Initially written for an adult readership, The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger has become increasingly popular with younger readers and now is regarded as a major profound work concerning teenage angst, rebellious behavior, rejection, incomprehension, and confusion with adult world. Holden Caulfield, both protagonist and antagonist, has become the most famous representative of teenage rebellion in the history of literature.
At the beginning of the novel, Holden doesn’t want to reveal any details of his life as a child and directly passes to the description of his downfall: “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like… and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it if you want to know the truth” (Salinger 1). Holden looks deep into the mechanism of a society of the middle of the 20th century. “1950 – of snobbery, privilege, class injury, culture as badge of superiority, sexual exploitation, education subordinated to status, warped social feeling, competitiveness, stunted human possibility, the list could go on” (Ohmann 517).
Thus, mind of a young inexperienced boy cannot comprehend social norms that are imposed on people, fully subordinating people’s lives to them and leaving no free will, forcing people pretend adjusting to them. “The novel draws readers into a powerful longing for what-could-be, and at the same time interposes what-is, as an unchanging and immovable reality” (Ohmann 517).
Thus, Holden proceeds with his narration about Pencey Prep School where he’s expelled from as he failed four subjects except English. Holden rejects the way people behave in the school calling them ‘phoney’. Despite the fact that he changed many schools and Pencey Prep School is regarded to be one of the best educational establishments, Holden never regrets leaving it. On the contrary, he is overwhelmed with derision and misunderstanding of the social norms of behavior in school, which is the main reason for his intention to leave its borders as soon as possible. The school stands for a symbol of a “phoney” cruel world the concept of which is unacceptable for Holden.
According to Ohmann, “this novel is first the story of a young man so displeased with himself and with much of the world around him that his strongest impulse is to leave, break loose, move on. From his pain follows rejection and retreat” (Ohmann 516). Moreover, students in school are never sincere; they wear masks just like adults. Holden cannot find inner forces to bear this society but he understands what rules underlie it: “Life is a game and all. And how you should play it according to the rules” (Salinger 8).
After leaving school, Holden heads for New York where his parents with his sister live. Holden is perplexed and doesn’t want to go home as his parents still don’t know that he’s expelled. On his way, the boy encounters a lot of people, the representatives of “phoney” society. In New York Holden opposes the adult world, however, attracted by such adult obsessions as cigarettes, sex, and alcohol.
Though Holden is lured down by some attractions in New York, he sees no point in them and tries to soothe his extreme feeling of loneliness. It is in New York that Holden forces himself to try to find his objective in life. In fact, the boy’s thoughts are very mature and intelligent though he still remains a child. In his mind, two entities are fighting trying to overcome one another, i.e. adult ‘normal’ behavior and childish innocent worldview that cannot accept the prejudices and fake of the adult society.
Thus, Holden lives in his secret inner world admitting almost no people to it. “So long as the choice is between this society and no society, Holden’s imagination has no place to go. He wants to love and relatedness among equals. These do not thrive in the institutions that surround him, but they cannot exist at all without institutions, which shape the human feeling and give life social form” (Ohmann 517).
Holden is not a conventional character: “He is a boy of uncommonly deep sensibilities, his nature is still childishly one-sided, for his feelings, like a child’s, still predominate over his inadequately developed intellect” (Glasser 464). The boy is extremely perceptive to the events and people who surround him rejecting their way of behavior. But “what exactly is it that puts Holden out of sorts with his life? What does he reject?… an immoral world, the inhumanity of the world, the adult world, the predicament of modern life, the human condition, the facts of life, evil” (Ohmann 516). Holden’s character as opposed to the characters of two of his peers at school, Ackley and Stradlater, who are depicted through their vices.
Holden describes their artificial behavior, their ‘phoney’ banal aims. However, the isolated character of Ackley highlights the inner world of Holden, striving for both intimacy and communication with the world. Caulfield’s new red hunting hat becomes a symbol and acquires a special meaning in the novel. It stands for the unique individuality of the character; a hat distinguishes him from other people and at the same time serves as a shield from a cruel adult world for him.
However, the conflict inside him is evident: Holden always wears a hat when he is among people, i.e. he tries to protect himself but also needs companionship. However much Holden despites the school, he feels the need to say goodbye to it: “I was trying to feel some kind of a good-by… I don’t care if it’s a sad good-by or a bad good-by, but when I leave a place I like to know I’m leaving it. If you don’t, you feel even worse” (Salinger 4).
Encountering adult experiences, such as sex, Holden remains loyal to his own views and doesn’t understand the excitement of it. His attitude to women is very gentle and respectful: “You don’t always have to get too sexy to get to know a girl” (Salinger 76). Facing prostitute Sally, Holden is confused as well as the girl as they are still teenagers who try to act like adults. A major twist in the novel is Holden’s meeting secretly from his parents with his younger sister Phoebe.
Phoebe, the embodiment of innocence, is the only person with whom Holden feels comfortable. From Holden’s point of view, Phoebe is the most perfect creature in the world, not corrupted by it. “Holden’s dilemma… throughout the book, is that he is unable to prevent his impending loss of that uncorrupted spirit possessed by children, such as Phoebe before they have been immersed in the experiences of this world” (Glasser 465). Holden realizes his purpose in his life in the conversation with Phoebe: he wants to become a catcher in the rye to prevent children from falling. Metaphorically, he wants to save innocent children from the cruel adult world: “God, I love it when a kid’s nice and polite when you tighten their skate for them or something. Most kids are. They really are” (Salinger 119). “Holden would like to keep Phoebe a child because he is troubled by the differences he sees between children and adults, both in their physical appearances and in their personalities” (Glasser 464).
Holden’s dynamic character differs from the other teenage characters as Holden is not affected by society at the end of the novel, he doesn’t become mature in his perception of this word. He struggles and feels depressed throughout the whole novel and only in the final paragraphs he inspires a bit of hope watching Phoebe at the carousel. For Holden, it is a beautiful moment of relief and joy when he detaches from his fears and strengthens his idea to become a savior for children.
Very mature, intelligent, keen, Holden’s sister Phoebe serves as a link between Holden and the rest of the people. Phoebe is successful in school, unlike her brother. She has created a household name and writes stories in her notebook. Phoebe looks at her brother as a hero and wants to follow him anywhere. She is the only person who is able to see deep inside Holden’s soul and immediately realizes that Holden left school. In the episode in the flat Phoebe says to her brother: “You don’t like anything that’s happening… You don’t like any schools. You don’t like a million things. You don’t” (Salinger 169).
A small girl, an innocent pure mind, manages to formulate the thought that runs all through the novel. She emphasizes that Holden is different from ordinary people, that he is fragile and confused. “The apartment episode with Phoebe is so brilliant and so densely packed that we must examine it in two stages, here largely from Holden’s point of view and later from Phoebe’s” (Strauch 507). On the whole, the relations between the two siblings are very tender and affectionate.
Holden tries to take care of Phoebe as a parent: in the passage when Phoebe rides on the carousel, Holden realizes that Phoebe has to grow up and make her own choices: “All the kids kept trying to grab for the gold ring, and so was old Phoebe, and I was sort of afraid she’d fall off the goddam horse, but I didn’t say anything or do anything. The thing with kids is, if they want to grab for the gold ring, you have to let them do it, and not say anything. If they fall off, they fall off, but it’s bad if you say anything to them” (Salinger 211).
On the metaphorical level, the ring embodies the choice that children should be free to make even if they can make mistakes. On the other hand, Phoebe is fascinated and dedicated to her brother; she is going to follow him to the west. However, she cannot understand all of Holden’s implications. She is unlikely to realize the meaning of Holden’s dream to become a catcher in the rye as she is still a small girl that enjoys her life.
Holden goes through various conflicts struggling with society and himself. In the Pencey Prep School Holden blames the phoniness of people, both students and teachers. He feels that he’s on the other side of the road: “I had this feeling that I’d never get to the other side of the street. I thought I’d just go down, down, down, and nobody would ever see me again. But I kept going. I was sort of afraid to stop, I think” (Salinger 197-198). Holden never explicitly shows his emotions but he is very perceptive to the surrounding world and understands that he doesn’t belong to it. At school Holden shared the room with Stradlater, a boy focused on his appearance and girls.
Holden dislikes the boy and describes him exaggerating his disadvantages thus forming a negative attitude to him. In addition, Holden despises all the material welfare: “Goddam money. It always ends up making you blue as hell” (Salinger 113). What’s more, Holden is expected to be a successful young man according to his social position.
He is expected if not forced to go into a prestigious prep school and to enter the adult society. But Holden can’t accept this idea of escaping from every institution planning his own escape and seeking rescue in his fantasies. On the whole, the boy leads “his war against everything that is phony and sad-making, he provides an etiquette book for those who see themselves reflected in his doomed situation and a point of reference for those who have, for better or worse, moved beyond the pains of adolescence to those of adulthood” (Pinsker).
Holden not only rejects the adult world but he conflicts with himself, which results in his moral breakdown. The key issue that prevents Holden to find some balance within society and establish his own place is his aspiration for social interaction and, at the same time, his desire to keep intimacy and innocence. In other words, his rejection of society is the consequence of his inner conflict. Overmature in his thoughts for his age, Holden feels like an innocent child who doesn’t want to leave his own safe world. On the other hand, the boy is attracted and scared by communication with people who seem to them corrupt and ‘phoney’.
“Innocence is always under siege by con men and scoundrels, by phonies and hypocrites” (Pinsker). Holden is afraid of death and physical satisfaction implying by that the corruption of soul and spirit, the destruction of innocence. “The identity of the fear of death and the fear of sex is made clear, and these fears are to be seen, actually as a pervasive fear of violence to body or spirit and the ensuing mutilation” (Strauch 508). In his struggle, Holden tries to find answers to his miscellaneous questions, to find the truth in the world, the nature of reality. For Holden, the reality means “organic relation between childhood and maturity, continuity and change, the contemplative and the active, the external world and the inner spirit.
This reality is not a philosophical abstraction, but an existentialist datum of physical and emotional experience” (Strauch 509). And since these components struggle inside Holden, the conflict in his mind arises with himself who tries to identify the meaning of all these entities.
Young, depressed, struggling, characterized by teenage depression and rebellion, “Holden Caulfield continues to be the (anti-) hero of choice for one generation of adolescents after another” (Pinsker).
Glasser, William. “The Catcher in the Rye.” The Michigan Quarterly Review (1976):432-455. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Phyllis Carmel Mendelson. Vol.8. Detroit: Gale Research Company. 464-465.
Ohmann, Richard and Carol. “Reviewers, Critics, and ‘The Catcher in the Rye.'” Critical Inquiry (1976) : 15-37. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Gerard J. Senick. Vol.12. Detroit: Gale Research Company. 516-517.
Pinsker, Sanford. “Holden Caulfield on Social Security.” Holden Caulfield on Social Security. 2001. College Dispatch. Web.
Salinger, J.D. The Catcher in the Rye. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2001.
Strauch, Carl. “Kings in the Back Row: Meaning through Structure – A reading of Salinger’s ‘The Catcher in the Rye’.” Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature (1961): 5-30. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Gerard J. Senick. Vol.12. Detroit: Gale Research Company. 505-510.