Exploring the connection between the acclaimed novel, The Catcher in the Rye, and murder.
Any English-geek would be familiar with the acclaimed novel, The Catcher in the Rye. Why, most high school students across the nation are familiar with the thoughts and actions of protagonist Holden Caulfield. But only a few know that the killer of John Lennon, Mark David Chapman, identified with Holden Caulfield and obsessed over the novel. Only a few know that Robert John Bardo, the prosecuted murderer of Rebecca Schaeffer, carried the novel with him throughout the attack. What about this novel makes it so intriguing to killers like these?
The novel focuses on the thoughts and actions of Holden Caulfield, a 16-year-old who is kicked out of his prep school and carries a pessimistic attitude towards everything that surrounds him. The novel is told from the perspective of Caulfield who writes from a mental asylum of some sort.
Mr. Webb, an English teacher for eleventh-grade students, teaches the novel due to his own personal interest. Though the novel isn’t a mandatory read, Mr. Webb continues to teach this novel for a specific purpose.
“I keep teaching the novel because it gives exposures to a different author’s style of writing. This is one of the only [books] that has more of a conversational feel to it. So we’re getting exposed to how the author can create a style of writing that speaks more to high schoolers rather than the high volutant vocabulary of, say, F. Scott Fitzgerald,” says Mr. Webb.
Nithya Raghunath (11), who read the novel both out of personal interest and as a part of her English class, felt that high schoolers are able to relate to the characters presented by the novel.
“High schoolers can somewhat relate to Holden on a visceral level. They can relate to his distrust of the adult world and to his weird connection with his parents.” explains Raghunath.
Like Raghunath, Anushka Singh (11) who is currently reading the novel says, “I was able to relate to the main character because I’m a teen myself so some of the emotions he feels are similar to what I feel.”
Whatever teens feel, the association of the novel with crimes has a prominent mark on the novel’s history. When delineating the connections between the crimes and the novel to Mr. Webb, he says he finds the central idea of phoniness as a possible cause.
“A lot of those individuals like Chapman were reacting to what they saw as Salinger’s take on phoniness. What his claim was that John Lennon was being inauthentic, phony, in relation to his gifts and producing real and authentic music. He felt like Lennon was being a sellout and he associated sell out with phoniness. Lennon was producing very pop-oriented music and Chapman felt he was being phony as a result.”
When asked whether the heavy language of the novel may have contributed to the crimes, Nithya believes the two do not have much of a connection.
She says, “I don’t think Holden’s language has anything to do with the crimes the novel is associated with. I think Holden’s language is used to express immaturity and excess emotion.”
Now the book has received national attention due to its use of profanity and inclusion of heavy topics such as prostitution. In fact, the 1978 case Harris v. Mechanicville School revolved around controversy over teaching the novel at schools. Later in 1989, the novel was banned from Boron High School in California due to the use of profanity, and was challenged constantly by parents and school staff for the topics dealt with.
So, amidst all this past controversy, the book continues to live on, finding home in the shelves and hearts of many. What about it makes it so special?
“When I first read the novel, it was completely different from anything I had previously read. I could relate to the theme of teenage angst. As its core, the novel is about the inevitability of growing up,” said Raghunath.
Mr. Webb adds that, “It’s appeal was a rebellious reaction to the adult world and adults telling young people what to do and how to live. So I think America was right for at least a group of young people saying ‘We don’t have to listen to you [adults].’”
The novel’s unique qualities definitely stood out to many but even more to those who saw it as a call for action. Although criminals like Chapman and Bardo valued the novel, as Singh says, “This novel is relatable to any people and must have been to them [Chapman and Bardo] as well, which is why they may have had the book in their possession.” Whether this story served as a starting point for these crimes is a mystery, but the link present between these criminals and this novel is one as fascinating as the novel itself.