Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Catcher in the Rye - J.D.Salinger


The Catcher in the Rye is a glimpse into few days in the life of a rebellious American teenager, Holden Caulfield. The story is set in the 1950’s, and has been told as a monologue. The character of Holden can be identified with that of any typical teenager; he is at times confused, annoyed and turbulent of adolescent life as any teenager.

Holden goes to school in Pennsylvania. After being expelled from the school for poor performance, Holden lands in New York City and spends time indulging in impulsive spending, erratic behavior, hopping pubs and calling on friends from school.  He spends all the money that his grandmother sent him fiddling away aimlessly, and comes home when his parents are not around to meet his sister Phoebe, the only person with whom he thinks he can have a meaningful conversation.

He plans to travel west to find a job. He conveys his plans to Phoebe, who wants to travel with him but he relents. He finally ends up deciding to come back home and attend another school in fall. It is this period of time of which Holden narrates his experiences. The narration is riddled with sarcasm, and a certain carelessness and arrogance of youth. He might do certain things or act in a certain way for no apparent reason, but just for the 'fun' of it.

The situations in the novel are phrased simplistically, to the extent that one might read it as a lightweight story, but the message that the author tries to put across is not as simple. Holden is a complex character, a teenager driven to erratic behavior. Most of his thoughts, actions, and reactions to everyday issues give a glimpse into the confusing and turbulent times of adolescence.  He describes his habit of impulsive lying as follows:

“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.”

One of the most pressing questions one faces while gearing up for adulthood is the dilemma of what to do with one’s life. Even though his manner exhibits carelessness of youth, Holden’s mind wanders deploring the possibilities:

“What I'd do, I figured, I'd go down to the Holland Tunnel and bum a ride, and then I'd bum another one, and another one, and another one, and in a few days I'd be somewhere out West where it was very pretty and sunny and where nobody'd know me and I'd get a job. I figured I could get a job at a filling station somewhere, putting gas and oil in people's cars. I didn't care what kind of job it was, though. Just so people didn't know me and I didn't know anybody.”

He wants to preserve the innocence of his childhood, and desists wading into the maze of adulthood where innocence and mirth are lost somewhere along the way. He tries to explain this to Phoebe in this passage:

"Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody's around--nobody big, I mean--except me. And I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff--I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That's all I'd do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it's crazy, but that's the only thing I'd really like to be. I know it's crazy."

Holden essentially wants to save those children from the pains of coming to terms with adulthood by being the catcher in the rye.

At a casual first reading, Salinger’s writing appears to be just a story about a confused young man; but digging a little deeper reveals the coming to age story of the boy and dealing with adulthood. The author expects the reader to read between the lines to figure this out. The novel is part of many high school and college curricula, and is among the 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to 2005 as chosen by Time

Saturday, September 19, 2009

1984 – George Orwell


This intellectual and visionary book by George Orwell is about the dictatorial regime of Big Brother in Britain, set during the year 1984. It is never revealed in the novel if Big Brother is an actual person or a fictitious character. The repressing of dissent and of free thought forms the main theme of Big Brother’s totalitarian regime.

In the novel, the structure of the world had changed to something like this: the world has seen all countries merge into one of the three Superstates namely Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia. Britain belongs to Oceania where Big Brother reigns supreme; he controls everything from government policy to the people’s thoughts.

About 15 percent of the population is members of the Party, and the rest are common citizens called the Proletarians, or Proles. The Proles believe what Big Brother makes them believe and think what Big Brother makes them think through his continuous propaganda in print and electronic media. They merely exist as entities devoid of any free and independent thought. Every home had telescreens though which every citizen would be under complete surveillance. Any action or thought on behalf of an individual giving rise to suspicion led to investigation and torture.

The book is divided into three parts. The first part talks about the world the way protagonist Winston Smith sees it. Smith’s job involves proofreading old documents and falsifying them to suit the Party’s propaganda. In the second part, he has an illicit affair with a woman called Julia and he is in a state of intellectual rebellion against the party. He joins a brotherhood who are opponents of the party. The brotherhood exposes the truth behind the Party’s slogan:

WAR IS PEACE
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH

In the final part, he is captured, imprisoned, tortured and finally brainwashed into believing the Party’s ideology. Orwell coined many words to describe the philosophy of Big Brother’s regime; some of these are:

Doublethink: The power of holding two contradicting thoughts in one’s mind and simultaneously believing in both of them.
Newspeak: A greatly simplified version of English devoid of any words indicating the concepts of freedom, rebellion, etc.
Thoughtcrime: The crime of thinking about ideas prohibited by the Party’s constitution.

Considered George Orwell’s magnum opus, the novel is visionary and tends to get philosophical. It is classic fiction with a fairly basic plot, but the ideology that the author presents is complex, and takes some contemplation and re-read of several passages in order to fully comprehend Orwell’s theories. If you like food for thought, this one is for you. Even though written in 1949, the book surprisingly relates strikingly well to the present times.

‘Big Brother is watching you’ is a term which people are always being reminded of in the novel. This term became popular in general usage as well.