The Catcher in the Rye and Bless Me, Ultima – the Bildungsroman in Two Very Different Cultures

The word “bildungsroman,” is a German term that basically translates to “education novel.” Merely the fact that this term was introduced into literary discussion by the German, and is now a common term for discussion of coming-of-age stories in English speaking circles, shows that the concept itself certainly exists across cultural boundaries. In every culture, children go through a time of transition in life, during which they develop their individual identities.

Seeing how different each culture in the United States is, it is understandable that the experiences through which children undergo this transformation into adults vary greatly in each of the cultures. While this variety shows up in the education novels of different ethnicities, there are some aspects which remain the same. A bildungsroman generally traces the development of the character as he goes through the process of education and the loss of innocence that leads to maturity.

J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye has often been considered the classic American bildungsroman, as it seems to represent the classic, white, middle-class American teenage boy. Representing a completely different culture in America, Bless Me, Ultima, by Rudolfo Anaya, has become more popular in the classroom as it represents “ethnic literature,” and is an education novel following the path of a young Chicano boy in New Mexico. In both Bless Me, Ultima and The Catcher in the Rye, the characters experience the formation of their identities through education and the loss of their innocence.

In The Catcher in the Rye, the main character, Holden Caulfield, is figuring out who he is and what role he wants in life. He is from an upper middle class family and mentions his family’s wealth often, but doesn’t know if that is necessarily what he wants for himself. Holden’s little sister, Phoebe, asks Holden what he would like to be; he can’t really think of profession he would really like to be, but he does know that he does not want to be a lawyer like his father because all a lawyer does is “make a lot of dough and play bridge and buy cars and drink Martinis and look like a hot-shot” (172).

This shows that Holden is definitely not yearning for the comfortable lifestyle of the upper middle class. In fact, what Holden decides he really wants to do is escape to the West to be a filling station attendant, so he can “build a little cabin somewhere and live there for the rest of [his] life” (199). While Holden’s true dream in life really could be “to live on the edge of the woods,” as “Salinger realized this dream by retreating to a small farm town in New Hampshire” to live in anonymity (Claro 1), it is more likely that this goal of Holden’s is more the representation of his frustration with the process of becoming an adult. All of the society around Holden seems to be trying to mold Holden into a mature adult, and all Holden wants to do is preserve his innocence and escape the constraints of adulthood.

Even Holden’s beloved little sister wants him to “name something [he’d] like to be,” and she expresses her discontent with his failures in school (172). Phoebe is not the only one who is disappointed with Holden’s progress in his education. Much of the novel revolves around the concept of education and the pressure that it has placed on Holden. The society Holden lives in wants him to become the well-rounded upscale male, and the prep schools he has attended strive to achieve that goal.

The motto of Pency Prep, the school Holden has been expelled from at the beginning of the book, is “Since 1888 we have been molding boys into splendid, clear-thinking young men”(2). Holden expresses his cynical view of this goal, stating that any “splendid, clear-thinking young men” he has met probably came to Pency that way, and he does not think that there are many of them anyway. It is not surprising that Holden is cynical towards Pency, as it seems Pency has failed in interpellating Holden into the role the society demands he should take.

Despite the fact that Holden does not fit into this role, he is nevertheless an intelligent person. His education has not completely failed him, as he always does well in English. One of Holden’s former teachers Mr. Antolini considers Holden “brilliant and creative,” and tells Holden, “You’re a student-whether the idea appeals to you or not. You’re in love with knowledge”(189). Even Holden would probably agree that the problem does not lie in a lack of intelligence, but rather in becoming disillusioned with the formal education he is presented with.

Although he may not have done well academically in school, Holden certainly has learned a lot about life through his experiences at boarding schools, seeing many negative aspects of life in his time at these schools. He watches a student, James Castle, commit suicide by jumping out of a window to escape the torment of a group of bullies. While it seems that these tormenters literally backed James Castle into a corner and made him feel that jumping out the window was his only way out, Holden comments that “All they did with the guys that were in the room with him was expel them. They didn’t even go to jail” (170), and this really seems to bother Holden. Realistically, not much could truly be done to legally prosecute the group of bullies, yet Holden points this out to show why he is disillusioned with formal education and even the adult world in general.
In many ways, institutes of education, particularly boarding schools such as the ones Holden has attended, serve to teach students more than just book knowledge. By gathering many students of the same age group together, the result is a communal loss of innocence, as they share their experiences with one another. Holden seems to hate the concept of losing his innocence, yet realizes her cannot escape it. He invites his old student adviser from the Whooton School, Carl Luce, to join him for a drink, and tells how the only thing Carl ever did as a student adviser “was give these sex talks and all, late at night when there was a bunch of guys in his room. He knew quite a bit about sex, especially perverts and all” (143). Holden admits to the reader that he is a virgin, although he has “had quite a few opportunities to lose [his] virginity” (92), yet, when he meets Carl for the drink, all he wants to talk about is sex.

Carl Luce’s sex talks at Whooton are really just the beginning of Holden’s loss of innocence. At Pency, he explains how Ackley talks about sex, but he knows that Stradlater actually has it. This seems to be the driving force behind Holden and Stradlater’s fight after Stradlater comes back from his date with Jane. As Wikipedia points out, The fact that Jane always kept her kings in the back row during a game of checkers was significant to Holden because he wanted to protect her virginity” (“The Catcher in the Rye” 4). Holden is keenly aware that innocence is being lost all around him, and while he seems to hate that fact, he somehow ends up seeking situations in which he loses his own innocence. He spends a great deal of time getting drunk throughout the story, and he almost loses his virginity to a prostitute. Despite the fact that he changes his mind and does not have sex with the prostitute, he ends up fighting with her pimp over the amount of money owed, getting an unfortunate glimpse of the rougher side of life.

Although Jon Natchez and Brian Phillips argue that, “Holden is an unusual protagonist for a bildungsroman because his central goal is to resist the process of maturity itself” (2), this is not really true. Holden resists maturing because it means losing his innocence, which he does not want. Nevertheless, a bildungsroman “traces the spiritual, moral, psychological, or social development and growth of the main character” (Wikipedia “Bildungsroman” 1), and The Catcher in the Rye certainly shows Holden’s development in most of these areas. Besides, it seems almost common for the bildungsroman main character to resist losing his innocence; in Bless Me, Ultima, the protagonist, Antonio, fears losing his innocence greatly. To Antonio, losing his innocence represents falling into sin, yet throughout the story he realizes his innocence has been lost despite his efforts to remain free from sin.

Bless Me, Ultima follows Antonio as he becomes a man, figuring out his identity within his family and his culture. Antonio’s central struggle comes from the fact that he has been presented with conflicting messages in more than one area. As Marta Caminero-Santangelo explains, “The conflict for Antonio is whether he will become a vaquero, following in the footsteps of the Marez men, or a farmer like his Luna uncles-or even a priest, his fervently Catholic mother’s dearest wish” (1), and throughout the story he attempts to figure this out. He discusses this with Ultima musing, “I wonder which life I will choose” (41). He also struggles to make sense of the religion offered by the Catholic church, and the mysticism of the pagan world, such as with the golden carp. In the midst of this, he strives to figure out how Ultima’s magic fits into this mix. Antonio endeavors to find answers in life, and more specifically to define his own identity.

As with The Catcher and the Rye and most education novels, this process is shown through two aspects of growing up, becoming educated and losing his innocence. Although he does go to school to obtain a formal education, this is not the only form of education Antonio gets in the story. He is also apprenticed both by Ultima and by his uncles. Shortly after Ultima comes, Antonio becomes her apprentice. He walks the hills with her, learning about the different herbs and roots. She would “ask [him] to observe where the plant grew and how its leaves looked” (39) and taught him about the presence of the river. Later, she brings Antonio with her to heal his uncle. Before they leave, she questions Antonio to find out if he is really ready for this step, asking him, “If people say you walk in the footsteps of a curandera, will you be ashamed?” and he answers “No, I will be proud, Ultima” (90). This shows how he has gone through the process of learning from Ultima, and growing to understand the earth and the ways of the curandera.

Towards the very end of the book, Antonio spends a summer in apprenticeship to his uncles on the farm, and comments, “Sometimes when I look back on that summer I think that it was the last summer I was truly a child” (250). By then, his education in the ways of the earth is nearly complete, and having been on his own at the farm, he is looked at as a man. When he goes home, he finds himself telling his mother what to do and realizes, “It was the first time I had ever spoken to my mother as man; she nodded and obeyed” (259). His family recognizes the change Antonio has undergone.

Antonio is very smart and does well in his formal schooling as well. After his year in first grade, the school decides that he has done so well that he should skip second grade. Antonio also chooses to go to school in the snowstorm, and then is one of only two students to really cooperate with his teacher that day in putting on a Christmas play. When Antonio’s mother sends him off to school in the snowstorm, she says to him, “My man of learning,” as she smiles and kisses his forehead (149). He truly is a man of learning, and his learning continues as he begins catechism that spring.

Each day after school, Antonio and the other kids head to church where the priest “waited to instruct [them] in the mysteries of God” (190). However, catechism does not leave Antonio with an understanding of the mysteries of God, but rather with more questions. He knows who God is, where God is, and what God does, but as he receives his first communion he asks God, “Why did Lupito die? Why do you allow the evil of the Trementinas? Why did you allow Narciso to be murdered when he was doing good? Why do you punish Florence? Why doesn’t he believe?

Will the golden carp rule?” and he finds no answers (221). In addition to the religious education he gains from the church, Antonio also gains knowledge of spirituality from his friends who tell him about the legend of the golden carp, a pagan god, and from Ultima, who seems to explain to him the mysteries of the spirituality within the earth. In the end, “one of the lessons that Antonio must learn on the road to maturity is that elements of Catholicism and paganism can be combined to form a new, hybrid religion” (Caminero-Santangelo 2). As Ultima dies and he buries her owl before the church will bury her body, he seems to decide that the Catholic tradition will always be part of his personal spirituality, but so will the other aspects he has come to accept.

While education plays an important role in helping Antonio define his identity, the loss of innocence he experiences plays an equally important role. Stuart Cochran points out that, “Anaya uses the dream narratives to explore the cultural formation of identity and the growth of Antonio’s soul through the conflicts arising from his dawning awareness of good and evil” (6). Antonio dreams about losing his innocence when he dreams about his brothers at Rosie’s (a whore house). In the dream, Andrew tells him that he will not enter Rosie’s until Antonio loses his innocence. Later, when he actually sees Andrew at Rosie’s, “the realization of the truth discovered swept over [him] in a few seconds” (164), and he begins to think about the dream and the concept of his innocence. He asks himself, “Had I already lost my innocence? How? I had seen Lupito murderedâÂ?¦ I had seen Ultima’s cureâÂ?¦ I had seen the men come to hang her” (165), and in the end that is not all he sees. Just a few moments after he asks himself these questions, he witnesses the murder of Narciso and hears Narciso’s last confession. Later in the story, he witnesses the death of his friend Florence, knowing that Florence never believed in God. Finally, he sees Tenorio kill Ultima’s owl (and as a result, Ultima), and then just barely escapes death himself when Tenorio points the gun at Antonio. By the end of the story, Antonio has gained so much life experience, losing his innocence and facing the great deal of evil in the world, that it is certain he is no longer a child.

In a bildungsroman, it is common for the process of maturity to involve “repeated clashes between the protagonist’s needs and desires and the views and judgments enforced by an unbending social order” (Wikipedia “Bildungsroman” 1). Antonio’s clashes occur not only between the views of his parents and the judgments of the church, but also within his peers. In the end, Antonio stands out from his peers as one who resists the pressure of the crowd, standing up for what he personally believes is true and right. In The Catcher and the Rye, Holden ends up in a mental hospital of sorts, basically as a result of his repeated clashes with society. Yet, in the end of the book, we are left with the feeling that Holden’s experiences have molded him to a maturity of sorts. Perhaps he has not been molded into a “splendid, clear-thinking young man,” but then again, maybe Holden is right in thinking that no one is truly splendid and clear thinking. Maybe everyone really is just a “phony” after all.

Works Cited
Anaya, Rudolfo. Bless Me, Ultima. New York: Warner Books, 1994.
“Bildungsroman” Wikipedia-The Free Encyclopedia. 25 April 2006.

Caminero-Santangelo, Marta. ” ‘Jason’s Indian.’: Mexican Americans and the Denial of
Indigenous Ethnicity in Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction. 1 Jan. 2004. 1-10. .
Claro, Joseph. “Catcher in the Rye.” Barron’s Booknotes. 1 Aug. 2004. 1-30.
Cochran, Stuart. ” The ethnic implications of stories, spirits, and the land in native
American pueblo and Aztlan writing.” Melus. 1 June 1995. 1-12. .
Natchez, Jon and Phillips, Brian. SparkNote on The Catcher in the Rye. 8 May. 2006
Salinger, J.D. The Catcher in the Rye. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1991.
“The Catcher in the Rye” Wikipedia-The Free Encyclopedia. 25 April 2006.

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