‘Holden’s hatred of everything is shallow and indicates his own unrealistic and confused attitude.’ Discuss. J.D. Salinger’s novel Catcher in the Rye depicts a teenager struggling through an identity crisis during the 1950’s. Salinger promotes the themes of growing up and adolescence through the protagonist, Holden Caulfield. Holden’s attitude towards life is bitter and contemptuous which prevents him from successfully interacting with other people. His transition from childhood to adulthood is blurry and unclear as he lacks the skills needed to shift from one to the other. Furthermore, he is unable to overcome the obstacle, as he sees it, of growing up as he is finding it difficult to accept the responsibility that comes with it.
Holden exposes his idea of the shallowness and hypocrisy in the world by describing them as ‘phony’. Holden recognizes that phoniness is all throughout society. Whether it be in reference to his old school principal at Elkton Hills only conversing with the upper class families, or to his hatred of movies as it involves actors pretending to be something they’re not. Although Holden holds this pessimistic attitude, it seems to be evident that this outlook appears only to be evoked by sympathy, either for the families that looked down upon at Elkton Hills or for his own dysfunctional family. Holden also sees the insincerity in the publication of Stradlater, his roommate who is able to hide his ‘secret [slobbery]’ behind his ‘sexy’ appearance and fake charm.
In this sense, Holden may also be jealous of how easily Stradlater can shield his insecurities as he has a strong sense of self-imposed ego. Holden describes his older brother D.B. as a phony because Holden perceives him as a ‘sellout’ for being a ‘prostitute in Hollywood’. Though Holden used to look up to his older brother, his now believes D.B. is compromising his talents for an audience. Similarly, with Ernie who plays piano at the nightclub, Holden is frustrated when the audience claps for him, claiming that ‘people always clap for the wrong things’. Holden is often found disapproving of particular elements in society, however is able to justify to himself the reasons of his actions based on his own experiences and perceptions, which may clash with the expectations of society and it is this that confuses Holden.
Holden’s idea of reality is found to be altered due to hurtful experiences and therefore he has difficulty with interactions, forming connections and approval of society. At the beginning of the text, the reader is informed that Holden is narrating from a mental institution, which enables the reader to conclude that Holden’s views of reality are somewhat unstable. Moreover, Holden is unable to let go of the past, as he believes childhood is the only place he will find happiness. Holden’s perception of childhood consists of unconditional love, simplicity and safety from the corruption of the outer world.
To Holden, this genuineness existed only when Allie was alive. It is here that the reader is led to believe that the reasons behind Holden’s inability to deal with complexity and intimacy stem from the death of Allie which he has failed to properly grieve for, resulting in confusion and lack of the closure he needs to move forward. In regards to his sexuality and lack of knowledge or experience in the matter, Holden notes that it doesn’t really apply as ‘in [his] mind, [he’s] probably the biggest sex maniac you ever saw’ which implies that Holden has already created his own world in which he has isolated himself to. Holden’s fantasy is to be the ‘catcher in the rye,’ ‘catching’ kids from falling off a cliff into the pretentious world of adulthood.
This metaphor indicates that Holden wants to be the person to save the children before they fall out of their innocent knowledge into the repulsive world of adults. His desire to remain in of childhood is implied when he explains that the ‘best things about the museum is everything stayed where it was’ which shows that he longs for a world that remains frozen and unchanged, as he fears the unknown. Also, when watching Phoebe on the carousel, Holden mentions that ‘the nice things about carousels were that they always played the same songs.’ The reality of the world cannot be accepted if the meaning is unknown, and this applies to Holden as his ignorance to explore this unknown prevents his from being the man he truly wants to be.
Furthermore, Holden finds difficulty in accepting the concerns and responsibilities that are required in the adult world. His childishness and immaturity, whether deliberate or not, is evident when Holden ‘left all the foils and equipment and stuff on the goddam subway’ and instead of accepting that he made a mistake, he blames it on that he ‘had to keep getting up to look at this map so ‘[they’d] know where to get off’.
Holden’s responsibility as an adolescent teenager was to finish school with good grades however unable to do that, he transfers to different schools repeatedly, only to fail again. Holden’s inability to accept responsibility may also be due to a fear of success. Holden’s childishness is also noticed throughout the novel when Holden refuses to go home and confront his parents about ‘flunking out of Pencey Prep’ in fear of the criticism and consequences that will result. Holden dislikes responsibility, as he believes that with it comes expectations, and if he doesn’t live up to those expectations, then the unconditional love he received through childhood will subside.
‘Catcher in the Rye’ explores the tension and confusion between Holden’s aspiration to observe and isolate with his need to converse and connect. Holden displays characteristics of a secluded mentality and is victim of his own isolation, which in turn prevents him from conforming to society’s expectations. Through Holden, the contrast between childhood and adulthood and the process of transitioning from one to another are examined closely. As the novel progresses, the reader is able to understand what events Holden has experienced that have lead to his unrealistic and confused attitude about fearing change, resenting adulthood and growing up.