The Catcher in the Rye is the first and only novel written by J. D. Salinger which is told from the point of Holden Caulfield, a 16-year-old boy confused about adolescence as he wants to connect to adults on their level but is unable to and just rejects them as phonies and retreats his memories of his childhood. The story has a reflective book-ended structure. Currently, he’s in an institution because of a breakdown he had a year ago. The narrative covers a weekend that led to this breakdown. He wants us to answer the question, “What’s wrong with Holden Caulfield”. Holden addresses the reader by saying “you”, to make us psychoanalyze him.
Holden has been expelled from many schools and has been expelled from his recent school Pencey Prep. Instead of going back home and disappoint his parents, he decides to wander around New York City where he meets interesting characters that either remind him of his unhappiness, phonies or shows him he can’t connect to adults. Although Holden is friendly with many people at school and has several friends in New York, he is constantly lonely and needs someone who will sympathize with his feelings of alienation. The person Holden feels closest to is his ten-year-old sister Phoebe.
He never connects or has a good relationship with anyone at Pencey. “It was one of the worst schools I ever went to. It was full of phonies. You never saw so many mean guys in your life.” “Even the couple of nice teachers on the faculty, they were phonies too.” This shows that if Holden can’t even connect with ‘good’ teachers then he is unable to connect with anyone. He shows more of his hatred of Pencey when he runs into Ernest Morrow’s mother on the train. Holden hated Ernest the most in Pencey. Holden thinks of him as “doubtless the biggest bastard that ever went to Pencey in the whole crummy history of the school.” He knows Ernest’s bad behaviour but his mother tells him that “he’s a very sensitive boy” but Holden just says he was as “sensitive as a goddamn toilet seat.”
Holden’s alienation is the cause of most of his pain. He feels that no one understands him and that everyone is a “phony”. As the novel progresses, we learn that Holden’s alienation is his way of protecting himself. Just as he wears his red hunting hat to show his uniqueness, he uses his isolation to show that he is better than everyone else around him. He feels that the only person who understands him is Phoebe. He never addresses his own emotions directly, nor does he attempt to discover the source of his troubles. He desperately needs feelings with other people and love, but his protectiveness prevents him from this. Alienation is both the source of Holden’s strength and the source of his problems, for example, his loneliness gets him to go on a date with Sally Hayes, but his need for isolation causes him to insult her and drive her away by asking her to run away with him. This shows how unstable he is.
Also, he desires the meaningful connection he once had with Jane Gallagher, but he is too frightened to make any real effort to contact her. Another issue with Holden is betrayal. Holden constantly feels betrayed, and that is another one of the many possible reasons for his problems. Early in the novel, Mr. Spencer betrays him. He was one of the few teachers at Pencey that Holden liked. Stradlater betrays Holden by dating his best friend Jane who Holden had a crush on and was one of the very few women how Holden connects with. When Holden returns home to see Phoebe, she is disappointed in him that he failed out of Pencey. He thinks that she should accept him unconditionally and thought she was the only person that could understand him so this makes him feel betrayed the most.
Holden’s character does not show any growth or increase in maturity throughout the novel. The only change in his character is when he retreats into his childhood. Holden has to deal with loss. He loses his brother Allie due to leukemia and feels a tremendous loss. Allie wrote poems on an old baseball glove and Holden treasures this. He writes about Allie in great detail, he says “you’d have liked him.” Holden holds Allie and Phoebe in such high esteem because they are innocent. Holden’s goal is to protect innocence in the world. When he hears the “Catcher in the Rye” song being sung by a boy, he decides that he wants to be the person that keeps people from falling off a cliff. That cliff symbolizes the change from childhood to adulthood, and he wants to keep them as innocent children, not ‘phony’ adults.
Holden is very interested in sex and pays for a prostitute but when she offers, he refuses. Holden gets annoyed about how young she is, “young as hell….around my age.” She also had a “wheeney whiney voice” Which tells us that she is young which makes him feel bad. Holden was very excited about having a sexual encounter but he decides “let’s not do it.” Holden is not ready for the adult world. Holden tells us the symbolic meaning of the museum’s displays, they appeal to him because they are frozen and unchanging. The museum represents the world Holden wishes he could live in. The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move … Nobody’d be different. The only thing that would be different would be you… you’d just be different that’s all.”
Holden finally shows his other side when he cries at seeing Phoebe on the carousel. At that point, he has retreated into childhood, away from the threats of the adult world. He doesn’t go on the carousel, with the children and doesn’t stand with the adults, he’s alone by himself, soaking in the rain. After reading the book, the reader finds out Holden’s main reason for unhappiness is his alienation from society, loneliness, and painfulness of growing up and the phonies of the adult world. Salinger ends the novel by not indicate that if Holden has learned anything from his journey. The story ends with Holden in the mental institution as it was at the beginning of the story. We are unsure if Holden will recover or will be suicidal. J.D. Salinger himself lives a reclusive life isolated from the world, like Holden.