Catcher in the Rye Character Analysis
The Catcher in the Rye can be strongly considered as one of the greatest novels of all time and Holden Caufield distinguishes himself as one of the greatest and most diverse characters. His moral system and his sense of justice force him to detect horrifying flaws in the society in which he lives. However, this is not his principal difficulty. His principle difficulty is not that he is a rebel, or a coward, nor that he hates society, it is that he has had many experiences and he remembers everything. Salinger indicates this through Holden’s confusion of time throughout the novel. Experiences at Whooten, Pency, and Elkton Hills combine and no levels of time separate them. This causes Holden to end the novel missing everyone and every experience. He remembers all the good and bad, until distinctions between the two disappear. Holden believes throughout the novel that certain things should stay the same. Holden becomes a character portrayed by Salinger that disagrees with things changing. He wants to retain everything, in short, he wants everything to always remain the same, and when changes occur; Holden reacts. However, the most important aspect of Holden Caufield’s character can be attributed to his judgment of people. Holden Caufield, a character who always jumps to conclusions about people and their phoniness, can be labelled as a hypocrite because he exemplifies a phony himself.
Holden Caufield the 16-year-old protagonist and main character of The Catcher in the Rye narrates the story and explains all the events throughout three influential days of
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his life. A prep school student who has just been kicked out of his second school, Holden struggles to find the right path into adulthood. He does not know what road to follow and he uses others as the scapegoat for his puzzlement in life. Harold Bloom explains,
His central dilemma is that he wants to retain a child’s innocence., but because of biology, he must move either into adulthood or madness. As a sort of compromise Holden imagines himself as “the catcher in the rye,” a protector of childhood innocence exempt from movement into adulthood, which is neither possible nor sane.” (Bloom’s Notes 22)
Even Gerald Rosen states that, “It is important to note here that Holden’s rejection of an adult role is not a case of sour grapes. He believes he will succeed and it is the successful life he fears”(101). Even though Holden tries to act like an adult at times, he is actually extremely afraid of adult life and as a way to escape life, he creates this character, the catcher in the rye, throughout his thoughts. He feels that by saving the children from falling off the cliff, he saves them from falling into the adult world that he disgusts. He feels that this character can prevent the children from becoming adults and remaining in that childish world. Holden pictured it this way,
Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around-nobody big, I mean except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff.
What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff. I mean if they’re running and they don’t look we’re they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I have to do all day. I’d just be the Catcher in the Rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy(Salinger 173).
Holden exhibits the madness described before at often times throughout the book and in the end, it ends up sending him to a sanitarium. He knows he has become mad and he even tells himself this many times in the book, but he never really believes it. One time in the book when he displays this madness is,
But I’m crazy I swear to God I am. About halfway to the bathroom, I started pretending I had a bullet in my guts. Old Maurice had plugged me. Now I was on the way to the bathroom to get a good shot of bourbon. I pictured myself with my automatic in my pocket and staggering a little bit. I’d walk down a couple of floors-holding on to my guts, blood leaking all over the place. As soon as old Maurice opened the doors he’d start screaming at me. But I’d plug him anyway(Salinger 103-4).
This explains the psychotically disturbing actions Holden makes in this novel. Holden becomes obsessed with death and dying, and several times in the book he wishes he was dead. “Again, Holden can’t stay away from the subject of the death of family members and the decay of the corpse. Even when he later goes to the Museum of Art, he winds up in the mummy room explaining about preserving the dead to two boys and then getting sick and “sort of” passing out”(Rosen 100). He knows that he has become crazy but has a problem admitting it fully and this shows why can be considered a phony.
Holden Caufield constantly criticizes religion and many different aspects of it. Throughout the book, he makes remarks on Jesus and the Disciples many times. About the Disciples, he says, “Take the Disciples for instance. They annoy the hell out of me if you want to know the truth”(Salinger 99). He explains that his reason for feeling this way is because he is an atheist. However, he also says that he believes in Jesus but not the disciples. However, the definition of an atheist is someone who does not believe in God. Frederick Gwynn and Joseph Blotner explain, “Jesus and Holden Caufield truly love their neighbours, especially the poor in goods, appearance and spirit. Holden not only gives $10 to the nuns in the station but is also depressed by their meagre breakfast and the fact that they will never be going anywhere swanky for lunch”(29). Holden and Jesus have many similarities, but Holden feels he is totally opposite from Jesus. Just one more example of Holden’s total disregard of what is going on.
Holden dislikes many people, places, and events all because of the phoniness surrounding them. Mollie Sandock says that “He feels a scathing, harrowing disgust for the “phoniness” he senses so acutely all around him. It makes him literally ill. He is repulsed not only by the insincerity and self-promotion of the “phonies,” “hot-shots,” “jerks,” “bastards,” and “morons,” but by the phoniness that is excellence corrupted”(966). Holden realizes all the flaws within others but he can not see them within himself. At the end of the novel, he complains heavily about the fowl language written on walls where children can see it. Yet as Edward Corbett explains, “Holden’s swearing is so habitual, so unintentional, so ritualistic that it takes on a quality of innocence. He is constantly seeking to appear older than he really is. His profanity is so much ingrained by habit. that he is wholly unaware of how rough his language is”(442). There were even a few times in the book that his sister reprimanded him for swearing too much. He also does not trust that anyone tells the truth. Sandock replies by saying,
He repeatedly insists that he is telling the truth because in his experience and by his rigorous standards, most people do not speak the truth. He prefaces his revelations with “If you really want to hear about it,” and “If you want to know the truth,” because he found few people do want to know the truth(966).
Holden encounters many different people and experiences many adventures throughout the three days that this story occurs. He becomes involved with a variety of people, including taxi drivers, two nuns, an elevator man(pimp), three girls from Seattle, a prostitute, and a former teacher from whom Holden thinks he should flee from, in the middle of the night. He can never hold on to anyone he cares about; so he always finds a way to ruin the relationship by escaping or destroying it. Nash Burger says that “Holden’s mercurial changes of mood, his stubborn refusal to admit his own sensitiveness and emotions, his cheerful disregard of what is sometimes known as reality are typically and heartbreakingly adolescent” (New York Times 14). He also easily mocks certain people and the way they act.
On teachers, Holden feels that “You don’t have to think too hard when you talk to a teacher”(Salinger 13). When his sister asks him if he would want to become a lawyer like his dad, he replies by saying, “Lawyers are all right, I guess but it doesn’t appeal to me. All you do is make a lot of dough and play golf and play bridge and buy cars and drink martinis and look like a hot-shot”(Salinger 172). Many would think that after all of Holden’s experiences and tragedies, he would go to his parents for help. However, he does not, which shows that he must not have a good relationship with his parents if he can not talk to them. It seems as if he wants to reach out to them but for some reason, he can not. Gerald Rosen gives examples of being shut out, he says,
Holden sorely misses being able to turn to his parents in his time of trouble. He doesn’t say this, but he reveals it obliquely in his movie fantasies of being shot by the mob. He first pulls the peak of his hunting cap over his eyes and shouts about being blind. Then Holden shouts, ” Mother darling, give me your hand. Why won’t you give me your hand?” This seems like clowning, but in fact, it is a revelation of his terrible anguished isolation from his family(100).
According to Webster’s dictionary, “Phoniness is described as artificial, counterfeit, or hypocritical”(362). These are all actions displayed by Holden several times throughout the novel. Phony is one of the words heavily used by Holden. He uses the word phony several times throughout the course of this book and he uses it to describe the actions of others and not himself. Before Holden judges others, he should take a look at himself and see his faults. Throughout all the encounters with different people in the book, he is easily the phoniest of all the characters. Perhaps Holden can be explained better by Corbett, “Holden is himself a phony.
He is an inveterate liar; he frequently masquerades as someone he is not; he fulminates against foibles of which he himself is guilty; he frequently vents his spleen about his friends, despite the fact that he seems to be advocating the need for charity”(443). Holden has a dreamy look at life, he dreams of retaining his childhood and remaining the way he used to be. This idealism explains why he is close to his sister Phoebe and why he was so close to his brother Allie. He does not want anyone to fall off the cliff into adulthood, he wants them to remain in the rye and if they go to fall off he will catch them. He is displayed as a true Peter Pan. Not wanting to grow up was Peter’s main reason for living and so was Holden’s. Holden was Peter Pan in his own sense, but he stands out from Peter Pan in many ways, and that is why he is The Catcher in the Rye.
Holden Caulfield – The protagonist and narrator of the novel. When the novel opens, Holden is a sixteen year-old junior at a school called Pencey Prep; he has just been expelled for academic failure. Holden is intelligent and sensitive, but he narrates his story in a cynical, jaded voice. Though he never says so outright, he longs to live in a beautiful and innocent world, and finds the hypocrisy and ugliness of the world around him almost unbearably painful; his cynicism is his attempt to protect himself from the pain and disappointment of the adult world. As the novel opens, Holden stands poised on the cliff separating childhood from adulthood; his damaged innocence also leaves him poised on the brink of a nervous breakdown.
Ackley – Holden’s next-door neighbor in the dorm at Pencey Prep, a pimply, insecure boy with terrible dental hygiene. Ackley often barges into Holden’s room and acts completely oblivious to Holden’s hints that he should leave; he also makes up elaborate lies about his sexual experience.
Stradlater – Holden’s roommate. Stradlater is handsome, self- satisfied, and popular, but Holden calls him a “secret slob”–his razor, for instance, is disgustingly unclean. Stradlater is sexually mature and experienced for a Pencey boy, and utterly preoccupied with himself; he tends to assume everyone else is preoccupied with him, too.
Jane Gallagher – Holden’s former girlfriend, now dating Stradlater. Jane’s summer house in Maine is next door to the Caulfields’. Jane never actually appears in The Catcher in the Rye, but she is extremely important to Holden–she is one of the few people who seem to understand and care about him, and is the only person with whom Holden feels comfortable discussing Allie’s death. Jane’s stepfather is an alcoholic, and their relationship is painful and strained.
Phoebe – Holden’s ten-year-old sister. Holden loves Phoebe very dearly; even though she is six years younger, she tends to understand what he means, and he feels comfortable talking to her. Phoebe is intelligent, neat, and a wonderful dancer. Her childish innocence is one of Holden’s only consistent sources of happiness throughout the novel.
Allie – Holden’s younger brother, who died of leukemia three years before the start of the novel. Allie was a brilliant, friendly, redheaded boy; Holden says he was the smartest of the Caulfields and is tormented by his death. The night Allie died, Holden slept in the garage, and broke all the windows with his bare hands, shattering both his hands and landing him in the hospital during Allie’s funeral. One of Holden’s most prized possessions, a baseball glove on which Allie wrote poems in green ink, first belonged to Allie.
D.B. – Holden’s older brother, a writer. D.B. used to write stories that Holden admired, but before the start of the novel he moved to Hollywood to write for the movies, lured by the money–he now drives a Jaguar and dates movie stars. Holden still thinks D.B. is an adequate company, but can’t quite forgive his brother for selling out to the movies, which Holden considers the phoniest and most despicable entertainment imaginable.
Sally Hayes – Another of Holden’s girlfriends, a young socialite who attends the Mary A. Woodruff girls’ school. Unlike Jane’s, Sally’s main motivation is to be attractive and popular, and she succeeds. Holden is attracted to Sally’s beauty and charisma, but her hypocrisy and cruelty repel him.
Carl Luce – A student at Columbia whom Holden knew when they both attended the Whooton School. Luce is three years older than Holden, and has a great deal of sexual experience; at Whooton, he used to entertain the younger boys with sex stories and advice. Now he is dating a Chinese sculptress in Greenwich Village whom he believes to be in her late 30s. Holden considers Luce to be effeminate and possibly deviant, but he claims to find him amusing.
Mr. Antolini – Holden’s former English teacher at the Elkton Hills School, now a teacher at New York University. Mr. Antolini is young, clever, sympathetic and likable, and Holden seems to respect him. But Mr. Antolini sometimes seems a bit too clever to Holden, and he also appears to have a drinking problem.
The Catcher in the Rye is narrated by Holden Caulfield, a sixteen year-old boy recuperating in a rest home from a nervous breakdown, some time in 1950. Holden tells the story of his last day at a school called Pencey Prep, and of his subsequent psychological meltdown in New York City.
Holden has been expelled from Pencey for academic failure, and after an unpleasant evening with his self-satisfied roommate Stradlater and their pimply next-door neighbour Ackley, he decides to leave Pencey for good and spend a few days alone in New York City before returning to his parents’ Manhattan apartment. In New York, he succumbs to increasing feelings of loneliness and desperation brought on by the hypocrisy and ugliness of the adult world; he feels increasingly tormented by the memory of his younger brother Allie’s death, and his life is complicated by his burgeoning sexuality. He wants to see his sister Phoebe and his old girlfriend Jane Gallagher, but instead, he spends his time with Sally Hayes, a shallow socialite Holden’s age, and Carl Luce, a pretentious Columbia student Holden treats as a source of sexual knowledge.
Increasingly lonely, Holden finally decides to sneak back to his parents’ apartment to talk to Phoebe. He borrows some money from her, then goes to stay with his former English teacher, Mr. Antolini. When he believes Mr. Antolini to be making a homosexual advance toward him, Holden leaves his apartment and spends the rest of the night on a bench in Grand Central Station.
The next day Holden experiences the worst phase of his nervous breakdown. He wanders the streets, looking at children and talking to Allie. He tries to leave New York forever and hitchhike west, but when Phoebe insists on going with him he relents, agreeing to go back home to protect his sister from the ugliness of the world. He takes her to the park, and watches her ride on the merry-go-round; he suddenly feels overwhelmed by inexplicable, intense happiness.
Holden concludes his story by refusing to talk about what happened after that, but he fills in the most important details: he went home, was sent to the rest home, and will attend a new school next year. He regrets telling his story to so many people; talking about it, he says, makes him miss everyone.
1. Discuss Holden as a narrator. How does his cynical tone affect his description of his experiences and feelings? How can we understand him as a character?
Holden is a sensitive and innocent boy adrift in a world that has no sympathy for his sensitivity or his innocence, a world whose hypocrisy and ugliness disappoint and threaten him very deeply. His cynical attitude is often an attempt to defend his feelings from the shortcomings of the outside world; at heart, Holden is an idealist and resorts to bitterness and anger when the world’s failure to match his ideal picture of it makes him sad. As a result, the story he tells is only a part of the whole story; he often glides over moments of particular trauma or treats painful moments by pretending not to care. To understand his character, it is necessary to look beyond his words at his behaviour, taking the knowledge of his personality acquired from his narration and applying it to his actions in the story.
When Holden tells about being beaten and robbed by Maurice the elevator operator, for instance, he admits that he thought he was dying, and fantasizes about being a movie hero and seeking his revenge. But he never describes how any of this makes him feel; his sole comment is that the “goddam movies” can ruin a person. Only by learning from previous moments in the book that Holden is a deeply sensitive boy–when he writes about Allie, for instance–can we look beneath the surface of Holden’s narrative to see the suffering it covers up.
2. What is the significance of the book’s title? What does it mean to be a “catcher in the rye”?
The significance of the title is explained in Chapter 22 when Holden tells Phoebe what he would like to do with his life. He says he’d like to stand on the edge of a cliff, by a rye field in which thousands of little children were playing a game. When any children came too close to the edge of the cliff, Holden would catch them to keep them from falling. Since Holden himself stands on the border between childhood and adulthood, between innocence and disillusionment, the image of saving children from the cliff by the rye field seems clear to work as a metaphor for the protection of innocence from the adult world. Holden loves children and is cheered by them throughout the novel–this image was suggested to him in the first place by a little child singing “if a body catch a body coming through the rye.” He wants to protect them from the same harsh loss of innocence he himself is experiencing, an experience that began most painfully after Allie’s death. Taking that role as a protector is what it means to be a “catcher in the rye”; it is important to recognize the complete lack of any such figure in Holden’s own life. In the novel, it first appears that Mr. Antolini will act as one–he even perceives that Holden is experiencing a “fall”–but Holden’s interpretation of Mr. Antolini stroking his hair wrecks any chance the teacher might have of protecting him from that fall. The most important protective action in the novel is actually Holden’s own–when he decides not to go west because of the consequences his action would have for Phoebe.
3. Holden’s sexuality plays an extremely important part in his experience; his decisions and his behaviour are often motivated by sexual desire. What is the role of sexuality in The Catcher in the Rye?
Holden stands on the threshold between childhood and adulthood. He is consistently hurt and humiliated by the hypocrisy and ugliness of the adult world, and his admiration for children seems to indicate his longing for the outlook of childhood. Sexuality is the force that makes a return to that outlook impossible. Many of Holden’s most traumatic encounters with the adult world–the blowup with the prostitute and Maurice, for instance–are occasioned by his sexuality; sexual desire consistently incites him, almost against his will, to move more and more deeply into the adult world. If the transition from innocence to experience is like falling off the cliff by the rye field, sexuality is the force that will eventually make Holden jump.
4. Though Holden never describes his psychological breakdown directly, it becomes increasingly clear as the novel progresses that he is extremely unstable and probably experiencing a nervous breakdown. How does Salinger indicate this instability to the reader while protecting his narrator’s reticence?
Salinger uses two main techniques with great efficiency. The first is to emphasize a contrast between Holden’s relatively casual description of his actions and the apparent desperation of the actions themselves. When Holden describes walking to the Central Park duck pond late at night, for instance, he casually mentions that he had icicles in his hair and worried about catching pneumonia, but he does not seem to consider it strange to walk outdoors with wet hair in freezing weather. It does seem strange to the reader, however, and Salinger uses that sense of strangeness, as well as Holden’s apparent obliviousness to it, to emphasize his mental imbalance. His other main technique is to use other characters’ responses to Holden’s behaviour to fill in what Holden doesn’t tell us about his own behaviour. When he has his meltdown with Sally, for instance, and tries to persuade her to flee society and live with him in a cabin, she repeatedly asks him to stop shouting. In his account of the scene, Holden claims he wasn’t shouting, but we believe Sally and Salinger uses her angry, fearful response to signal to the reader that Holden’s mental state is worse than he admits.
In the novel, The Catcher in the Rye, written by J.D. Salinger, Holden, the main character wants to be a “catcher.” Holden hears a young boy on the street singing “If a body catch a body coming through the rye” and it made Holden feel better (115). He wants to be the only big person around in a rye field, near a cliff, to catch all the kids playing from running off the cliff. It is obvious from this statement that Holden wants to help children, but how can Holden when he cannot even take care of himself? A competent catcher would be somewhat like a counsellor or social worker in the sense that they would help children from following a destructive path. A counsellor or “catcher” must be honest, mature, responsible, motivated, and caring. Although Holden is caring, which is a quality that makes a good catcher, he still lacks many of the other necessary qualities to be a competent “catcher in the rye.”
One quality that Holden lacks to be a competent “catcher” is honesty and Holden even says, “I’m the most terrific liar you ever say in your life” (16). He lies quite often, even when it comes to simple things like going to the store to buy a magazine, but instead says he is going to the opera. To leave an annoying conversation faster, he lies to Mr. Spencer, one of his teachers, and tells him he has to leave for the gym to get the fencing equipment, when in fact Holden left the equipment on the subway (15). Holden also lies when he is on the train and tells Mrs. Marrow nothing but falsehoods about her son, who attends Pencey with Holden, by stating that he “adapts himself very well to things” (55). It would not be right for Holden to be a dishonest catcher. It is important to teach a child to tell the truth, so how could he be a competent catcher when he constantly lies?
Another quality that Holden lacks to be a competent “catcher” is maturity. He even justifies his immaturity by stating that he is just going through a phase. A mature person would be able to handle difficult, tough situations reasonably and Holden cannot. Unable to control himself, Holden reacts on impulse to hit Stradlater because Holden thinks he is sleeping with Jane Gallagher. He may look mature with his prematurely gray hair and tall physique, but he still has to mature tremendously before he could ever become a “catcher.” Since Holden is as immature as a child, he would not be able to help children with their problems and might instead make them worse.
Along with being immature, Holden is also irresponsible. A competent catcher needs to be responsible enough to watch over and take care of the children in the rye. How can Holden watch over children running around, when he cannot even take the blame for losing the fencing equipment on the subway? Holden also drinks a lot which is irresponsible, and while he is drunk he visits his sister Phoebe during the night and takes the chance of waking his parents up. Since Holden is so irresponsible, it would be difficult for him to be a competent catcher to take care of the “children in the rye.”
Holden would not be able to take care of the “children in the rye” because he has no motivation. Holden is not motivated because motivation is a process involved in changing situations and life events and Holden hates change. He states, “Certain things should stay the way they are. You ought to be able to stick them in one of those big glass cases and just leave them alone” (122). This statement proves that he has no motivation and just wants time to stand still.
The novel also demonstrates that Holden is not motivated by showing us that he was expelled from Pencey Prep, a school he attended in Agerstown, Pennsylvania on the account of failing everything but his composition class. With no sense of purpose and direction, Holden goes from boarding school to boarding school. Beneath Holden’s unmotivated side, Holden is an intelligent writer who just does not apply himself. The only thing he thinks about applying himself towards and is motivated to do is catch children in a rye field from falling off a cliff. He has a long conversation with his sister Pheobe and states that he keeps “picturing all these little kids playing some game in a big field of rye and all…I have to catch everybody as they start to go over the cliff…I just want to be the catcher in the rye and all and I know it’s crazy” (173).
Since Holden wants to catch the children, it is obvious that he is caring. Even though he talks about most of the characters in the book as being phony, he still feels sorry for them, which is a sign that deep inside he does care. While in the park, Holden is caring enough to tighten a little girl’s skates up. He also cares tremendously about his sister Phoebe and this is evident because he talks a great amount about her by stating that she is a perfect speller, neat dresser, is very imaginative, and creative. Holden also shows that he is caring when he gives money to the nuns he saw at breakfast and then feels horrible for accidentally blowing smoke in their faces (113). If he was not caring, why would he care if he blew smoke in their face? If he were not caring, why would he feel the need to give them money?
It is obvious that Holden is caring, but still lacks many of the qualities to be a competent catcher. He is immature like many children and maybe that is why he wants to be a catcher because he so easily relates to them. He would be able to be the biggest person and not have to deal with authority. Or, maybe Holden knows that he is on the path for destruction and sees himself going off the cliff, which is an abrupt ending, possibly like a suicide. It is possible that if he views being the catcher in the rye this way that he wants to help the children not make the same mistakes he did, so he want to catch them before they go too far. Whatever the reason may be for him wanting to be a catcher in the rye, we do know one thing: that he still has a lot of growing as a person to do before he can be a competent “catcher in the rye.”
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