The Catcher in the Rye and the Bible

Moral Critic or Critic[al] Moron?

The morals and teachings found in tbe Bible are meant to be taken and applied to a person’s everyday life. However, these teachings can be over-applied (as can anything). Some people who study the Bible extensively see its influences everywhere. An example of this is how literary critics often over-emphasize the impact which the Bible has upon writers and novels. More specifically, some literary critics have compared J.D. Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye and certain characters to biblical scenes and characters. In these cases, the impact of the Bible on the novel is very unclear, and most likely, figments of the critic’s overly Christian imaginations. Despite the fact that the implications in the Bible are so incredibly vast and vague (and subject to every individual’s interpretations) and that they could easily be applied to any piece of literature (particularly if the critic is intensely focused upon the Bible), the situations in The Catcher in the Rye that these critics link to the Bible are erroneous. J.D. Salinger is a very religious man; however, his studies of spirituality are not limited to Christian beliefs and the Bible. A more accurate manner in which to interpret the writings of any author, especially in terms of religion, is to study the background of that author, and his/her own religious studies and beliefs.

J.D. Salinger was, in fact, a very religious man, who studied Zen, Buddhism, Christian Scientist, as well as the teachings of Ramakhrishna and Vivekananda (two Indian holy-men) (Hamilton 129). Salinger’s interest in various religions would indeed have influenced his work; however, many critics tend to focus only upon the Bible. Jerome David Salinger was born January 1, 1919 in New York City. He attended Valley Forge Military Academy in Pennsylvania beginning in 1934, this is where he first began writing (Grunwald 12). Salinger, who never attended a Christian boarding school as a young man, was never intently focused upon the bible in his writings. In 1936, he was accepted to New York University (Grunwald 13). NYU as most people know, is a very diverse college, as is New York City. This diversity probably led Salinger to be exposed to many different religious ideas and teachings. Had Salinger grown up in the deep south and attended a college with strong religious affiliation, there would be sufficient evidence to support the idea that his writing was primarily influenced by the Bible (as some critics have proposed). However, quite the opposite is true, he was raised by parents of different religions (his fathers family was Jewish, and his mother was a Christian) and was educated in several non-religious environments (Grunwald 11). Salinger later went on to serve in the Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC) during World War II (Grunwald 14).

Around 1952, Salinger underwent some sort of momentous conversion of religious beliefs. During this time, Salinger was primarily focused upon the teachings of Ramakrishna and Vivekananda and Zen Buddhism (Grunwald 121). Ramakrishna taught that “a man cannot realize God unless he renounces everything" (Ramakrishna 79). This ideal is highly evident in the protagonist of The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield. Throughout the novel, Holden renounces all of his surroundings, and every person whom he encounters. Salinger as well is seen to have practiced renunciation in his daily life. On January 1, 1953 (his 34th birthday), Salinger moved into small cottage in Cornish, New Hampshire with no running water, no electricity, and no telephone (Grunwald 15). The fact that critics believe that Salinger’s writing is influenced by Christianity alone is probably due to the critics individual beliefs rather than Salinger’s. It is not hard to see that often times critics will superimpose their own beliefs on a piece of work, rather than studying the author’s background, personal influences, and beliefs.

Carl F. Strauch is one critic who has blatantly imposed is own beliefs upon Salinger’s work. In Strauch’s criticism, he tries to tie together separate parts of The Catcher in the Rye by referencing the Bible. Strauch’s interpretation reads as follows:
Here we have an explanation of Holdens guilt feelings and why he broke his hand against the garage windows, and we trace all the elements of his fantasying to this psychological clause. Mutilation is itself the physical symbol of a psychological state of self-accusation and self-laceration. Hence, when Holden, after discovering that he cannot pray, reflects that next to Jesus the character in the Bible that he likes best is the lunatic that lived in the tombs and cut himself with stones… we note that Holden identifies himself with a madman. In Mark, V.1-20, we are told of the lunatic that broke all his chains and fetters, for no man could tame him… (Strauch 507)

Up until this point in Strauch’s criticism, his reasoning seems fairly logical. However, the fact that Strauch must attempt to link Holden to another “madman” in the Bible (in Mark V. 1-20), shows how Strauch is placing his own Christian knowledge on top of what Salinger already mentioned in the novel. By making further references to “madmen” in the Biblical text, Carl Strauch is attempting to show off what he knows of the Bible. Strauch’s criticism then turns towards his own beliefs, rather than those of the actual author, J.D. Salinger:
“If we are to comprehend what happens in The Catcher we must attribute prime importance to this little scene of about two pages at the head of chapter fourteen; for Holden will subsequently break his morbid psychological fetters” (Strauch 507).

Strauch thus implies that Salinger was primarily influenced by the passage mentioned in Mark. However, by reading The Catcher in the Rye, an average reader, (who is not intently focused upon Biblical studies) does not see any reference to Mark. Furthermore there can be found very little evidence to support the idea that Holdens habit of referring to himself as a madman and the idea that he is (somewhat subconsciously) acting out the frustration and guilt of the lunatics in the Bible. Strauch mentions that Holden “breaks his… psychological fetters”; however, there is little actual proof of this in The Catcher in the Rye (Strauch 507). Holden ends up in a mental institution, most probably placed there by his parents. Holden did not break any fetters, he only decides not to move out west, a decision that any sane person would make. The fact that Holden did make the right decision (as he does in most instances in The Catcher in the Rye) proves that he is not truly a “madman” and is not logically linked to lunatics in the Bible, who are in fact real “madmen.” Strauch’s knowledge of the Bible, and obvious Christian affiliation, leads him to misinterpret Salinger’s work by placing his own beliefs over those of J. D. Salinger’s.

Critics can more accurately describe and criticize a literary work when they fully understand the personal beliefs of the author, rather than using their own. Instead of doing what Carl F. Strauch did, and describing what The Catcher in the Rye would have meant had he wrote it, David D. Galloway more accurately describes The Catcher in the Rye in terms of Salinger’s own religious beliefs. Galloway describes Holdens attempts to recapture his childish innocence in terms of “mysticism (which Salinger usually considers in terms of Zen Buddhism)” (Galloway455). Holden Caulfield can in many ways be seen as a mystic because “the life of a mystic is only temporarily one of isolation” (Galloway 445). It is easy to see how at this point in Holdens life, he is very isolated from the rest of the world. In the opening pages of The Catcher in the Rye Holden is standing on a hill looking out over the rest of his fellow classmates at a football game (Salinger 2). Holden states that “Practically the whole school except me was there” (Salinger 2). Holdens isolation is thus portrayed in the very opening of the novel, as it is throughout as well.

Other beliefs held by Salinger were considered by David D. Galloway in his criticism of J.D. Salinger. Galloway also describes Salinger as a writer who questions whether “God is dead” (Galloway 445). Although this idea is outlined nowhere in Zen Buddhism, the teachings of Ramakrishna, Vivekananda, or the Bible, it is very possible that during his studies of religion and spirituality Salinger studied the writings of Nietzsche. The works of Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche are said to have influenced the [Nazi doctrines (World Book 5683). During Salinger’s travels to Eastern Europe in 1937, he was exposed to Nazi gangs and the philosophies of Nietzsche. As Galloway points out, “To act with morality and love in a universe in which God is dead… is perhaps the most acute problem in our age” and Salinger intensely considers this in his writing (Galloway 445). In The Catcher in the Rye, this search for God can be seen when Holden attempts to pray. When Holden is unable to pray it is proof of his own contemplation of God, and both Holdens and Salinger’s consideration of Neitzsches idea that “God is dead”.

Literary criticisms are often tainted by the critic’s own personal religious beliefs and knowledge. Thus is the case with Carl F. Strauch who superimposes his own Christian ideals on the work of J.D. Salinger, a man who has studied religion and spirituality in many forms. David D. Galloway does a much more adequate job of interpreting Salinger’s work by relating it to Salinger’s own religious beliefs. In Galloway’s analysis, research into Salinger’s religious beliefs is evident; however, the only thing clear in the literary criticism of Carl Strauch is his own religious affiliation. All critics would be better suited to leave their own beliefs (especially those pertaining to religion) aside, and assume those of the author whom they are criticizing.

Works Cited
Galloway, David D. “The Love Ethic.” The Absurd Hero in American Fiction, University of Texas Press, 1970. 140-69. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Carolyn Riley. Vol. 3. Gale Research Company, Detroit Michigan, 1975.

Hamilton, Ian. In Search of J.D. Salinger, Random] House, New York, 1988. 129

Grunwald, Henry Anatole. “Salinger: A Critical and Personal Portrait”. New York: Harper, 1963.

“Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm.” World Book Encyclopedia: Field Enterprises, Inc, Chicago. 1950. 5683.

Salinger, Jerome David. The Catcher in the Rye. New York: Bantam, 1989.

Sri Ramakrishna. Thus Spake Sri Ramakrishna. Mylapore, Madras: Sri Ramakrishna Math, 1967.

Strauch, Carl F. “Kings in the Back Row: Meaning Through Structure-A reading of Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye.” Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature 1961. Rpt. In Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Dedria Bryfonski. Vol. 12. Gale Research Company, Detroit, Michigan, 1980. 5-30.

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