Corrupt Societies and Phony Inhabitants in the works of Salinger and Anderson

Another article in which I compare the great American writer J.D. Salinger and the cinematographic auteur of our generation Wes Anderson. This time I talk about how the societies they depict are corrupt and its inhabitants are phony.

Ironic contrasts

It is clear that the inhabitants of the worlds of J.D. Salinger and Wes Anderson feel as if they live in a bad and dark place filled with insincere, phony people who are different from themselves. That Anderson colors his world in bright, saturated shades can be read as ironic comment on the one hand, but also as a wink from the director on the other. If read as ironic, the bright colors intensify the feelings of disaffection and depression from which his characters suffer. This could be compared to the cozy Christmas setting in Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye or the relaxed beach holiday in his short story A Perfect Day for Bananafish. These settings contrast in an ironic mode with the state of depression our heroes are in. But at the same time, Anderson is telling his audience that the world in which his characters live is not that bad at all, and that in the end, they will learn to see this the way we (as the audience) see it.


Don’t trust psychoanalysts and social workers!

This insight will, however, only come in the end, and even then it is ambiguous whether they really have grown and accepted life as it is. People like lawyers, psychologists, social workers, Hollywood stars, evil factory farmers, adults and adulterers, fake gurus, and so on are judged for being insincere, egocentric, cold, and phony. Levine calls Salinger’s society a “corrupt, materialistic, loveless world of the grown-up where adult and adultery are synonymous” (Levine 94). Following fragment gives a good impression of how the Glass children feel about the popular psychoanalysts of those days:

“He said. ‘If you get any more ideas, like last night, of phoning Philly Byrnes’ goddamn psychoanalyst for Franny, just do one thing – that’s all I ask. Just think of what analysis did for Seymour.’ He paused for emphasis. ‘Hear me? Will you do that?’ Mrs Glass immediately gave her hairnet an unnecessary adjustment, took out her cigarettes and matches, but she merely kept them for a moment in her hand” (Salinger “Zooey” 70).

They would rather die than be treated by a psychoanalyst because they associate them with the corruptness of society. The Tenenbaums on the other hand have welcomed a psychiatrist in their family when Margot married the neurologist Raleigh St. Clair – who is a parody of the neurologist Oliver Sacks – and is even put in the victim role when Margot leaves and deceives him. He seems to be successful in his investigation of Dudley and is a sympathetic figure. He might not be portrayed as a genial neurologist in a serious matter, but his profession is also not loathed nor is he being accused of doing more harm than good, like the psychiatrists who are presented in Salinger’s stories. We can read this as a reversed allusion from Anderson who has made something negative into something more positive. This is something he will often do when quoting his heroes.
However, the social worker in Anderson’s sixties movie Moonrise Kingdom, played by Tilda Swinton, and consistently called “Social Services” during the movie, is placed in the series of dishonest and corrupt people. Our heroes see her as some sort of monster who will, after reviewing Sam’s case file, take Sam away and put him in a juvenile refuge home – which is pictured in their minds as some sort of prison filled with starving children.

There’s something in the air in Hollywood

But the biggest phonies are probably found in Hollywood, California. As Strauch, while discussing The Catcher in the Rye, puts it, “the supreme national incarnation of the phony, Hollywood (and by extension, California) figures prominently in the tale from first to last, for it provides another enclosing pattern” (Strauch 17). Holden claims to hate the movies because they have ruined him. The brainless Hollywoodmachine is not judged plotwise in Anderson’s movies, but he himself, as an auteur director gives an alternative for all of the cliché Hollywood comedies and although he is involved in the system in order to get his movies financed, he cannot be called mainstream.

Sinners of modern times

Morality as opposed to immorality and to insincerity is a recurrent theme in the works of both Salinger and Anderson. As Levine explains, “Salinger’s choice for his hero is essentially a religious problem, that is, the problem of finding moral integrity, love, and redemption in an immoral world” (97).
Although Salinger and Anderson are considered to be apolitical and asocial – they promote no racial, class, or ethnic consciousness of any sort – they both include Judeo-Christian, but also Buddhist values and morals in their works. This does not mean that God or Buddha have to be believed in, it is only their traditional values that have sneaked into their works. Modern life has brought along sin and more opportunities to be adulterous, phony and just plain evil. Holden “attacks modern urban life and mores. He protests that he doesn’t like automobiles, even ‘old cars.’ ‘I’d rather have a goddam horse. A horse is at least human, for God’s sake.’ (Strauch 15). Levine states that Salinger has, “without bowing to the public opiates of sex, violence, and depravity, without assuming the popular poses of the “beat” or the blasé, he […] quietly managed to present with humor and compassion the most significant and complex moral problems we face today” (Levine 99). Holden, being an advocate for conservative moral values and childlike innocence, sees life as “so inhumanly mechanized that in his secret world animals move up a notch to assume the status of humans. Swift would approve such misanthropy” (Strauch 15). He has no faith in the sinners of modern times, whereas he is undoubtedly part of this age and not as pure as he would want to be. When stating that Anderson and Salinger are asocial and apolitical, it does not mean that they do not show the atrocities of “our” society. Salinger portrays 1950s “snobbery, privilege, class injury, culture as a badge of superiority, sexual exploitation, education subordinated to status, warped social feeling, competitiveness, stunted human possibility, the list could go on”, but never explains nor gives clear answers, corrections or solutions (Whitfield 582).

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“Let him who is without sin, cast the first stone”

Levine compares the misfit hero, like Holden, Max, and all the other Salinger and Anderson characters to Job, because he too is guilty of “spiritual pride: he has missed the distinction between being religious and being pious, between God’s world and his personal world” (97). The Whitman brothers in The Darjeeling Limited, for example, are constantly misinterpreting oriental spirituality and using it as they please. Nonetheless, the authors sympathize with their characters. They care for them and forgive them their mistakes. Anderson has been criticized for being racist and although this is a different discussion, one I do not wish to participate in, the obvious refusal to talk politics and socialism in his movies make it difficult, I believe, to find arguments for or against this statement. His characters of other races are furthermore equally cared for and mocked as his white, western characters.


In the end the hero will learn to compromise and be affirmative of family and community. This “affirmation of the family and of the concept of social responsibility is traditionally moral in the sense that it is traditionally Judeo-Christian” (Levine 98-99). The children, adolescents or childlike adults who are the auteurs in Salinger’s and Anderson’s stories will become less egocentric, headstrong and narcissistic and more accepting of family values. Of course society has to make an effort as well, because they have exiled our heroes and have made it hard for them to fit in. A clear example in Moonrise Kingdom is when the Khaki Scouts decide that Sam is their friend and that it was wrong to have bullied him for being weird. The boys set out to rescue Sam and Suzy who, reluctant at first, embrace their new friendship and work together as a team. Anderson, a contradictive author himself, populates “his films with flawed but ultimately redeemable auteurs who, in the end, orchestrate their elaborate fictions in the name of a community that requires their particular intervention, Anderson’s films imagine the author as an almost inscrutable entity” (Orgeron 41).

As has become clear, the (at first sight) narcissistic hero in Salinger’s and Anderson’s tales will turn out to be unmistakably “anchored to the community he serves” and will find a way to stay true to himself while leaving his egocentrism behind (ibid.).


Levine, Paul. “J.D. Salinger: The Development of the Misfit Hero”. Twentieth Century Literature 4.3 (1958): 92-99.

Orgeron, Devin. “La Camera-Crayola: Authorship Comes of Age in the Cinema of Wes Anderson.” Cinema Journal 46.2 (2007): 40-65.

Salinger, J.D. Franny and Zooey. London: Penguin Books, 2010.

Strauch, Carl F. “Kings in the Back Row: Meaning through Structure. A Reading of Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye”.” Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature 2.1 (1961): 5-30.

Whitfield, Stephen J. “ Cherished and Cursed: Toward a Social History of The Catcher in the Rye”. The New England Quarterly 70.4 (1997): 567-600.

One thought on “Corrupt Societies and Phony Inhabitants in the works of Salinger and Anderson

  1. Pingback: J.D. Salinger, the Novelistic Grandfather of Wes Anderson | Ways To Make You See

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