Watching Characters Grow Up – The Catcher in the Rye and to Kill a MockingbirdJanuary 21, 2024
For most of us, reading “The Catcher in the Rye” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” sticks out as a highlight of the high school lit experience. This ain’t no Charles Dickens; both stories are narrated by young protagonists in everyday speak and are chock full of youthful insights – namely, that adulthood sucks. Holden Caulfield and Scout Finch are two kids looking down the road connecting childhood and adulthood, only from opposite ends of the trip. Both are full of contradictions, both defy the gender stereotypes of their time, and both make the rest of us think, glad I’m not the only one!
Holden is a gray-haired seventeen-year old that switches effortlessly between attempting to “get in some practice on” a prostitute (you know, in case he gets “married or anything”) and “staggering around” pretending to get shot by Hollywood-style thugs. Suffice it to say he has yet to find a balance between becoming a man and playing cops and robbers. Of course, the fact that Holden despises most adults and hero-worships his dead kid brother doesn’t do much to help the transition along, either.
Holden is the kind of guy you alternately want to make friends with and punch in the face. Let’s face it: while his observations about the adult world are usually spot-on, his level of self-awareness is somewhat lacking. “People always think something’s all true.” Always, Holden? Or what about the fact that he loathes all things “phony” but is proud about being “the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life”? Then again, we can’t help but love the image of Holden in his preppy clothes and red hunting hat eradicating the f-word from his little sister’s school in true vigilante fashion. Holden may be a half-crazy, self-deluded liar, but he’s got decency where decency counts.
At times, in fact, he sounds radically feminist, arguing that because sex requires objectification, a guy shouldn’t want to “get sexy” with a woman he cares about. He even admits that the main reason he’s still a virgin is because whenever a girl tells him to stop, he actually does. Gasp! Okay, so nowadays this isn’t something you should get any awards for, but remember that the story *is* set in the 1950’s. We dare the other Catcher in the Rye characters to show half as much moral fortitude.
Speaking of moral fortitude, although Scout is 6 years old at the beginning of To Kill a Mockingbird and in a much more carefree time of her life than Holden, her upbringing in segregated 1930’s Alabama has quite the dramatic effect on her learning curve. When her lawyer father whole-heartedly – but unsuccessfully – defends a black cripple in court for a crime he obviously didn’t commit, Scout learns that, contrary to what most 6-year olds are told, personal morality, social ethics, and the law aren’t all members of the same happy family. Heck, they don’t even live in the same part of town.
That’s not to say, however, that Scout has a perfectly calibrated moral compass of her own. She figures the local shut-in for a predator, murderer, and potential creature from the black lagoon despite his repeated gestures of kindness; she can’t conceive of the fact that her black housekeeper has a life, family, and community that extend beyond simply taking care of white children; she can’t bear it when the kids on the playground call her dad a “nigger-lover;” she isn’t bothered by seeing her dad’s defendant mistreated because he’s “just a Negro.” As much as we prefer Scout over the other To Kill a Mockingbird characters, we can’t help but cringe as we watch adult prejudices and childish gullibility throw slumber parties in her brain.
Between witnessing her neighbors turn against her family, watching her father lose a winning case, hearing about the defendant’s subsequent murder, being attacked by a drunken bigot, and, oh yeah, befriending the neighborhood psychopath, Scout loses just a hint of her innocence; with her father’s guidance, however, she manages to throw in some maturity while she’s at it. This process is helped along by the fact that Scout adores, emulates, and even dresses like her father and older brother. In fact, what Holden’s got in feminine sensitivity, Scout more than makes up for in tomboyish feistiness: she spits, swears, fights, and can completely hold her own among her older brother’s friends. This combination of inborn spirit and parental direction gives us hope for an adult Scout that we never feel for Holden. Actually, we’d be pretty curious to see just what kind of direction Holden’s parents steer him in. Where are Holden’s parents, anyway?