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Entering Adulthood in Catcher in the Rye

J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is the story of a sixteen-year-old boy named Holden Caulfield. He comes from quite a wealthy family, has attended several private preparatory schools, but has been expelled from all of them. At the beginning of the book, Christmas is drawing near, and Holden has been kicked out of Pencey Prep because he has failed most of his subjects. He does not want to tell his parents yet, so he decides not to go home until the beginning of the Christmas vacation. Instead, he spends three days in New York at a hotel. The whole story is about Holden’s three days in New York where he desperately seeks contact. He wants to talk to someone about how he feels, so he tries to buy drinks for a taxi driver, talks to people on the train, calls his former girlfriend, and even pays for a prostitute, so she will talk to him. Nobody seems to understand him or why he feels the way he does. He has been having mental problems, particularly after his brother’s death, and after his three days in New York, he has a nervous breakdown and has to go to a mental hospital. Actually, the whole story is a flashback because Holden is telling his story in the hospital. In The Catcher in the Rye, the writer uses first-person narration so that it is Holden himself who is talking. Holden actually addresses the reader by saying things like “If you really want to hear about it…” and “I forgot to tell you about that” (Salinger 1).

On his introduction page of The Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger writes “To My Mother” as a dedication of the novel to his mother. His novel was first published on July 16, 1951. This novel originally sold for $3.00 a copy and was selected by the Book-of-the-Month Club (Whitfield 567). Two weeks after it was first printed, it had to be reprinted five times. In the next three months, it was reprinted three more times. According to Whitfield, His book stayed on the best-seller list for thirty weeks, though never above fourth place. Costing $0.75, the Bantam paperback edition appeared in 1964. By 1981, when the same edition went for $2.50, sales still held steady, between twenty and thirty thousand copies per month, about a quarter of a million copies annually. (567)

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The Catcher in the Rye has been printed at least seventy different times and in at least thirty different languages. During the five years preceding its first publication, only three critical papers had been written. However, in the next four years, over seventy essays were published in American and British magazines on The Catcher in the Rye (568).

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J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye “has long ignited disapproval, and was the most frequently banned book in schools between 1966 and 1975. Even before that time, however, the work was a favourite target for censors” (Sova 1). In 1973, The American School Board Journal called this best-seller “the most widely censored book in the United States” (Whitfield 574). Nearly a decade later, this novel was noted as being “the most frequently censored book across the nation and the second-most frequently taught novel in public high schools” (574).

Holden Caulfield, the narrator and main character of The Catcher in the Rye, seems to be torn between two realms of reality, a dream world of a childhood for which he longed and a world of “maturing adventures in a violent, hypocritical adult society” (McNamara 166). The first sentence in the novel clearly shows his resentment of the childhood he had with respect to the childhood he most likely wanted. The first sentence also states his bitterness toward adult society. The following are Holden’s words:

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 how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, 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)

This opening statement sets the mood for the entire work, and one sees the connection between these two worlds by his inability to step back into a childhood he wants and his rebellion to step forward into the adult world. Holden seems to be trapped in this realm that resembles purgatory which many teenagers experience.

Holden, in the first sentence, states that he had a lousy childhood, which he feels no need to elaborate on to his audience. This feeling that his childhood was inadequate causes him to feel the need to guide and protect children. This is where the title The Catcher in the Rye originates. Holden’s vision of a perfect life is one in which he stands on the edge of a cliff acting as a catcher who protects innocent children, who are playing in a field of rye, from falling over the edge. With this in mind, Holden would like to keep his younger sister Phoebe child-like because he is troubled by the differences he sees between children and adults, both in their physical appearance and in their personalities. An example of Holden’s views comes from the scene when he is in his brother D.B.’s room where Phoebe was sleeping: “She had her mouth way open. It’s funny. You take adults, they look lousy when they’re sleeping and they have their mouths way open, but kids don’t. Kids look all right. They can even have spit all over the pillow and still look all right” (Salinger 159). The world which Holden seeks is of children or children-surrogates like the nuns whom he spoke to in the railroad station. This world of preference “is honest, sincere, [and] simple” (Seng 206).

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This adult world into which Holden was forced disturbs him because it is of adults and of adult values (206). In his view, the adults indwell this world, “and it seems to him that they have filled it with phoniness, pretense, [and] social compromise” (206). This hypocritical society which he has been forced into has caused him, in turn, to rebel against it. Holden gives an example of this when, several times throughout the story, he asks about what happens to the ducks in the winter. The adults’ response to this recurring question is to look down on him and expect him to know the answer, therefore never giving him an adequate explanation.

This clearly shows how his innocent mind conflicts with this adult world, and in his response to this, he rebels against this whole society. As an emotional, intelligent, curious, and painfully sensitive young man, Holden shows his rebellion toward his peers and elders, the teachings of his education, and his own emerging sense of self. By going against the grain of his schooling and all of its moral values, Holden refuses to progress in his life. This is represented by his inability to remain in one school for any normal length of time. He refuses to better himself, and in doing so, he uses profane language to express his hatred. Holden choices to stay in this immature life. His inability to come to terms with this adult reality directly results in a mental breakdown (207).

Holden remains trapped, unable to recognize anything constant in human existence. Allie, Holden’s brother, died of leukemia at a fairly young age, and this tragic event in Holden’s life retarded his ability to mature and to progress in his life. The irony of this is that the only thing Holden truly loves is no longer of this world. This may be the reason why Holden feels the need to protect children. In the scene right after Holden sneaks into his parents’ house, his sister Phoebe is trying to show him that nothing in this world can make him happy:

“Allie’s dead–You always say that! If somebody’s dead and everything, and in Heaven, then it isn’t really-”

“I know he’s dead! Don’t you think I know that? I can still like him, though, can’t I? Just because somebody’s dead, you don’t just stop liking them, for God’s sake-especially if they were a thousand times nicer than the people you know that’re alive and all” (Salinger 171)

Phoebe attempts to show Holden that he is trapped, but he disregards what she says.

In the scene where Holden is standing in front of the Museum of Natural History, he describes to the reader his thoughts on how trapped he is and his feelings at this point in time. He states that the best thing about the museum is “that everything always stays right where it was” (121). What Holden likes about the museum is that the only thing that ever changes is the people who visit, in one form or another. This is a great example of how Holden is always trying to relive his past once again and how he tries to remove himself from the adult world.

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In the end, “he will try to protect Phoebe, and as hard as it is to watch her take her bumps when she reaches for the gold ring on the carrousel, knowing that she may fall off, he lets her ‘grab for the gold ring, [because] you have to let them do it and not say anything’” (Moore 161). Holden, himself, abandons his previous attitude, converted by his experiences, to a morally sounder acceptance of life. This is where Holden releases his dream of being the catcher in the rye, submitting all ambitions to leave home. Holden takes the first step toward the realization of his need to conform and enter the adult world. Finally, if he does grow up, he might become bitter at the world, for he has no one to love. From this bitterness, he might never truly conform, always using the museum to regress into his past. Holden, like many children before him, is just now finding his path in life.

Works Cited

McNamara, Eugene “Holden as Novelist.” English Journal. LIV (March, 1965), 159-165.

Moore, Robert P. “The World of Holden.” English Journal. LIV (March, 1965), 159-165.

Salinger, J.D. The Catcher in the Rye. May 1991 ed. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1991

Seng, Peter J. “The Fallen Idol: The Immature World of Holden Caulfield.” College English. XXIII (December, 1961), 203-209.

Sova, Dawn B. Banned Books: Suppressed on Social Grounds. New York: Facts on File, 1998.

Whitfield, Stephen J. “Cherished and Cursed: Toward a social History of The Catcher in the Rye.” The New England Quarterly. LXX (December, 1997), 567-574.

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Entering Adulthood in Catcher in the Rye. (2021, Feb 27). Retrieved March 22, 2023, from