J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye offers a great picture of characters, all of whom represent the human condition. They are tragic and humorous, despicable and admirable, phony and genuine, and yet all of their traits construct Holden Caulfield’s life.
Caulfield constantly analyzes his world and this gives us clues to his character. His messages work powerfully with readers, despite his difficult life: he fails out of four schools, he manifests complete indifference toward his future, he is hospitalized, and visited by a psychoanalyst, for an unspecified complaint, and he is unable to connect with other people. As the novel progresses, it becomes obvious that even though he is shut out by the world around him, this exclusion also serves as his way of protecting himself. He is negative and critical of almost everybody and everything, and it is through these critical relationships with the people that surround him, do the readers find out more about his weird personality.
He is skillful at reasoning the things around him. He criticizes and philosophizes about people who are boring, insecure and above all phony. He equates phony people with people who are too conventional, too typical, implying that such people are superficial; such people being, for example, the teachers that behave differently when in the classroom and different in everyday conversation.
The adult who comes closest to reaching out to Holden is Mr. Antolini, who avoids being described as phony due to the fact that he does not act or behave conventionally. When addressing Holden, he does not act as an authority figure, like Mr. Spencer, but behaves more like a friend who does not object to Holden’s being drunk, smoking or calling him in the middle of the night. His action of readily opening his doors to Holden shows that he is open about giving away his private life to a student, which is by no means glamorous. He is the teacher that offers a different kind of education, not the one blindly following a textbook, but the one allowing students the freedom of speech and expression. He oversteps the boundary of displaying affection and concern, which Holden, quite naturally comes to see as a sexual act.
Being a teenage virgin, he is very much interested in sex and spends much of the novel time trying to lose his virginity. Harold Bloom states his answer to the question “What is Holden’s problem?” as “Whatever it is in a specific form, it’s reflected in his inability to relate sexually to females”. Holden sticks to the gentlemanly view of sex, that it should happen between two people who care deeply about and respect each other and is much upset by the realization that it can be just a casual thing. Stradlater’s date with Jane doesn’t just make him jealous. It makes him very angry to think of a girl he knows well-having sex with a boy she doesn’t know well. Moreover, he is disturbed by the fact that he is aroused by women whom he doesn’t respect or care for, like the blonde tourist he dances within the Lavender Room, or like Sally Hayes, whom he refers to as stupid even as he arranges a date with her.
It also becomes evident that it is not only the homosexual side of sexual desire what scares and confuses Holden, but it is also affection in general. When his sister Phoebe puts her arms around him, he says that she may be a little too affectionate sometimes. Phoebe is the “typical Salinger character… honest and intelligent, capable of great insight because she is not an adult (Graham 30). She understands his refusal to mature and comes to realize that his bitterness aimed at the whole world is actually bitterness at himself, that he is a deeply sad, insecure young man. At the end of the book, when she shows up at the museum and demands to come with him, she seems not so much to need Holden to understand that he needs her.
Most of the novel represents Holden’s quest for understanding as he jumps from one meaningless encounter to another. For example, his conversation with Carl Luce and his date with Sally Hayes are made unbearable by his rude behavior. Both physical and emotional relationships offer Holden an opportunity to break out of his isolated shell. They also represent what he fears most about the adult world: complexity and unpredictability. It is exactly because relationships with other people are so unpredictable, that he is forced to question his self-confidence, something he has much trouble with, probably because of the death of his brother.
Despite the fact that Holden Caulfield is a troublesome, immature and unreliable narrator, readers have always found him a true postmodern hero.
Bloom, Harold. J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2007. Print.
Graham, Susan. J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. New York: Routledge, 2007. Print.
Salinger, J. D. The Catcher in the Rye. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.