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In Salinger's novel "The Catcher in the Rye", Holden, the novel's protagonist, is a character that is growing from youth to maturity. Throughout the novel, Holden resists the process of maturity itself by admiring children and criticizing the adults' way of thinking and behaving. Holden creates his own theory that adulthood is a world of superficiality and phoniness, while childhood is a world of honesty and innocence. In fact, "phoniness," which is probably the most famous phrase in the novel, is one of Holden's favourite concepts.
Phoniness becomes a phrase that Holden uses to describe the hypocrisy of adults. However, the criticisms that Holden directs at adults around him are also directed to himself. He is uncomfortable with his own weaknesses, and at times shows as much meanness and hypocrisy as any other adult in the book. As the novel progresses, we see that Holden is standing poised on the cliff separating childhood from adulthood. Unable to neither maintain himself as a child nor become a full-fledged adult, Holden finds himself in the midst of an emotional break down.
Throughout the novel, Holden criticizes adults by constantly using the term "phony" to describe the superficiality and shallowness of their actions. As he flits from one meaningless encounter to another, Holden tries to enforce his view on different aspects of the hypocoristic realm of adulthood. He first criticizes adults whose surface behaviour distorts and disguises their inner feelings. We see this when he criticizes Mr. Spencer, a former history teacher who is very old and ill with the flu, for the way he describes his parents.
"Grand. There is a word I hate. It's a phony.
I could puke every time I hear it" (Salinger 9). He then points out the deceitfulness of adults as he talks about Mr. Ossenburger, a wealthy Pencey graduate who made a fortune in the discount funeral home business and whom Holden's dorm was named after. "[Ossenburger] started these undertaking parlors all over the country that you could get members of your family buried for five bucks a piece. You should see old Ossenburger. He probably shoves them in a sack dumps them in the river...I could just see that big phony bastard" (Salinger 16 - 17).
Perhaps the most powerful example of Holden's vision of the nature of adulthood is illustrated in his date with Sally Hayes towards the end of the novel. He becomes crazy and impetuous, saying that he and Sally should run away together and escape from society, living on their own in a cabin. "What we could do is, tomorrow morning we could drive up to Massachusetts and Vermont...We'll stay in these cabin camps and stuff until out dough runs out" (Salinger 132). Nonetheless, when Sally turns him down saying "You can't just do something like that" (Salinger 132), he becomes extremely irritated and depressed, pointing out the complexity and clumsiness of adulthood. "Open your ears. It'd be entirely different. We'd have to phone up everybody and tell 'em good-by and send them post cards from hotels and stuff. And I'd be working in some office... It wouldn't be the same at all" (Salinger 133).
Ultimately, Holden's criticism for adults causes him to think that he is excluded from and victimized by the world around him. As he says to Mr. Spencer, he feels trapped on "the other side" (Salinger 8) of life, and he continually attempts to find his way in a world in which he feels he doesn't belong.
In several parts of novel, Holden projects his own idealizations of children because of their innocence, curiosity, and honesty. This is evident when Holden decides to write the composition for Stradlater, divulging that his brother Allie died of leukemia several years ago. Holden clearly idealizes Allie, praising his intelligence and sensitivity saying, "He was the most intelligent member of the family. He was also the nicest, in a lot of ways" (Salinger 38). The poem, in which he describes Allie's baseball glove, is then a perfect emblem for his feelings to Allie and emotional reaction to his death. Although Holden's alienation from adults seems to be preventing him from connecting to anyone, Phoebe, Holden's ten-year-old sister, seems to be a consistent source of happiness throughout the novel.
Despite her being six years younger than him, Holden seems to idealize Phoebe above all the people he knows because of her innocent, simplicity, and intelligence. "I certainly felt like talking to [Phoebe] on the phone. Somebody with sense and all... You would have like her. I mean if you tell old Phoebe something, she knows exactly what the hell you're talking about" (Salinger 66-67). We further see how much Holden values children, Phoebe in particular, when he goes to Central Park and he worries about catching pneumonia and imagines his funeral. "I started thinking how old Phoebe would feel if I got pneumonia and died...She'd feel pretty bad if something like that happened. She likes me a lot" (Salinger 156).
Holden's opinion of childhood, nonetheless, is only based on the people he likes. For he exhibits various attributes of children himself. We see that Holden's curiosity about where the ducks go during the winter reveals a genuine, more youthful side to his character. For most of the book, he sounds angry at the world, but his search for the ducks symbolizes his curiosity and willingness to encounter the mysteries of the world.
Although Holden tries to prove his thesis of adulthood true throughout the novel, we clearly see that his vision of adults is not entirely accurate. He seems to be obsessed over the idea that adults are "phony" when at the same time he admits that some of his conversations and acts are completely untruthful saying, "I am the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life" (Salinger 16). Moreover, his deceptions are generally pointless and cruel, and he notes that he is a compulsive liar. On the train to New York, for instance, he begins telling ridiculous lies as soon as he meets Ernest Morrow's mother, claiming to be named Rudolph Schmidt and to be going to New York for a brain tumour operation.
He continues lying claiming that Ernest Morrow is the most popular boy on campus, when really he thinks that he is "doubtlessly the biggest bastard that ever went to Pencey" (Salinger 54). Nothing reveals his image of childhood and adulthood better than his fantasy about being the catcher in the rye. He imagines childhood as an idyllic field of rye in which children romp and play; adulthood, for the children of this world, is equivalent to death, which is a fatal fall over the edge of a cliff. He is, therefore, neither an adult nor a child. For he is neither playing in the field with the children nor down at bottom of the cliff with adults. By the end of the novel, however, we sense that Holden is beginning to realize that he cannot be a catcher in the rye because life has to move forward.
Evidently, when Holden shows the two boys the Egyptian section in the museum and they are afraid to walk back through the dark hallway, Holden merely continues walking forward. Symbolically, this shows how Holden is moving forward from childhood into adulthood but the two little boys are not yet ready to make such a move.
By the end of the novel, we realize that Holden's transition from childhood to adulthood is complete. His cynical voice, which he uses previously in the novel seems to have disappeared and he has become a truly mature adult. In last chapter of the novel, Holden describes the English woman that D.B. brings to him as "pretty affected" (Salinger 213) rather than "phony", implying that his emotional breakdown has somehow helped him to deal with his problems. Holden's statement "Don't tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody" (Salinger 214) further reveals that he has begun to shed the skin of cynicism that he had grown around himself all throughout the novel. His final statement, "I sort of miss everybody I told you about. Even old Stradlater and Ackley", gives us the final impression that he is not as bitter and repressed as he was earlier in the book.
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