J.D. Salinger’s writing style shocked and surprised readers when The Catcher in the Rye was published. Up until this point, very little had been written in such an informal way. Authors like Mark Twain experimented with colloquial diction in narration and dialogue, but Salinger mastered it. There are many wonderful examples of the effectiveness of his style in The Catcher in the Rye as well as in his short story collections, such as Nine Stories.
Style in The Catcher in the Rye
In the Catcher in the Rye Salinger taps into the brain of a young man, in this case Holden Caulfield. This fictional boy, whose life matches up with salinger’s own in many instances, talks like a seventeen year old. Salinger chose to channel the words and thoughts of a young person to the best of his ability. This means that the dialogue is realistic, as is the narration.
Salinger’s choice to make Holden the storyteller of this frame narrative as well as the main character means that the reader is exposed on multiple levels to his style of talking. He uses words such like “phony” and “corny” quite often, expressing his honest opinion about the way adults act with one another and children. He hates the masks that people wear, even though he wears his own, and tries to call people out for it.
Controversial Writing Style Choices
One of the reasons that The Catcher in the Rye was so controversial when it came out was due to the swear words in Holden’s narration and dialogue. Although today they seem pretty tame, in the fifties words like “damn” and “bastard,” along with some other features of the novel, got it banned from schools around the world. Teachers lost their jobs for putting the book on their class syllabus.
Holden often expresses his frustration by using phrases like “goddamn life” or “I felt so damn lonesome”. The realness of these words, the young man’s angst, and his genuine gripes with the world make some parts of this novel almost too real. A reader can feelHolden’s awkwardness around other people through his conveyed dialogue and later description of the events. He moves through a liminal space between childhood and adulthood, unwilling to step firmly forward or back.
Examples of Salinger’s Writing Style
It was not only in The Catcher in the Rye that Salinger used colloquial diction. His most popular stories, such as “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” and “Franny and Zooey” also contain examples of this style of writing. For example, take these lines from “A Perfect Day for Bananafish“.
“If you want to look at my feet, say so,” said the young man. “But don’t be a God-damned sneak about it.”
“Let me out here, please,” the woman said quickly to the girl operating the car.
The car doors opened and the woman got out without looking back.
“I have two normal feet and I can’t see the slightest God-damned reason why anybody should stare at them,” said the young man.
One of the most important members of Salinger’s fictional Glass family, Seymour, speaks these words in an elevator. He and other members of his family are at a resort hotel and he’s recently returned, after being discharged, from the army. He fought in WWII and is experiencing untreated PTSD. Seymour’s frustration with his situation, inability to control his own emotions, and desire to connect with someone comes out all at once. These lines come within the last few paragraphs of the story. Afer this, he leaves the elevator, goes into his room and then takes a “Ortgies calibre 7.65 automatic” out of his bag and shoots himself “through his right temple”.
As another example of the way that language, crude or otherwise, can help paint an image of a character, take a look at these lines from “Franny and Zooey”:
“Anyway, that was the motif of the thing, so to speak—what I was trying to bring out in a fairly subtle way,” Lane said, very closely following the trend of his own conversation. “I mean, God. I honestly thought it was going to go over like a goddam lead balloon, and when I got it back with this goddam ‘A’ on it in letters about six feet high, I swear I nearly keeled over.”
Here, Lane Coutell, is speaking, bragging about the “A” he got on a paper. He goes on to suggest that Franny might like to listen to him read this paper, something that she very obviously detests. He represents much of what Franny despises about the world and in these lines he solidifies that for the reader.