The controversial elements that are laced within the The Goat (Who is Sylvia?) and Catcher in the Rye is what allows the texts to transcend the literary sphere and pave a new way of thinking. It is the obscene imagery and vulgar language that many take at face-value, disregarding the prime purpose of its use; to depict a flawed main character who struggles with the social taboos that creates a bounded world for them. Although taboo concepts of bestiality, incest and homosexuality are explored in the texts, their role is to draw attention to how society reacts to those who display unwanted behaviour, and the bigotry they endure for crossing social and moral boundaries. Albee and J.D Salinger force the audience through confronting topics, to test the limits of our tolerance by having a broader outlook and placing ourselves in the character’s situation which are outside of many peoples’ comfort zones.
The delicate topics of sexual promiscuity, bestiality and copulation are emblematic of the disapproved perceptions of homosexuality. Both Holden and Martin’s sexual ambivalence and inability to relate to the universal norm of heterosexual relationships, by far, holds the greatest shock value. Martin’s sensuality and forbidden love with an animal is revealed early in the play, defining him as a “goat fucker” amongst his loved ones. Sarah Crockarell further claims that The Goat “deepens the complexity and ambiguity of queer relationships… [by using] bestiality to mark queer desire” (2013). This perverted and damnable revelation immediately overshadows Billy’s unconventional sexual orientation; allowing Albee to successfully utilise bestiality as an anomaly to make homosexuality appear normalised in the eyes of the audience. However, this doesn’t negate the fact that Billy’s homosexuality is looked down upon as a grotesque and an unnatural act in a heteronormative society. This is prevalent when Martin uses derogatory language towards his gay son, calling him a “fucking faggot” despite being depicted in the play as a “liberal, right-thinking…man”. This evidently captures the “hypocritical reactionary prejudice” (Weitz, 2009) that Martin possesses; where his internalised homophobia stems from society’s rigid constructs of sexuality. This is a clear indication of how arbitrary standards shape one’s social morality. The irony of this homophobic behaviour where Martin is criticising his son’s sexuality despite being labelled perverted due to his bestial desires, is almost comical and a true reflection of society’s hypocrisy. Ross adds to the homophobic sentiment when Martin states that “[Billy’s] sure; loves it, he says” when discussing his son’s sexuality. By responding “Well, of course he loves it; he’s getting laid”, Ross conventionalises Billy’s sexuality by comparing his desires to those of a heterosexual male.
This is mirrored to a similar extent in Catcher in the Rye, where Holden’s feeble attempts of sexual promiscuity and internal carnal conflict alludes to the rejected ideologies of sexual intimacy between males. Set within “the closeted gay space of the American 1950s” (Beslagic, 2013) the protagonist Holden Caulfield appears to battle internal conflicts on sexuality and adhering to hetercentric standards. Although it is not explicit that Holden is a homosexual, Catcher in the Rye foregrounds the notions of queerness and reveals the ingrained homophobia through the protagonist’s sexual issues. From a queer perspective, Holden perceiving himself to be a “pervert” who “thinks of very crumby stuff” could insinuate that his thoughts and desires are centred around “homosexuality and other non-normative sexual expressions” (Beslagic, 2013). Whereas Martin is more accepting of his sexual preference and eventually his son’s homosexuality, Holden fears his own lust and conforms to the heteronormative standards. His regulated attitudes towards queer relationships is demonstrated when he states that “Some of the ones [Luce] said were flits were even married, for God’s sake”. The level of disgust and disturbance towards same-sex couples reiterates how the narrator’s way of thinking has been heavily influenced by societal homophobia. Both Martin and Holden are isolated and seek companionship in both texts, however, they act on those feelings in polarising ways. Whilst Martin allows himself to be driven by animal passions and embrace his bestial desires, Holden in stark contrast attempts to further repress his sexual desires with his weak attempts at random sex. From a queer perspective, Holden’s inability to have sex does not stem from his aversion to the act itself, but the gender he ought to have it with. Wanting to “get it over with”, Holden enlists the service of a prostitute but retracts from his plan by lying about his healing “clavichord”. Holden’s conflicted behaviour and panic at the anticipation of sex with the prostitute Sunny, is a clear indication that he feels the pressure to conform and abandon his true desires; his attraction to males. Thus, both texts use controversial approaches to expose the prejudice and ostracization of those with non-hegemonic sexualities.
Albee and J.D Salinger assert that the loss of innocence, although necessary, can contribute to one’s downfall. Although Catcher in the Rye and The Goat demonstrate varying degrees of losing innocence, it is the characters exposure to corruption and moral decay that evidently leads to their undoing. The goat is considered innocent throughout the duration of play and suffers as a result of Martin’s lewd obsession and Stevie’s cruel revenge. Ultimately the goat transforms into the scapegoat, blamed for the sins of Martin destroying his paradisal family. Stevie deems her husband’s secret as the ultimate betrayal: “You have brought me down you goat fucker…you have brought me down, and Christ, I’ll bring you down with me”. Martin’s lust for a goat is what tarnishes Stevie’s morality, and drives her to lose her innocence by slaughtering her husband’s love. The violent imagery of “Stevie dragging a dead goat [with its] throat cut” across the stage and her face “without emotion”, is where all sign of innocence is completely lost. Although Stevie’s actions are abhorrent and confronting for the audience, it can be argued that it was essential for her in order to achieve catharsis and restore some kind of normalcy in her life. The death of Sylvia was a way in which she could break the thread of being a wife to Martin and to destroy the mirror image of herself as she believed that “[Sylvia] loved you…you say. As much as I do”. The sacrificial death of the goat marks the ruin of a marriage and the emotional and moral corruption of a woman who is broken by her husband’s affair. Holden’s loss of innocence “emerges from the physical and psychological turmoil of adolescence” (Griffiths, 2018), which is in stark contrast to the violent ordeal that causes the characters in The Goat to be corrupted. Holden’s idealisation of the innocence of childhood and his determination to latch onto it while on the cusp of adulthood, is a sign of naivety and immaturity. Stevie’s disgust towards her husband’s conduct is a direct parallel to Holden’s sickened attitude towards human behaviour, which is considered a core conflict in the protagonist’s life. Whilst Stevie yearns to tarnish the innocence of those who have wronged her, Holden hopes to protect the other children from losing their innocence and establish a moral order, revealing himself as the catcher in the rye. This is demonstrated when Holden notices the “fuck you” tagged on his sister’s school wall which “drove him crazy”. Although, he has this consuming desire to keep the “real world’s inconsistencies at bay” (Griffiths, 2018), Holden realises that can’t protect others from the trials of adulthood as he soon finds later that those profane words are displayed in another part of the school and the Museum of Natural History – “if you had a million years to do it in, you couldn’t rub out even half the “Fuck you” signs in the world. It’s impossible”. This delusion of saving children from the pitfalls of the adult world is only transient as Holden comes to the consensus that he can’t remain a child. Holden sees through his own fallacy, knowing that can’t stop a world of children from growing up – a battle which he can never win. Seemingly, his transition, which is not only necessary but inevitable, “from the stage of child-like innocence to the devastation of adult isolation” (Griffiths, 2018), depicts him as a tragic figure. Therefore, the characters’ lives in both texts experience devasting ends through death or isolation, as a result of their corrupted mortality.
By transgressing taboos through de-masking political, moral and social concepts which have been built by Western society, The Goat and Catcher in the Rye challenge the audience’s limits of tolerance. Both Albee and J.D Salinger force their audience to re-evaluate their prejudices and system of beliefs by exposing them to what is considered to be shocking and heinous subjects. Rád affirms that the audience’s appalled reaction to the play reinforces Albee’s argument that there is “intolerance and superficiality inherent in society’s attitudes towards any behaviour that [is] outside [the] sanctified rules and norms” (2009). This is demonstrated when the audience were less accepting of the homosexual incest that occurs when Billy gives Martin a “a deep, sobbing sexual kiss”, compared to the bestiality presented in the play. It can be inferred that Martin’s relationship with a goat is considered to be too drastic and outrageous for the audience to believe, and thus not harmful. These perplexing and polarising reactions to subjects that are considered abominable, forces the audience to rethink their prejudices and how we differentiate the boundaries of acceptable behaviour. Moreover, J.D Salinger pushes the limits of his 1950’s audience’s tolerance by depicting the American life in an imperfect and darker context. Whilst Albee’s play was more widely accepted by modern society, Catcher in the Rye received enormous public backlash for tarnishing the idealistic image of American suburbia. Both texts make political and social statements about the unpleasant side of western civilisation and were reprimanded for encouraging various taboo subjects such as sex, incest, bestiality, atheism and other socially unacceptable behaviour. With the historical background of post World War II, Holden represents the alienated youth of that time who repudiated the mainstream values in protest to the hostile reality they were living in. The War inflicted a deep wound within the 1950’s society and was an emotional burden on the vulnerable youth, despite people convincing themselves that they were living in an idealistic period. Those who were opposed to the prosperous and happy American life that was falsely portrayed were scorned, which is why Holden’s inability to adhere to mainstream values sparked controversy. Therefore, Albee and J.D Salinger use techniques of shock-value to challenge the boundaries and values of western society as a way to promote progressive thinking.
As expressed, Albee and J.D Salinger’s controversial approach to literature demonstrates how the norms serve as an obstacle for the protagonists and contributes to the loss of their anchored individuality. Through shocking revelations and overstepping boundaries that are considered grotesque, the audience are forced to reconsider their tolerance and acceptance of the human condition, however absurd it may be.