The novel opens with the first-person narrator, Holden Caulfield, speaking directly to a psychoanalyst or psychologist. Because he has had a complete mental breakdown, Holden has been sent to this "rest home" for treatment. As he talks, his mind frequently wanders and, therefore, his story is often filled with digressions. The first digression is about D.B., Holdenís older brother who is a writer. He feels that D. B. has "sold-out" in his literary career, for he is now in Hollywood writing screenplays, like a "prostitute".
Holden quickly establishes the time frame which he wants to discuss, beginning with the day he leaves Pencey Prep, one of the many schools from which he has been expelled. The remainder of the Chapter is a flashback to the time of his expulsion; it is a Saturday just a few days before Christmas vacation. In the flashback, Holden is going to visit his history teacher. Before he reaches the teacherís house, Holden stands on a hill overlooking Pencey, searching for a sense of closure; he wants to have one positive farewell thought. He then recalls an early evening football game with two friends. Satisfied that the memory is a pleasant one with which he can leave, he continues on his way to the history professorís home.
The Catcher in the Rye is structured as a first person narrative that makes use of direct address, flashback, and digression. An example of the narratorís direct address is found in the opening line of the novel when Holden says, "If you really want to hear about it. . ." Holden is actually speaking to the psychoanalyst in the story, but at the same time, he appears to be directly addressing the reader. In this first Chapter, Holden also employs the technique of flashback, where he quickly shifts to a time in the past. As he speaks to the therapist, Holden begins to tell about the day he left Pencey Prep, just a few days before Christmas. Holden is also guilty of digression in this opening Chapter, as seen in his references to his brother D. B. Throughout the novel, Holden, as the narrator, will employ direct address, flashback, and digression, sometimes rather erratically, to tell his story. The effect of the constant use of these techniques is an air of confusion, reflective of Holdenís tormented state of mind. His life, and what is happening to him, does not make sense; therefore, Holden is incapable of sorting things out and telling them in a strictly chronological or orderly way.
This first Chapter clearly establishes the youth of Holden Caulfield. He is a young man who has just been kicked out of another prep school. As the narrator, he speaks a typical teenage language, filled with exaggeration, slang, and curse words. This authentic language helps to establish Holdenís personality and voice. It also helps to establish him as a credible narrator, for the story is about a troubled teenager.
Holden also has many individualized characteristics in his speech. He constantly substitutes nouns for adjectives, as in the phrase, "David Copperfield kind of crap". He is often unable to find precise words for many of his thoughts, so he awkwardly stops in mid-thought and hesitates. These tendencies, coupled with the fact that Holden ends many of his sentences with phrases like "and all," indicate that the speaker is confused and self-conscious. In fact, his narration becomes almost a stream-of-consciousness narrative, where things happen inside the narratorís head and then appear to be quickly written down.
In this Chapter, Holden makes it clear that he is not in the hospital because of poor physical health, but because of a nervous breakdown. This information is important, for it helps to establish the mood and point of view of the narrator. The fact that Holden is in a psychiatric hospital certainly influences the way the story is told, read, and understood. In other words, the setting in this first Chapter, which serves as the front-end of a frame narrative, is extremely important.
It is important to notice that when Holden flashes back to the day he left Pencey Prep, he is pictured alone, standing on top of a hill. He has risen above the pettiness of Pencey and looks down on it, both literally and figuratively. He wants to leave town with a positive thought about the school, even though he has been expelled. He thinks hard to come up with a pleasant memory and recalls an evening football game with friends. He is satisfied that this recollection is positive enough. As a result, he can proceed on this wait to call on his history teacher.
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