A Child’s View: Adult Oppression in The Catcher in the Rye and The Member of the Wedding

August 20, 2019 by Essay Writer

In novels The Catcher in the Rye and The Member of the Wedding, Salinger and McCullers both invite the reader to experience how the adult world can have an impact on the lives of young people. In particular, the novels describe how their protagonists (Holden Caulfield in Catcher and Frankie in Member) feel oppressed by the constraints and expectations of an adult world. The Catcher in the Rye has an immediacy that could allow it to be viewed as a more powerful portrayal of a child’s perspective, and The Member of the Wedding’s perhaps more convoluted chronology could be said not to lend it such power. Yet McCullers’ poetic language and underlying metaphors conceivably lets it be seen as just as powerful in a distinctly different way. This view of an oppressive world is shared by both novels despite differences in narrative technique: for example, Holden is male, while Frankie is female; McCullers employs a third-person narrative voice, while Salinger uses the first person. From the outset, both novels make it clear that the main protagonist feels in some way oppressed by the environment or atmosphere that surrounds them. In Catcher this is shown through Holden’s irreverent, even rebellious, voice. The first words are: “If you really want to hear about it.” This ‘you’, with which he addresses1 the reader, engenders sympathy, and perhaps more intriguingly prompts questions of reliability as the reader realises this is Holden’s subjective interpretation of events. The apparent reluctance of the story teller to tell his story is reinforced by a declared lack of desire to describe his “lousy childhood”, where he “was born” or how his “parents were occupied… and all that David Copperfield kind of crap” – all of which demonstrates a dislike for autobiographical conventions. We are already in the world of someone who feels at odds with his environment and who is in opposition to the conventions of the adult world surrounding him. The Member of the Wedding adopts a different approach. It commences somewhat conventionally with “It happened that green and crazy summer when Frankie was twelve years old.” This sentence has a simplicity reminiscent of children’s stories, which raises certain expectations in the reader about the kind of drama that might follow. However, instead of the innocence of childhood, there is ambiguity in the adjectives “green” and “crazy”; atmospheric words that suggest innocence naivety (green) and confusion (crazy). Given that Frankie is “twelve years old”, the reader might conclude that they are being presented with a ‘coming of age’ story. Moreover, the “it” (the first word) is of course elusive to us upon our first reading. Even by the end of the novel, we are still unclear what ‘It’ refers to: it could imply the heavily anticipated wedding of Frankie’s brother, or possibly Frankie’s sexual development (at the end of Part II Frankie (F. Jasmine at this point) still cannot accept the thought of sex, and consequently labels it “crazy” following her evaluation of her sexual encounters). McCullers’ apparent story-telling conventionality (in contrast to Catcher) is perhaps further undermined by underlying metaphors. McCullers uses poetic language composed of many possible meanings. For example, there is atmospheric depiction of the external world to indicate Frankie’s internal world: “In June the trees were bright dizzy green, but later the leaves darkened, and the town turned black and shrunken under the glare of the sun.” . The descriptions of the weather alone conjure an oppressive atmosphere: the ‘darkened’ leaves and the ‘black and shrunken’ town are both metaphorical of Frankie’s despair. Furthermore, “green” could be taken as symbolic of the freshness of Frankie’s youth, and “bright dizzy” could be reflective of her uncertainty at a vulnerable stage of development. McCullers, therefore, does not appear to execute her opening with the immediacy of Catcher, instead quietly rendering her prose with subtle meanings. There is a huge difficulty in deciding which is a more powerful introduction – Salinger’s intimate and opinionated direct-address, or McCullers’ nicety of prose; the direct-address of Holden grabs the reader’s attention by expressing points that appear sensitive to his society’s oppressive nature without appearing to be constrained by such oppression, which can be looked at contextually: set in 1949 (post-war America), Holden critiques the equilibrium that the government was struggling the maintain chiefly due to the threat of communism. McCarthyism constrained the actions of many, particularly those in the arts, and women were restrained similarly from a career outside their home, since the supposedly disrupted idea of a family needed to be put right proceeding the war. It was thought a working father and stay-at-home mother was the appropriate way forward in order to present the ideal that work was ‘unwomanly’. Holden appears to desire to rebel against the aforesaid American ideologies. One female acquaintance, Sally, interprets Holden’s want to “escape” as a want to “travel” telling Holden they will have “oodles of time to do all those things… I mean after you go to college and all, and if we get married and all”. This could be seen as a passive acceptance of the social conventions of the time, and – in the sense that Sally does not question the unimaginative and perhaps dull future she has been conditioned to assume is right – Holden’s ideas are comparatively much less inclined to the status quo; it appears that he sees such a comfortable future as conforming to a life lacking in surprises. Reading on, we encounter in both novels a theme of corruption that threatens to impinge on the lives on the protagonists. The objectivity and lack of bias with which McCullers’ third-person narrative unfolds allows direct unmediated observation of behaviour that is left to the reader to interpret, perhaps psychoanalytically. In Member, pg. 33 (Part I), there is a “queer sin” that Frankie is said to have committed with a Barney MacKean whom she hates so much that she “planned to kill him… shoot him with the pistol or throw a knife between his eyes”, yet this does not necessarily mean Frankie resents Barney. Instead this could be read as a resentment or defensiveness masking fear and guilt for what she has done; she feels corrupted. Symptoms of her sense of corruption are continued throughout Part I: “she could not name the feeling in her”. The reader can sense Frankie’s stress – she is being oppressed by emotions too complex for her age. Additionally, as a result of the narrative’s authenticity, that is we trust the third-person narrative because it appears unbiased, the reader can sense Frankie’s high level of perceptivity in relation to Holden, who could be said to be too possessed by his own despair and anger in order to perceive the world accurately. In Catcher, Holden sees corruption all around him. Of his brother he says “D.B., being a prostitute… out in Hollywood”. The implication is that D.B. – as an author – has not been true to his art having been seduced by material wealth. Of course, D.B. has not necessarily sold-out by going to Hollywood – Holden could instead be masking his true feels; it is likely that he is missing his brother, particularly since he no longer has Allie, his brother, who died. Holden goes on to express his dislike for “phonies”, like his old headmaster, Mr Haas, who he calls “the phoniest bastard I ever met in my life… [who] if a boy’s mother was sort of fat… would just shake hands with them and give them a phony smile and then he’d go talk, for maybe half an hour, with somebody else’s parents” – pg. 12. Holden tells us that this disingenuous behaviour “makes me so depressed I go crazy”. Through such descriptions, the reader gets the sense of what Holden means when he describes people as ‘phony’, and how their ‘phoniness’ affects him because it is often those with social power (like a headmaster) that demonstrate this superficiality; and this entails a feeling of anger for Holden who is subject the actions of ‘phonies’ socially superior to him. Perhaps the difference between the two novels in terms of this theme of corruption is that Frankie feels the corruption within, while Holden feels the corruption from without. So while Holden is explicit in pinpointing the source of the corruption in his brother, former headmaster and others, McCullers alludes to a psychological corruption within Frankie. For instance, on page 32 we learn that in Frankie there is “tightness… that would not break” and that “what she did was always wrong”. The narrative goes no further in describing exactly what this ‘tightness’ is or what is ‘wrong’, instead allowing the ambiguous language to reveal only Frankie’s discontent and confusion. However, like Holden, we can conclude that the corruption is the result of an oppressive experience of the external – that is, adult – world.Chronologically, these novels both effectively convey themes of oppression, and reflect their protagonists’ attributes in radically distinct ways, despite the fact that they each take place over just a few days. Salinger’s episodic narrative pulls the reader rapidly through Holden’s passage of time. Through dialogue, the reader is somehow brought into a sense of real-time, which, juxtaposed with Holden’s tangential stream of consciousness, constructs a chronology whose erratic nature gives the reader a sense of over-stimulation within a short period, similarly to how Holden himself can be said to be overly stimulated by his time in New York’s adult world. One instance – in the middle of the story – demonstrating Holden’s spontaneous liaison with a prostitute2 where he attempts to extricate himself from the situation which begins to make him “feel sad as hell”: he lies about a back operation on his “clavichord… in the spinal canal” (a clavichord is actually a stringed musical instrument). This meeting evokes, again, Holden’s perceptivity to corruption in the external world, and his sadness suggests just how sensitive he is towards it. Following the whore’s elongated departure Holden talks aloud to Allie (his deceased brother), begins to reminisce about his childhood, and then transgressively starts to talk about the Bible and the character he liked best “next to Jesus, was that lunatic and all, that lived in the tombs and kept cutting himself with stones”. His digressions could be said to take away the reader’s sense of time due to their inconstancy, yet we are instantly brought back down to earth with Salinger’s reapplication of dialogue. In this instance, Holden is deviating from Christianity into a disagreement with a boy from school when “somebody knocked on the door… old Sunny [whore] and Maurice [pimp]”. Here an altercation escalates into an argument resulting Holden being “smacked”. Such fluctuation of narrative roller-coasters the reader through time, potently representing Holden’s adolescent bewilderment to a world that he finds restrictive, sinister, and thus oppressive. The effect of Salinger’s juxtaposition between the Bible and the prostitute is perhaps a mirroring of Holden’s character (he is a lesser version of the self-harming lunatic) followed by an illustration of why it is true: by lonesomely wandering, failing to eat, drinking and picking up hookers Holden is harming himself, and maybe he knows so; perhaps he alludes to the biblical lunatic as an extreme of himself, angered by society and severely lacking self-esteem Holden proceeds to downward spiral with an inevitability that could be seen as necessary for the realisation and content that we witness at the novel’s end. McCullers, conversely, convolutes time. Her descriptions of the lugubrious heat and the minutiae of the world expressed symbolically during the endless hours spent around the kitchen table with John Henry and Berenice somehow lengthen our perception of time and seems to slow to Frankie’s pulse-rate: “the sad old kitchen made Frankie sick… she could feel her squeezed heart beating against the table edge”. Such time-lag alludes more to the aforementioned atmospheric oppression which in itself can be said to represent a differing oppressed feeling within Frankie. In Member, Berenice can be seen as a vital character in reflecting Frankie’s feelings of oppression. In spite of their continual bickering, Berenice may feel similarly dispirited to Frankie in how she can be said to represent the repressive world of a black woman in 1940’s Southern states. Her repetitive cycle of abusive relationships can also be seen to be suggested – in addition to Frankie’s psychological troubles – in such metaphors as the monotonous buzz of the radio3, and tuning of the piano in Part II: “… the chords chimed upwards slowly like a flight of castle stairs: but just at the end, when the eighth chord should have sounded and the scale made complete, there was a stop. The seventh chord… struck and insisted again and again…”. Frankie’s wish to “belong” and for escape to Alaska4 and Winter Hill (for the wedding) are set against brooding heat, and time is seemingly stretched. Perception of time is convoluted through metaphors like the clock for example, where “the town was silent except for the clock. F. Jasmine could feel the world go round, and nothing moved”. This kind of imagery creates a slowness but also suggests an unstoppable advance of time, and the transience of life in terms of John Henry’s fate (he dies at the novel’s end). Surprisingly when major events such as the wedding itself occur, it is described in minor, but poignant, detail: “The wedding was like a dream outside her power or like a show unmanaged by her in which she was supposed to have no part”.The closing of Catcher sees Holden as grown: while his younger sister Phoebe rides the carrousel he assumes an adult disposition by sitting on the bench where the parents sit. He concludes that he should not “say anything or do anything” despite that his sister may “fall off the goddam horse” because “The thing with kids, if they want to grab for the gold ring, you have to let them do it, and not say anything. If they fall, they fall off, but it’s bad if you say anything to them”; this is key – it suggests Holden acknowledges the pitfalls of life that the young must go through in order to grow up with a good understanding of the world. He seems to appreciate the suffering that is inevitable with growing up, but realises its essentiality. By the end of this chapter Holden feels “so damn happy” he is “near bawling” at sight of Phoebe who looked “so damn nice”. It could be Phoebe’s innocence, untainted by adult oppression that establishes his sudden revelational happiness. John Henry dies towards the end of the novel, and it is described with the same brevity as the wedding itself, both of which evoke a sense of childishness in that anticipated events occur and – for children – are often anticlimactic, but they greatly affect them subconsciously, and thus shape their development. Berenice’s last words to him are “Run along… for I don’t have the patience to fool with you”. This could be read as being directed to Frankie who perhaps sees John Henry as part of her former self, “the old Frankie”. In addition to her new name, Frances, this appears to indicate a maturing in her. After John-Henry’s death “day after day the sky was a clear green-blue, but filled with light”, which evokes a sense of resolution through colours suggesting an eventually peaceful and unclouded Frankie. The fact the McCullers describes the story’s resolution with a generality over a long period of time causes Frankie’s “happiness” to seem definite, particularly in contrast to Holden’s, whose happiness, as presented here, might only be fleeting. It appears plausible that someone of the same age, race and sex of Holden could “fall in love with the novel [because] they see in Holden […] an incarnation of their youth” (Schriber, 1990). I am of this demographic, so could be seen to have a bias towards this novel, as it does reflect many adolescent emotions and opinions. Yet, besides this, the immediacy – and intimacy – with which we can relate to Holden, and his sensitivity to certain properties of the adult world make The Catcher in the Rye incredibly full in its presentation of an adolescent’s perspective. McCullers’ novel is more politically explicit, as shown in her representation of racism in Berenice and of homosexuality in John Henry who both, along with Frankie, dream of a different world5. This political chord adds another layer of oppression to the novel. Nonetheless, McCullers’ deep-rooted metaphors, affecting pathetic fallacy and authenticity of narrator conjure a slow-burning power, provoking wide-ranging questions. The emotion expressed through the ambiguity of her multi-layered prose is moving, offering a journey of discovery over a seemingly long period of time. Yet the fact the novel runs over about as many days as Catcher perhaps confirms the story’s undeniably poignant delicacy in conveying emotional turbulence. However, both authors construct their narratives in profoundly distinct ways; so much so that it would be absurd to write which is ‘better’.

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