Catcher in the Rye Setting
New York city is the greatest City in the world. Well I've got a little bit of a bias, I used to live there. But more importantly, New York City is home for a very important person named Holden Caulfield. That's the setting for this book and that's what we're going to address in this episode, setting. Salinger didn't just pick New York because he liked it, he picked it for a reason and that's what we'll talk about today.
The three things we'll be doing: The first thing just talking about setting, so you know exactly what to consider when we use this literally element. The second thing we'll do, is talk about Pencey Prep. Remember that's the first setting in this book. The last thing we're going to do, I'm going to take you on a great photo tour of New York City, one of the coolest places I have ever been. So if you're ready, I'm ready let's go take a bite out of setting and the big apple.
So what exactly is setting? Why is it important? Why do we even bother? Setting is the time, location and circumstances in which a story takes place. Please be sure not to just limit setting to the place, that's such a common mistake. "What's the setting of this book?" "Oh! It's in England." When is it in England? What circumstances? It's important to just not be limiting.
Other elements of setting can include culture. Are you in a rural area? A cosmopolitan area? What kind of place are you?
Historical period is extremely significant because, let's say you're in Egypt. Well are you in Egypt now or are you in Egypt at the time of Pharaohs?
Geography, this is basically place where exactly is the physical location. Time of day and I would basically add season to this as well, the time of year. That's going to be significant too. Is it morning, afternoon, evening? Is it September when the leaves are coming down? Is it bright hot sweaty summer? These are all different elements of setting. That's really all there is to it, it's not that hard.
Now that we've got a working definition going of setting, let's really examine the setting in Catcher in the Rye. To be fair, the official first setting might be California. Remember that's the frame work for the whole book, at the beginning and the end, Holden talking from the Mental Institution in California. But it doesn't last very long, we don't see a lot of detail. So I'm going to go ahead and say in terms of significance, setting number one is Pencey Prep.
We get a felling that Pencey is not at all a warm place for Holden. Listen to this, "You ought to go to a boy's school sometime...It's full of phonies,and and all you do is study so that you can learn enough to be smart enough to be able to buy a Cadillac some day... and everybody sticks together in these dirty little goddam cliques." So which element of setting do you think this is? I'd have to say this probably goes a little bit with culture. This is the culture of the people at his school.
In the next quotation, Holden is talking about an advertisement for Pencey Prep that you may see in newspaper or a magazine. "And underneath the guy on the horse's picture it always says: 'Since 1888 we have been molding boys into splendid, clear thinking young men.' Strictly for the birds. They don't do any damn more molding at Pencey than they do at any other school. And I didn't know anybody there that was splendid and clear-thinking and all. Maybe two guys. If that many. And they probably came to Pencey that way." So bitter much? We definitely get the idea that Holden doesn't really care for the people there. Again this is the idea of the culture. The people aren't the kind of people that he would like to be surrounded by. So he's very lonely and isolated.
Now we talked about the fact that weather can be another important part of setting. Let's look at this description. "It was icy as hell and I damn near fell down. I don't even know what I was running for-I guess I just felt like it. After I got across the road, I felt like I was sort of disappearing. It was that kind of a crazy afternoon, terrifically cold, and no sun out or anything, and you felt like you were disappearing every time you crossed a road." It's not coincidental that this is set in the winter. If you think about it, if this was set in the summer, if this was set in the spring, it's like hopeful, hot times. This is cold and it's lonely and he feels isolated. The setting is really a vehicle for more of the theme here when we talk about the weather and how icy and how cold it is.
We see that that Holden is somebody who's running away. He doesn't know why but he's really running away from his life at Pencey. But where is he running to, New York City.
What do you think of when you hear New York City? You think about taxi cabs, fancy stores, the NYPD, maybe you think of tourist attractions like the Rainbow Room or TV studios. Maybe you think of the subway, maybe you think of the Times Square and all the bright lights and excitement. Well New York City was a little bit different for Holden. When he can't take Pencey anymore, Manhattan is where he flees to. So at first it's really an escape for him, "All of a sudden, I decided what I'd really do, I'd get the hell out of Pencey-right that same night and all. I mean not wait for Wednesday or anything. I just didn't want to hang around any more. It made me too sad and lonesome. So what I decided to do, I decided I'd take a room in hotel in New York...Then on Wednesday, I'd go home all rested up and feeling swell." So this is kind of Holden's game plan. The first thing that he does, is he goes to check in at a hotel. In the book it's the Edmont hotel which is actually a fictionalized hotel. But it kind of could look a little bit like this; like the Tecta, the New York or this one is the St. Regis.
It's a pretty fancy place and at first he's pretty happy about it but turns into one of his phony things. Things are not what they seem and he actually says that, "the godamm hotel was full of perverts and morons." So it didn't live up to his expectations, he had another thing that he thinks is phony, it isn't what it seems.
So next, Holden is going to head to the Lavender room. Now that's a fictional bar but I imagine it very much much like the Oak Bar which is a rare place in New York now. At the Lavender Room, Holden couldn't get any alcohol from the bar tender, he couldn't get served. He spends the couple of hours chatting with those three ladies at the next table over. He buys them drinks, he keeps drinking coke and he dances with them. So it sounds like it would be a really good time, but he leaves feeling even more depressed. "In the first time, it was one of those places that are very terrible to be in unless you have somebody good to dance with...there isn't any night club in the world you can sit in for a long time unless you can at least buy some liquor and get drunk. Or unless you're with some girl that really knocks you out." But unfortunately the girl that he met, really didn't fit this bill so when he leaves, he's just really bummed out.
The next place he goes is Ernie's. Now Ernie's is another fictionalized bar. It's in the village in New York and I would think it would kind of look like this place. This is not your like high class bar. It's a really bit seedier, a little bit grungier, there's lots of really good jazz music that happens in this area. He goes there hoping to listen to some really great jazz, but yet again is really disappointed. Listen to the different things we hear, "I was surrounded by jerks." "You would've puked." "I certainly began to feel like a prize horses's ass, sitting there all by myself." "It was very phony..." So again, the whole idea that it's not what it seems, it doesn't live up to the expectations that he has.
The next morning after breakfast, Holden walks down Broadway. Now this is really important because this is when he sees the family with the little boy singing the Catcher in the Rye song or, 'If a body need a body' is the way it should have really been said. But, this is a really significant time for Holden because it's encapsulating the whole idea of this little person of innocence in the middle of this crazy chaotic location.
Later in that day, Holden takes a cab to Central Park. The park is a huge element of setting in this book. There's tons and tons of different things that we see happen in the park and it's another source of disappointment for Holden. "It was lousy in the park...the sun still wasn't out, and there didn't look like there was anything in the park except dog crap and globs of spit and cigar butts from old men, and the benches all looked like they'd be wet if you sat down on them. It made you depressed, and every once in a while, for no reason, you got gooseflesh while you walked." Certainly not a very optimistic view of the park, that's for sure.
In the episode about symbolism, we talked a lot about museums and how they work as a representation in this book. So the first museum that he goes to, is the Museum of Natural history, and it actually looks like this. This element of setting really gives Holden a sense of security, thank goodness because he doesn't have many in this book. "I get very happy when I think about it...it always smelled like it was raining outside, even if it wasn't, and you were in the only nice, dry, cosy place in the world. I loved that damn museum." That makes me happy for Holden that he has a place that he likes. Every time he express any kind of optimism, I feel happy for him.
The next thing that he does is he takes a cab to mid town, to Broadway, and this is where he's going to meet Sally Hayes for their date. They go to see the Lunts on Broadway. Now he enjoys Broadway in the play until Sally has this phony conversation with some jerk. And then again it's this phoniness, it's the expectations that aren't there, and after the play they go to Radio city. They're going to go ice-skating here and this is kind of a turning point. After the ice-skate, neither of them does it very well. They spend some time talking. Eventually, they sit down and they have a drink, and Holden starts asking some questions and all of a sudden he has this like outburst about the feelings in his real life and he really feels about things and how he feels about New York and you're kind of, "Whoa! What's going on?" "It's everything. I hate living in New York and all. Taxicabs, and Madison Ave buses with the drivers and all always yelling at you to get out at the rear door, and being introduced to phony guys that call the Lunts angels and going up and down in elevators when you just want to go outside, and guys fitting your pants all the time at Brooks, and people always-"
He kind of loses it and Sally is like, "What's going on?" So the setting for that was just right outside of that ice rink. It's interesting because he left Pencey, because he wanted to go to New York. New York was kind of the symbol for possibility or something else happening. But once he's in the city in Manhattan again, he has the same thing happen and he's really disappointed. We kind of wonder if he'll ever be happy anywhere. He next stumbles across this idea, "What we could do is, tomorrow morning we could drive up to Massachusetts and Vermont, and all around there, see. It's beautiful as hell up there. It really is...We'll stay in these cabin camps and stuff like that...we could live somewhere with a brook...we could get married or something...we could have a terrific time!"
Unfortunately, this seems like New York all over again. This great place that sounds like a wonderful idea, but no doubt, is going to let Holden down again. He keeps being let down by the different things in life.
So it becomes clear, this point no setting is really going to make Holden happy. Let's fast forward a little bit, to where he goes to Central Park again. This is actually what Central Park looks like. It's this cool kind of mixing of the city, but a really great natural Lush area at the same time. When he's there he visits the Dark Lagoon. Remember this is something he's been talking about the whole time in New York. He has this big question about where the ducks go in the winter time. I can actually testify to the fact that even in the winter time, the ducks are still there.
It is interesting to see...this is really where issues are happening, this is what he was talking about. Holden however doesn't see any ducks and this makes him feel really hopeless. The next thing he does is he decides to go visit Phoebe at his family's apartment. Now it's up on the upper east side and this is kind of a fancy well to do area. In the apartment, he enjoys hanging out with Phoebe, but she's really focusing on the fact that he got kicked out of school, so she gets really upset. So here is a piece of the conversation he has with Phoebe at the apartment.
"Anyway, I like it now," I said. " I mean right now. Sitting here with you and just chewing the fat and horsing-" Phoebe interrupts and she says, "That isn't anything really!" He gets really upset by this. "It is so something really! Certainly it is! Why the hell isn't it? People never think anything is anything really. I'm getting goddam sick of it." We kind of get the feeling he's freaking out a little bit more. Not even home at this point, is a comfort to him. He's starting to lose it at the security of his home.
The next day Holden meets back up with Phoebe at the Met. Again here's the idea of the museum and he talks about the mummy tomb and he has some kids who talk to him there. And he has a kind of nice moment of solace and then he gets really upset. "I was the only one left in the tomb then. I sort of liked it, in a way. It was so nice and peaceful. Then, all of a sudden, you'd never guess what I saw on the wall. Another 'F---you'... That's the whole trouble. You can't ever find a place that's nice and peaceful, because there isn't any. You may think there is, but once you get there, when you're not looking somebody'll sneak up and write 'F---you' right under your nose." So this is now one of his sacred places that he's been really solid by the ugliness of the world, everything he's really trying to fight. That's essentially Holden's problem with any setting. He's comfortable there and then he sees something that turns it into a bad place for him, there's something to corrupt it.
The last major element of setting is the carousel at Central Park. Here we come to something that's really a changing point for Holden. While he's watching Phoebe on the carousel, remember he has this kind of a epiphany, he realizes that if she falls, she falls and he doesn't have to catch her anymore. That's a really important part of the book. It's this big lesson that he has and it's a huge turning point for this character. This maybe what kind of leads him to the point of a breakdown, but it is really a significant place and it might be a good thing.
In case you were busy looking at the dirty words in your bio-book, while you should have been paying attention to my lesson on setting, here the gist of what you missed. First I defined setting for you. We talked about what it all encompasses. Next we talked about how Pencey Prep and New York City really add to Salinger's ideas in his themes about loneliness, phoniness and isolation. So maybe Holden doesn't really heart New York like I do, but you can check out all the pictures that I took in the bonus material section, decide for yourself. Let's move on, the next episode you're going to love me because we're going to go through common assignments you might see in your English class.