Holden Caulfield interacts with many people throughout J.D. Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye, but probably none have as much impact on him as certain members of his immediate family. The ways Holden acts around or reacts to the various members of his family give the reader a direct view of Holden’s philosophy surrounding each member. How do Holden’s different opinions of his family compare and do his views constitute enough merit to be deemed truth? Holden makes reference to the word “phony” forty-four separate times throughout the novel (Corbett 68-73). Each time he seems to be referring to the subject of this metaphor as — someone who discriminates against others is a hypocrite about something or has manifestations of conformity (Corbett 71).
Throughout The Catcher in the Rye, Holden describes and interacts with various members of his family. The way he talks about or to each gives you some idea of whether he thinks they are “phony” or normal. A few of his accounts make it more obvious than others to discover how he classifies each family member. From the very first page of the novel, Holden begins to refer to his parents as distant and generalizes both his father and mother frequently throughout his chronicle. One example is: “…my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything personal about them. They’re quite touchy about anything like that, especially my father.
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They’re nice and all – I’m not saying that – but they’re also touchy as hell” (Salinger 1). Holden’s father is a lawyer and therefore he considers him “phony” because he views his father’s occupation unswervingly as a parallel of his father’s personality. For example, when Holden is talking to Phoebe about what he wants to be when he grows up, he cannot answer her question and proceeds to give her his opinion about their father’s occupation.. ‘Lawyers are all right, I guess – but it doesn’t appeal to me,’ I said. ‘I mean they’re all right if they go around saving innocent guys’ lives all the time, and like that, but you don’t do that kind of stuff if you’re a lawyer. All you do is make a lot of dough and play golf and play bridge and buy cars and drink Martini and look like a hot-shot. How would you know you weren’t being a phony? The trouble is, you wouldn’t’ (Salinger 172).
When Holden describes his mom, he always seems to do so with a sense of compassion yet also with a jeering tone. Holden makes his mom sound predictable and insincere. These phony qualities are shown in two different examples when Holden is hiding in the closet of D.B.’s room as his mom walks in to tuck in Phoebe: ‘Hello!’ I heard old Phoebe say. ‘I couldn’t sleep. Did you have a good time?’ ‘Marvelous,’ my mother said, but you could tell she didn’t mean it. She doesn’t enjoy herself much when she goes out. …’ Good night. Go to sleep now. I have a splitting headache,’ my mother said. She gets headaches quite frequently. She really does (Salinger 177-178). The first two examples are excellent illustrations of how Holden classifies people as phonies. However, when it comes to Holden’s older brother, D.B., more analysis is needed to derive Holden’s true feelings about his brother. Holden seems to respect his older brother somewhat but cannot tolerate the imposed false image brought on by D.B.’s career choice as a screen-play writer. For example, this sense of respect is shown when D.B. takes Holden and Phoebe to see Hamlet: “He treated us to lunch first, and then he took us. He’d already seen it, and the way he talked about it at lunch, I was anxious as hell to see it, too” (Salinger 117).
Holden feels that all movies and shows are false, absurdly exaggerated portrayals of reality and subsequently because his brother takes part in these perversions of realism, he is a “phony.” He’s in Hollywood. That’s isn’t too far from this crumby place, and he comes over and visits me practically every weekend…He’s got a lot of dough, now. He didn’t use to. He used to be just a regular writer when he was home (Salinger 1). Now he’s out in Hollywood, D.B., being a prostitute. If there’s one thing I hate, it’s the movies. Don’t even mention them to me (Salinger 2). The way that Holden interacts with his sister, Phoebe, and the way Allie’s death still affects Holden are two direct examples of the effects sibling relationships create. The relationships people share with siblings are often the longest-lasting they will ever have (Crispell 1). This idea, multiplied by the fact that Allie and Phoebe are young and innocent, is perhaps why Holden has respect for his younger siblings and considers them the only wholesome members of his family. Whenever Holden seems depressed (which is quite often) he tends to turn to his younger siblings for comfort and support.
Even though Allie is no longer available for actual physical comfort, thinking of him makes Holden feel better. These ideas are shown in numerous examples throughout the novel. When Holden checks into the hotel and, while starting to feel depressed, the first person he wants to call is Phoebe but he decides not to because it is so late. “But I certainly wouldn’t have minded shooting the old crap with Phoebe for a while” (Salinger 67). Holden’s thoughts of Allie are shown with the fact that Holden wrote Stradlater’s composition on “Old Allie’s baseball mitt” (Salinger 38-39). When Holden is talking to Phoebe about what he likes is a third example of his close younger sibling relations. ‘You can’t even think of one thing.’ ‘Yes, I can. Yes, I can.’ ‘Well, do it, then.’ ‘I like Allie,’ I said. ‘And I like doing what I’m doing right now. Sitting here with you, and talking, and thinking about stuff’ (Salinger 171).
From Holden’s account, it is obvious that he views the older members of his family as phonies and the younger members as icons of truth and innocence. Yet trying to completely analyze how Holden truly thinks and feels about each member of his family is a task that may not even be entirely possible. Holden is the storyteller in Salinger’s novel. Therefore, to what extent can his version be trusted or deemed as fact? This idea is addressed through Corbett’s elucidation: “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” (71). If Holden is a liar and a phony, perhaps his portrayal of each family member is totally false. However, his consistent and repetitive accounts at least give the reader some idea of how an adolescent boy, facing the common experiences and troubles of daily life, views each member of his family.
Corbett, Edward P.J. “Raise High the Barriers, Censors.” America, the National Catholic Weekly Review 7 Jan. 1961. Rpt. in If You Really Want to Know: A “Catcher” Casebook.
Ed. Malcolm M. Marsden. Chicago: Scott, Foresman, 1963. 68-73.
Crispell, Diane. “The Sibling Syndrome.” American Demographics. Aug. 1996. Online. 7 Oct. 1996. Available http://www.marketingtools.com/Publications/AD/96_AD/9608_AD/9608AF01.htm
Salinger, J.D. The Catcher in the Rye. Boston: Little, Brown, 1991.
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