How to Write an Argumentative Essay on "The Catcher in the Rye"

Many moments of the novel that can be analyzed for their symbolism take place in Central Park.
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J.D. Salinger's 1951 novel, "The Catcher in the Rye," is the story of Holden Caulfield, an angst-ridden preparatory school dropout who describes how the "phonies" of the world make him unhappy. The novel follows Caulfield through a three-day escapade in New York City where he hopes to find beauty in the world but ultimately has what some critics call a nervous breakdown. Caulfield, a very opinionated protagonist and narrator, tells his coming-of-age story during one of America's most notable coming-of-age periods.

1 Caulfield as Anti-Hero

Caulfield is a character who expresses loneliness, alienation and confusion--all emotions felt in post-war America.
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The 1950s were a decade of tremendous change in the United States. Americans had won World War II, families were leaving cities to move to suburbia, and young people's perceptions of the world were shattered as if by an atomic bomb. Students could write an argumentative essay about "The Catcher in the Rye" by analyzing how Caulfield represents the massive changes to America's youth. While many works of fiction once centered on a hero who more or less "saves the day," Caulfield is an extremely flawed character whose story does not end neatly.

2 Arguments on Symbolism

Near the end of the novel, Caulfield has an epiphany while watching his younger sister ride a carousel.
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Because Caulfield is a subjective narrator, readers must create their own interpretations of Holden's statements and stories. There are many reoccurring ideas and objects throughout the novel, such as the Central Park ducks, a carousel, Caulfield's red hunting cap, alcohol and phonies. Students could write papers that argue what these images and ideas symbolize. The Oxford Reference points out that many of Caulfield's obsessions symbolize his hope to preserve the innocence of younger people after he realizes that he has lost his own.

3 Arguments on Race, Class and Era

Today's teenagers have different problems than Holden Caulfield.
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Many critics, including Jonathan Yardley of "The Washington Post," argue that Caulfield is just another whiny, rich kid, and therefore, his story is hard to swallow. Many schools and libraries banned the novel from reading lists in the past for its profanity and explicit content, but today it is one of the most read books in American classrooms. However, Jessica Roake of "The Slate Book Review" argues that Caulfield's teenage-angst is outdated and too narrowly focused. Roake suggests that educators replace Salinger's novel with a more current story of youthful exploration. Students could write a comparative essay that places "The Catcher in the Rye" among more contemporary works that address similar themes but in new contexts.

4 The Novel's Influence on Society

The John Lennon memorial in Central Park is located right by the location where he was shot.
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Many historical events are linked to "The Catcher in the Rye," and students could write essays that argue how or why Salinger's novel has influenced some aspect of society. According to Sarah Ball of "The Daily Beast," police found John Lennon's murderer holding a worn copy of "The Catcher in the Rye" on the day he shot the fallen Beatle. The person who attempted to shoot Ronald Reagan also had an association with the novel. Salinger's work inspired many other novels, movies and pieces of music, as well.

Based in San Diego, Rachel Gellman has worked in the education field since 2006. Her work has appeared in several journals, including "World Literature Today." She is part of the LARB Reviewing Class of 2013 in poetry, and holds a Master of Fine Arts in poetry from San Diego State University.