The Catcher in the Rye is a bildungsroman in that it follows an important experience in the young protagonist’s life, is told in flashback, and describes the protagonist attempting to transition from childhood to adulthood. Bildungsromans, taken from the German words for “novel” and “education,” are coming-of-age stories that utilize child or teenage protagonists to develop ideas about what it means to be a moral and spiritually mature person. In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden relates the events of a week the previous year when he faced numerous spiritual and psychological challenges after being kicked out of his prep school. Told almost entirely in flashback, the novel features extended interior monologue and dialogue, and minimal external action. Bildungsromans also frequently feature adult characters who act as antagonists toward the main character, presenting models of maturity the protagonist may accept or reject. In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden encounters many adults, almost all of whom he rejects as “phonies.” Holden must create his own model of how to be a moral person in the adult world.
In The Catcher in the Rye, Salinger draws on realism, which is a literary tradition that uses slang, dialect, class distinctions, and real-world locations to present an accurate picture of a specific time and place. In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden uses slang such as “phony,” “crumby,” and “corny,” tying the story to post-World War II America. The class-based dialects of characters such as the prostitute, Sunny, and her pimp, Maurice create an awareness of class in the novel. Details like Holden’s camel hair coat and mention of the fact his teacher, Mr. Spencer, doesn’t have a maid mark Holden as upper class, but when he ventures into New York he meets other characters, such as his cab driver, whose speech and mannerisms mark them as from different classes. Salinger also uses several recognizable locations, for example Central Park and the Natural History Museum, to ground his novel in the familiar and make it feel realistic and possible.
Despite being a bildungsroman, The Catcher in the Rye also contains elements that critique the genre, making it a literary satire as well. Literary satire exaggerates and tweaks conventions of a genre to comment on limitations or problems within the genre. Holden presents a small slice of his life story, preferring to leave out the details of his birth, his childhood, and “all that David Copperfield kind of crap.” Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield is a more traditional type of bildungsroman, and by referencing Dickens’s book on the first page, Holden alerts us that he is aware of our expectations for his story, and does not intend to fulfill them. The typical bildungsroman leaves little room for ambiguity: by the end of the narrative, the character has changed, often dramatically and almost always for the better. The Catcher in the Rye offers a messier, more realistic narrative featuring a protagonist who resists change of any kind. By presenting a more complicated and ambiguous story of personal change and growth, Salinger’s novel challenges the conventions of the genre itself.