flashbacks. The second climactic moment happens when Charlie’s friend Patrick gets into a lunchroom fight. By having Charlie step in to help Patrick, Chbosky both gives Charlie more self-power and drives home the theme of friendship as the path to emotional survival. Patrick’s realization that Charlie is a true friend sets the course for Charlie to regain his friend group and sets the stage for the story’s resolution. The resolution occurs as Charlie’s friends get ready for college. He finally kisses his longtime crush, Sam, then has a disturbing flashback of his aunt molesting him. Chbosky sends Charlie into a psychotic break, with the novel ending with Charlie in a mental hospital. In the resolution, Charlie ultimately begins the process of self-actualization.
Charlie’s progression shows despair, loyalty, and finally growth. Charlie is a reliable narrator revealed through a set of letters sent to a stranger, addressed simply to “friend.” This friend is someone that Charlie does not know, so he feels he can be honest and forthright in his letters, despite the fact that he changes all the names, including his own. “I will call people by different names or generic names because I don’t want you to find me.” (Chbosky, 2) Through this set of letters, the reader is exposed to a teen boy who is different from his peers. He is smarter, awkward, and a wallflower, as noted by Charlie’s friend Patrick: “You see things. You keep quiet about them. And you understand.” (Chbosky, 37) Throughout the book, Charlie grows as a character in his relationships with his peers, but still remains awkward and never truly learns to advocate for himself until the end of the novel. He makes friends and begins learning how to be a friend himself. Yet, as Sam points out in the following quote, he remains a wallflower: “…You can’t just sit there and put everybody’s lives ahead of yours and think that counts as love. You just can’t. You have to do things.” (Chbosky, 200). Charlie has a realization in the hospital that shows the reader he will be okay: “…even if we don’t have the power to choose where we come from, we can still choose where we go from there. We can still do things. And we can try to feel okay about them.” (Chbosky, 211) At the end of the narrative, Chbosky shows the reader that Charlie will be okay through a heartwarming moment with his friends. “But mostly, I was crying because I was suddenly very aware of the fact that it was me standing up in that tunnel with the wind over my face.” (Chbosky, 213) This is the end of the novel, but the start of his new life.
Stephen Chbosky utilizes many literary conventions that are found in contemporary Young Adult Genre, as well as the youth culture of the late 1990’s. Those literary conventions include: “adolescent protagonists, narration from the adolescent’s point-of-view, realistic contemporary settings, and subject matter formerly considered taboo.” (Ross) By this definition, Chbosky is successful in his portrayal of teen life in contemporary America. Wallflower has indeed been written in the point-of-view of an adolescent protagonist. Its contemporary setting is a more modern Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in the 1990’s. Lastly, taboo is something that sticks out heavily in this novel, as Jeffrey Kaplan states: “The trope that all young adult literature has in common is the search for identity.” (Kaplan, 12) In this novel, the search for identity includes exploring topics once considered taboo. Charlie pushes the boundaries of what was once considered taboo with drinking and drug use. More so, Patrick’s struggle with his homosexual identity leads Patrick to make choices that hurt him deeply. “The nights he would pick up someone always made him sad. It’s hard, too, because Patrick began every night really excited. He always said he felt free. And tonight was his destiny. And things like that. But by the end of that night, he just looked sad…. He ran out of things to keep him numb.” (Chbosky, 163) Other taboo topics in Wallflower include abortion, suicide, rape, alcoholism, and drug abuse. The teens in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s wanted real topics, they didn’t want to be sheltered, they want authentic literature that mirrored the issues they saw around them daily.
The Catcher in the Rye and The Secrets of Being a Wallflower employ storytelling elements in similar manners, but there are also many differences. Both Catcher and Wallflower are told from a first-person point of view, with Charlie in Wallflower being the more reliable narrator. Holden and Charlie are telling their stories in a conversational manner. Holden’s story is told to a psychiatric hospital employee, while Charlie’s story is told through a series of letters written to someone only referred to as “friend.” In both instances, these stories are being told to anonymous people. This helps the reader concentrate only on the main character, and his thoughts, instead of a back and forth dialogue between the teller and the interviewer. In addition, Salinger uses more of a conversational tone in Catcher, while Chbosky uses letters.
Both Charlie and Holden show a late development of character, with both characters having their realization moments towards the end of their novels. However, there are slight differences in their development; Salinger’s Holden is stubborn until the end, whereas Chbosky’s Charlie knows he needs to change and tries. Both novels start with a stressful event, pushing the character to do something different. Holden learns he’s been kicked out of school: “They kicked me out. I wasn’t supposed to come back after Christmas vacation, on account of I was flunking four subjects and not applying myself and all.” (Salinger, 6) This event sends Holden into the cold streets of New York City to avoid telling his parents of his recent dismissal. “I didn’t want to go home or anything till they got it and thoroughly digested it and all. I didn’t want to be around when they first go it. My mother gets very hysterical…. My nerves were shot. They really were.” (Salinger, 58) In Wallflower, Charlie learns a friend has committed suicide, sending him into his first year of high school with no friends and social life. Chbosky shows Charlie’s pain in the following: “Then, I started screaming at the guidance counselor that Michael could have talked to me. And I started crying even harder.” (Chbosky, 4)
Both The Catcher in the Rye and The Perks of being a Wallflower take a serious view of what teenage life is in their particular time and place with teenagers being the intended audience for the novels using conventions that are typically used in Young Adult literature. The themes the authors explored are relevant to the changing societies in which they reside. Both works reside in a time period of change, both works deal with the impetuousness of youth, sexuality, and drug abuse. In Catcher, Holden is surrounded by an emerging sex culture where youth are becoming more interested in exploring sex before marriage. While Holden sees teens making out all around him, he himself is not interested: “Most guys at Pencey just talked about having sexual intercourse with girls all the time–like Ackley, for instance–but old Stradlater really did it. I was personally acquainted with at least two girls he gave the time to. That’s the truth.” (Salinger, 55) and “I know you’re supposed to feel pretty sexy when somebody gets up and pulls her dress over their head, but I didn’t. Sexy was about the last thing I was feeling. I felt much more depressed than sexy.” (Salinger, 106). In Wallflower, Charlie is willing to go with the flow of whatever is going on, just to be kind:
“Like when you guys went to that park? Or when he was kissing you? Did you want him to kiss you?”
I shook my head no.
“So why did you let him?”
“I was trying to be a friend,” I said (Chbosky, 201)
Stephen Chbosky also handles homosexuality as a subtheme of the larger theme of sexuality, something that J.D. Salinger’s society would not have allowed. Chbosky was writing in the late 1990’s when society was starting to become more accepting of homosexuality. Chbosky chooses Patrick, Charlie’s friend, to illustrate the experience and shame of growing up gay in the 1990’s. Patrick’s love interest, the star quarterback named Brad, did everything he could to hide his relationship with Patrick, including bullying Patrick.
““What did you call me?’
God he was mad. I’d never seen Patrick like that before.
Brad sat quiet for a second, but his buddies kept egging him on by pushing his shoulders. Brad looked up at Patrick and said softer and meaner than the last time.
“I called you a faggot.”” (Salinger, 150)
Other sex-based themes including date-rape, molestation, and abortion were also handled in Wallflower–areas that Salinger did not embrace in Catcher.
Mental illness is another theme explored by both Salinger and Chbosky. Both writers chose to end their novels with their characters receiving psychiatric care. Both novels look deeply inside the mind of a hurting teen. For Holden, Salinger makes the hospitalization a part of the realization of the character’s problems with taking ownership of his life. Holden is depressed by the death of his older brother, the suicide of his roommate is feeling hopeless in the streets of New York City, and has a mental breakdown: “Everytime I’d get to the end of a block I’d make believe I was talking to my brother Allie. I’d say to him, ‘Allie, don’t let me disappear. Allie, don’t let me disappear. Allie, don’t let me disappear. Please, Allie.’ And then when I’d reach the other side of the street without disappearing, I’d thank him. Then it would start all over again as soon as I got to the next corner. But I kept going and all. I was sort of afraid to stop.” (Salinger, 217) Chbosky’s Charlie also has a psychotic break at the end of Wallflower when memory of his Aunt molesting him came flooding back: “I did what she told me. And just before I fell asleep, I said something.
“I can’t do that anymore. I’m sorry,” I said.
“It’s okay, Charlie, Just go to sleep,” Sam said.
But I wasn’t talking to Sam anymore, I was talking to someone else.” (Chbosky, 203)
Salinger and Chbosky’s choices work well in their novels for Young Adult readers. Both novels were written during a period of change in the American society. Themes prevalent in Young Adult literature include: “disillusionment and alienation, coping with family dynamics, peer relationships, overcoming obstacles, and broadening perspectives.” (Eiss, iii) Each of these themes was touched on in both novels. While Salinger wrote Catcher, more women working outside of the home, the baby boom was occurring, and Alfred Kinsey was two years away from releasing Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. In Wallflower, there were changes in society. Chbosky tackles issues that teens were wrestling in their own worlds, changes that hit the teen population of the time in a hard way; homosexuality, date rape, and drug use. The conversational tone of both novels appeal to the younger Y.A. audience, both authors captured the voice of teens exceptionally well. Both authors’ main characters are teens themselves. In The Catcher in the Rye, Salinger makes sure the reader understands that Holden’s family relationships are strained. In The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Charlie is dealing with the death of his aunt and the changing dynamic of his brother being in college. It appears as if he has a normal American family who love him very much. He never questions their love. We can see Charlie thinking about his family here: “One thing I do know is that it makes me wonder if I have ‘problems at home.’ but it seems to me that a lot of other people have it a lot worse.” (Chbosky, 4) The way Chbosky writes Charlie’s family paints a portrait of an average American family. Friendships and peers were handled by both authors. Holden seems to distrust and dislike his peers: “Pencey was full of crooks. Quite a few guys came from these very wealthy families, but it was full of crooks anyway.” (Salinger, 6). Whereas Charlie so desperately wanted be a part of his peers lives: “Normally I am very shy, but [Patrick] seemed like the kind of guy you could just walk up to at a football game even though you were three years younger and not popular.” (Chbosky, 19) Family life, social life, taking risks, these are all things that teens enjoy reading about. Both authors appeal to the youth in America, both wrote successful Young Adult novels.
J.D. Salinger and Stephen Chbosky deal with similar themes in different ways. Both authors successfully gave a voice to the he teens of their decade. They both explored topics that were taboo, and both explore teens that are coming of age. Salinger and Chbosky also dealt with mental illness in very powerful ways that lead the reader to pay attention. The Catcher in the Rye and The Perks of Being a Wallflower are successful Young Adult / coming of age novels.
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