Sexuality in "Catcher in the Rye" and "Comin’ thro the Rye"

Categories: Catcher In The Rye

Holden from the novel Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger and Jennie from the poem Comin’ thro the Rye by Robert Burns seek out sexual actions, but the superimposed norms of society inherently cause them to question the legitimacy of their own sexualities and because of this they keep themselves from finding an authentic relationship. Holden is challenged with the conflicting images of sexuality and purity and the characters we can associate with the theme of sexuality in the novel (Stradlater, Luce, Sunny, Jane) help us to better understand Holden’s conceptualization of it.

Jennie who is promiscuous and is seeking sex from strangers feels confident in her sexuality but secretly feels inadequate because she can’t openly share relationships with men due to her promiscuous behavior and the way in which society would look down upon her.

The social norms of the society in which Jenny lives in as well as the views of Holden value the protection of Innocence.

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The promiscuous behavior of Jenny that we see when she is “comin' thro the rye” (1) was definitely not commonly accepted during the time period in which she would have lived. This was a period in which the purity of women was valued and the sexually active behavior of Jenny would have been looked down upon. This is emphasized when the first narrator of the poem describes Her as being a “Poor Body”(1). This value of innocence and purity proves to be parallel to the beliefs of Holden. Similar to the society of Jenny, With regard to sex and sexuality, Holden is infatuated with the protection of innocence In his own mind, the changes he associates with sexuality, the loss of innocence, maturity, and eventually death, are what fuel the conflicts in which he has regarding sex and relationships.

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This is especially evident upon analyzing the interactions he had with his old roommate Stradlater at the beginning of the Novel. After hearing that Stradlater would be going on a date with Jane he was disheartened, because Stradlater, according to Holden, is a “very sexy bastard” (32), and unlike the other guys at Pencey who talked about having sex “Stradlater really did it” (49). Holden, who is desperately trying to hold onto the past, strongly sees Jane as a representation of his childhood. This causes him to become weary at the thought of Stradlater tainting her purity due to his strong sexual behavior. When he returns, Holden is angered that he refuses to share any of what occurred on the date, especially since Stradlater is not the type of person that would “even care if a girl kept all her kings in the back row” (43). Stradlater’s indifference to aspects of someone’s personality, such as keeping their kings in the back row makes Holden feel disconsolate because he seems to be the only person he knows who’d think that such an aspect of someone’s personality is extremely important. This characterization of Stradlater in the Novel both allows him to serve as a representation of society as a whole and allows for us to Characterize Holden. This representation of what a Normal sixteen-year-old should be like allows us to easily view Holden's confusion about sexuality and recognize the cause of his later paradoxical conceptualization of it.

Due to what is common in regards to sex in their societies both Holden and Jenny Develop Paradoxes in which they both value casual sex and the devotion that is typical of a loyal relationship. While Jenny is somewhat confident in her sexuality and the sexual acts in which she takes part in, the manner in which she talks is covered with a tone of Sadness. While she says “but all the lads they love me, what the worse off am I?”(12), she secretly wants her own Jackie. This representation of the real relationship in which she lacks is the second reason for why she can be classified as being a poor body. She is promiscuous and she questions the standards of the time period and society in which she lived in, but while she does manage to make a connection through sex by means to feel close to somebody, she still feels lonely without “a Jackie”. The committed relationships which are expected of women after having sex with a man in her society are a superimposed “normal” which help to form her paradoxical views, and for Holden, the “normal” regarding sexuality that is expected of an average sixteen-year-old does the same. The person of Holden that we see defending the innocence of Jane is a strong Contrast to the one we see talking to Carl Luce. upon meeting Luce, Holden immediately asks him “How’s your sex life?” (144). This is an example of Holden trying to adjust to the image of what he thinks a sixteen-year-old should be, and the one that his schoolmates expect of him. Holden sees Luce as some sort of twisted role model in which he can use to ease some of his confusion regarding his sexuality. The reoccurring theme of sexuality in this chapter serves as one of the best representations of Holden’s Conceptualization of Sexuality by showing not only the Desire in which Holden has for sex but the factors which inhibit him from regarding sex in the same manner in which other sixteen-year-olds would. Even though he has no particular interest in dating, Holden desperately attempts to connect with Luce in the way society would expect of him. He talks about girls, whether older women are “better for sex”(145), and even mentions that his opinions on sexuality are different and that he wishes for sex to be a deeper experience, not like the way in which Ackley or Stradlater see it. The ways in which he seems to idolize/normalize sexual activity when associated with Luce but defames it when associated with Stradlater further pronounces the confusion of Holden as well as the pressure of (sexual) conformity which he feels.

Both Jenny and Holden try to justify their actions, and by doing so further inhibit themselves from establishing an authentic connection with someone. This is seen in both Holdens Encounter with Sunny and the sexual encounters of Jenny. When Jenny sees all the people around her who have their somebody, she feels as if she should want that too, but despite her inherent sadness regarding this issue, she justifies her current actions by saying “But all the lads they love me, what the worse off am I”(16). If all the boys still love her maybe this means that her actions are justified and this justification that she establishes causes her to further confuse herself and ignore the true desire in which she has for a Romantic, devoted relationship. Unlike Jenny justifying her promiscuous behavior by telling herself that all the lads lover her, Holden attempts to justify soliciting a prostitute by alluding to a book with a character named Monsieur Blanchard who possesses quite a bit of knowledge: “I read this book once, at the Whooton School, that had this very sophisticated suave, sexy guy in it. Monsieur Blanchard was his name, I can still remember. ... He said, in this one part, that a woman’s body is like a violin and all, and that it takes a terrific musician to play it right. ... In a way, that’s why I sort of wanted to get some practice in, in case I ever get married or anything. (92)”Holden has no particular interest in marriage as a prospect but the normality of marriage makes him feel as if it is what’s expected of him. Also, because marriage is one of the most, if not the most important stepping stone(s) into adulthood, Holden can’t seem to get past his infatuation of defending innocence rather than adulterating it with sex, as we see in his interaction with Sunny. Falling over this threshold between innocence and adulthood is what frightens Holden the most in the novel and this is seen, in a fantastic metaphor, when he literally falls over that threshold when going to open the door for Sunny. We see this when he says, “I had my suitcase right in the way and I fell over it and damn near broke my knee. I always pick a gorgeous time to fall over a suitcase or something (93). He almost goes over that threshold when he tries to consult in the services of a prostitute but cannot do so when seeing how old she is. This very Threshold between Innocence and Adulthood is the very fabric that holds together Holden's sanity, and when consulting in the services of a Prostitute means he has to act his age, he finds himself not able to partake in any sexual activities and again inhibits himself from making any valid connection with a female.

The sexual confusion that both Holden and Jenny experience blind them, and stop them from seeing what they truly need, an authentic relationship with another person. Jenny uses promiscuous acts as a way in which she can feel close to other people, but the Faux pas of her society regarding women who have not committed to a relationship after having sex as impure, makes it difficult for Jenny to find a connection, and her inability to resolve her confusion does so as well. Even though she does find temporary pleasure or happiness from the sexual activities she takes part in, she is still visibly sad as she lacks the somebody that other people have. This same desire to make a connection with another person is seen throughout the Novel when Holden reaches out to various women. Even though Holden is unaware that a connection is a real thing in which he is looking for, he still manifests this desire in the things he does during the duration of the Novel. The switches he makes from viewing sex in both a positive and negative manor show this, but until he is able to resolve his conflict with death and maturity, he will never recognize this to be true.

The superimposed norms of the societies Holden and Jenny live in cause them to question and become confused about their own sexualities. As they both justify their actions and compare themselves to others, they begin to develop a paradoxical view about sex and sexuality. These contrasting viewpoints not only allow them to become further confused but as they continue with their cyclic behavior, they deny themselves the real relationship/connection with someone that they desire.

Updated: Nov 01, 2022
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Sexuality in "Catcher in the Rye" and "Comin’ thro the Rye". (2021, Jan 28). Retrieved from

Sexuality in "Catcher in the Rye" and "Comin’ thro the Rye" essay
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