I have read this book twice, with five years in between. I experienced a decided dislike with the first read-through, although I did enjoy a couple nostalgic passages. Willing to give it a second chance, my second experience was nearly opposite the first. While I feel there are some things that could have been altered, and the protagonist is not someone I readily relate to, I understood him. Perhaps it took losing my brother to be able to identify the barricades he was using to distance himself from others: his crass mouth, his fighting defense, his outrageous lies. But I began to see his hurt, his inability to communicate and how he struggled in his isolation and fought against phoniness. I see this as a study of grief, how he has not yet come to terms with mourning his brother and the downward spiral that commenced.
One of my favorite passages from the book is when he's relating to his sister what he'd like to do in the future:
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.
In spite of his abrasive personality, Holden Caulfield is sensitive and wants to care for those around him. He's just stuck and no longer knows how to be himself. Early on, when writing an essay for a classmate, he turns nostalgic and gets mocked and debased for what he writes. So he shuts down and reverts to his fists.
I read too much into these things, but I imagine some of my former students as Holdens, lost without someone to side with them. They found it was easier to be labeled the troubled child and let it define them and their future actions. I valued the moments I had with those students (sometimes while monitoring detention) when I caught a glimmer of the true person inside, when they let their defenses down. But it was hard to continue that when they returned to my class and their peers, because their peers didn't know of the small steps taken to change.
In one case, a student switched sections, to one where he didn't have close friends. Then he started to learn to be himself and stop belittling his every failure for the amusement of those around him. Of course, I don't know what ended up happening to this modern-day Holden, as he was removed to live with an aunt in Texas.