Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of “The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger, is a teenage boy who is trying to find his place as he transitions from childhood to adulthood. After reading the novel, we attempted to build an architectural structure to represent Holden. The inspiration for our structure was his internal vulnerable state, and what influence this has on the reader. Holden makes readers and characters around him feel anxious and nervous. Our structure embodies Holden and recreates his effect on people reading the novel.
Holden’s mental instability throughout the novel is emulated with the narrow base of our structure, which appears to be too small to support the widening walls. Holden’s instability stems from not having a path in life or people he can trust, and is shown with his manic actions and chronic depression. The purpose of the seemingly unstable building is to create a nervous feeling in viewers, similar to the constant worry I felt as Holden continued to make dangerous decisions, such as excessive drinking, not sleeping, smoking, and walking around New York City in the cold all night. When Holden is in his hotel room in New York, he says: "What I really felt like, though, was committing suicide. I felt like jumping out the window" (Salinger 104). Statements like this evoke a feeling of worry in readers; the unstable base creates this same concern in viewers of the building.
The unsupported spiral stairs that allow people to see inside the building also look like they could fall apart at any moment, like Holden who is on the verge of collapse throughout his whole narration. The numerous stairs also create a physically challenging experience for people who enter the structure. The stairs serve to indicate the tiring experience people face when they try to get through to Holden. Mr. Spencer, Holden’s former teacher at Pencey Prep, for example, has a difficult time getting Holden to understand his advice, which is clear when he says, “I’d like to put some sense into that head of yours boy. I’m trying to help you. I’m trying to help you, if I can”(Salinger 14). The repetition and emphasis on “help” shows the frustration Mr. Spencer faces as he tries and fails to warn Holden about the consequences of his careless decisions. I think characters and readers would agree that it is emotionally draining to try to get through to Holden, so we made is structure that is physically draining to reach the top, to create that same experience for people in our building.
Other aspects of our structure also serve to represent specific parts of the novel. The windows, which are mostly blocked off, keep most of the light out; but the small open windows allow some rays to get through, making a light pattern on the opposing wall. This connects to the sense of hope at the end of the novel where Holden has a turn for the better when he watches his younger sister Phoebe ride on the carousel. In this scene, Holden watches Phoebe enjoy the ride and he has a realization that he needs to let go; when he does, he feels happy for the first time in the whole book. Holden says, “I felt so damn happy all of sudden, the way old Phoebe kept going around and around”(Salinger 262). The purpose of the light is to make viewers of the structure feel the hope for the better future (once they reach the top of the stairs) that Holden and the reader feel as they read this scene and see Holden’s happiness at the end of the book. Similarly, the downward slope of the roof represents Holden's long downward fall into a depressive and self-harming couple of days during which the book takes place; but the curve beginning to bend up shows that Holden begins to change in the end. He feels good inside for the first time and he eventually gets help with his problems. Although what happens next is unclear, the future seems like it will be brighter and better for him.
In order to achieve the effects we wanted, we had to do a lot of trial and error. In our initial plan we did not include the stairs, but when we were experimenting with some scrap supplies we noticed the connections it had to the book. The optical light effect was something we wanted since the beginning but it took a lot of tries to figure out how to make it work. In the end, we still retained many of our original aspects but we added new ones and nixed some to end up with the structure you see here.
This project allowed us as students to think about the book in a different way. The interactive nature of the project is great because everyone can express his or her unique ideas. I think this project helped us understand the book better because it required a lot of thinking and expressing of ideas. In a typical essay, you have a thesis and you prove it with textual evidence, all in a very formal and structured way. Here, we had to think of an idea, find connections and evidence, and then transfer it into a tangible and solid state. As we learned, literature can affect the readers’ feelings and architecture can also evoke feelings in people who walk through the building. By using architecture to talk about literature, we actually learned more about the novel.