Societal Burdens and Expectations within "The Catcher In The Rye"

In trying to accomplish one’s daily tasks and responsibilities, one cannot escape the perpetual effects of the societal standards and laws unwillingly imposed onto them. The effects of these imposed standards vary from one individual to another, where the burden from abiding by these standards ultimately benefit or harm one’s mental health. The treatment of a post-convict compared to a doctors highlights the clear difference in societal burdens on an individual, where the treatment of a post-convict within a society is harsh and they are ultimately burdened to uphold the resentment and pity of the society, contrasting the respect a doctor receives for their contributions towards society and their outwardly lawful appearance.

This difference in treatment lead to the German philosopher, Karl Marx, to analyze the hierarchy present within our society, eventually leading to the birth of the Marxist belief in which societal hierarchies have an intrinsic bias, where “one’s social class has an impact on his social life” (Political Economy: a Marxist Study), thus leading to those at the bottom of the hierarchy to “respond to all cases of tyranny, oppression, violence, and abuse of the society” (Political Economy: a Marxist Study), and those at the top to “live a lavish lifestyle” (Political Economy: a Marxist Study).

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This difference in societal standings can be observed through various characters within the novel The Catcher In The Rye, by J.D Salinger. The Catcher In The Rye explores the conflicts and relationships surrounding an adolescent, Holden Caulfield, as he attempts to find himself in a world that rejects him.

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The novel begins with Holden being expelled from his private school and bidding farewell to various characters before returning to his home in New York City. We explore Holden’s awkward personality and relationships as he attempts to find comfort among other individuals. Throughout the novel, we observe various successful characters such as his roommate, Stradlater, and his older brother, D.B Caulfield, greatly contrast Holden, where are socially exalted, compared to Holden is ultimately rejected, leaving him to find comfort in interacting with his little sister at the end of the novel. Viewed through a Marxist lens, the social hierarchies resulting imposed societal burdens and its effects on the various characters in The Catcher In The Rye can be analyzed when comparing the societal standards and their effects onto the characters: Holden Caulfield, the various prostitutes, and Holden’s roommate- Stradlater.

Exploring the negative impact from the standards implanted onto an individual, the consequences which Holden faces can be observed early on in the novel when as he narrates his experience of the time when he got expelled from his school. Unable to fit the standards imposed by the school, we observe the many prejudices which Holden faces from his peers and mentors alike leading up to his expulsion. Unveiling his experiences up to his departure, we observe the consequences of Holden being unable to fit the criteria and standards in which which the school had established, where he is rejected by his peers for past mistakes and rejected by his mentors. We observe Holden being shunned by his club members from when he lost all their equipment, and when visiting his history teacher before leaving the school, his teacher explains to him that “Life is a game, boy. Life is a game that one plays according to the rules” (J.D Salinger, 11). This directly correlates with the idea in which the societal rules, in this metaphor: the rules of the game, is something which restricts the player, in this case: Holden, and thus breaking the rules would consequence an individual. Holden responds with “If you get on the side where all the hot-shots are, then it’s a game […]. But if you get on the other side, where there aren’t any hot-shots, then what’s a game about it?” (J.D Salinger, 11). This explores the notion in which there is a clear societal difference in those who are perceived to be blessed by the society compared to those who aren’t, and essentially stay on the ‘other side’, in other words, an outcast. In this context, Holden can be clearly illustrated as a societal outcast, and thus would also subsequently find himself located at the bottom of the societal hierarchy.

When recalling his experiences following his expulsion from his school, Holden is depicted as being clearly oppressed by peers where Stradlater is a prime example such an oppressor. With rarely any positive interactions between his classmates and himself, as well as his obvious low marks, the reader can easily determine Holden’s position at the bottom of his schools’ societal hierarchy. Holden is unable to satisfy the standards imposed onto him by the school, where he fails in his academic career, and fails to uphold the responsibilities of being a social and responsible individual. We observe the first direct instance of Holden as a societal outcast when he describes the following experience,

“it was the Saturday of the football game. […] I remember around three o’clock that afternoon I was standing way the hell up on top of Thomsen Hill. […] You could see the whole field from there, and you could see the two teams bashing each other all over the place. […] You could hear them all yelling.” (J.D Salinger, 30)

He is directly depicted as being alone, where one can infer that Holden is both physically and mentally alone in this instance. Observing Holden within this instance, the idea in which “Individuals who don’t follow such practises and values like outcasts and misfits are put under pressure to conform” (Political Economy: a Marxist Study) can be observed, and thus one could infer that Holden in this instance of isolation is pressured to conform the societal standards adopting the notion in which the societal standards affect Holden in a way which leaves him with only two choices: conform to societal standards, or face the consequences and be treated as an outcast and end up alone.

Where Holden is seen located at the bottom of the social hierarchy, we observe many other outcasts within the novel sharing the same burdens as himself. In those instances, Holden attempts to find companionship among a specific group of individuals: the prostitutes. Holden’s desire for companionship ultimately lead him towards this group, as he is seen being rejected by many other individuals before this instance. Within our own societies, the prostitutes are treated as societal outcasts and an object of pity for many individuals. The resulting societal burdens cause many of these prostitutes to succumb to thriving in areas common to other outcasts, or ultimately end up alone, as many prostitutes often do. This directly correlates to the burdens Holden faces throughout the novel, as the effects of these standard lead to his companionship among other outcasts, where he ultimately ends up alone. Within the novel, even Holden is seen rejecting the prostitutes, where he hangs up on the first prostitute he calls when she can’t accommodate him and down right rejecting the advances of another inexperienced prostitute. Upon seeing the nervousness of the second prostitute, Holden notes that “It made me feel sad as hell—I don’t know why exactly” (J.D Salinger, 121), and he ends up rejecting her in the end. This can be viewed similarly in our society where the prostitutes are often immediately neglected and pitied. One could ultimately conclude that “prostitution was an expression of the worker’s oppression by social systems [capitalism]” (Class and Class Conflict The State and Social Reform, 1890-1970), and determine the burdens and oppression of women ultimately lead to prostitution and rejection.

During Holden’s runaway trip in New York, Holden stays within a hotel for a couple days and encounters a man offering him a prostitution service. Holden agrees to his offer and has him send a prostitute over to his room in the hotel. When he is greeted by a prostitute named Sunny, Holden immediately becomes unimpressed with her maturity, noting how she was “jiggling this one foot up and down”, “never said thank you”, and “had this tiny little wheeny-whiny voice” (J.D Salinger, 123). In addition, he also notes that she appears very young and spoke in a childish tone. He ends up feeling “more depressed than sexy” (123), and ultimately decides not to have sex with her after all. The depiction of this young girl making money as a prostitute seems to upset Holden, and he concludes that having sex with her would spoil her innocence. Within this chapter, Holden expresses his pity directly, where he is clearly saddened in the company of the prostitute. Where we clearly see Holden as an outcast of society, a consequence of the societal burdens employed, we see Holden emphasize with the prostitute. Holden suffers the fate of being at the we see the effects of the burden of expectations and ultimately view the prostitutes through the Marxist hierarchical lens, where he can be found among other individuals oppressed by society, such as Holden.

Where the reader spends a majority of the novel exploring the interactions between Holden and other characters, we are first introduced to character, Stradlater, early on in the novel, with an opening description of, “[Stradlater] thought he was the handsomest guy in the Western Hemisphere. He was pretty handsome, too- I’ll admit it. But he was mostly the kind of handsome guy that if your parents saw his picture in your Yearbook, they’d right away say, ‘Who’s this boy?’ ” (J.D Salinger, 20).

This directly contrastes Holden as an individual, as Stradlater is clearly accepted by society, where Holden states how Stradlater is seeked out by those viewing him. After the introduction, Holden is seen being oppressed by Stradlater, indicating the first instance of Stradlater being superior in the societal hierarchy compared to Holden. Evidence of this oppression is shown when Stradlater imposes the task of completing his [Stradlater’s] unfinished school assignment whilst he goes on a date with Holden’s crush, Jane Gallagher. Holden is unable to object to either the imposed assignment or the date between Stradlater and Jane. This highlights the notion in which Stradlater is seen as the dominant oppressor and Holden as the oppressed, as seen through the interactions between Holden and Stradlater. This relationship eventually lead to the fight between Holden and Stradlater when Stradlater becomes unsatisfied with Holdens work, highlighting a characteristic of the Marxist theory where “the oppressed fight against their oppressors” (Class and Class Conflictbottom of the hierarchical structure within the novel, and its consequences The State and Social Reform, 1890-1970), and also demonstrating the clear difference in societal standings, where Holden is perceived to be at the bottom of the hierarchy (oppressed) and Stradlater at the top (oppressor).

Holden is able to clearly see the insincerity in the perceived image of Stradlater, where Stradlater is able to hide his secret slobbery behind his sexy appearance and fake charm, and Holden cannot. In this sense, Holden may also be envious of how easily Stradlater is able to shield his insecurities due to his self-imposed ego, essentially a ‘phony’. Holden also describes his older brother D.B. as a phony because he perceives him as a sellout and being a prostitute for Hollywood. Though Holden used to look up to his older brother, he now believes D.B. is compromising his talents for an audience and seeking the approval of the masses over a minority, such as Holden. Throughout the novel, Holden is portrayed as an adolescent who often has trouble expressing his feelings, as many young individuals do, and has trouble particularly when it comes to talking about them. This reinforces Holden’s immaturity, and is evident when Holden attempts to greet Jane, the girl who he loves, but doesn’t end up doing it, instead saying, “I really couldn’t do it […] I’m not in the mood right now’ (J.D Salinger, 124). Holden finds it difficult to tell his room mate, Stradlater, how he feels when he tells him that he is going out on a date with Jane Gallagher, who was an old friend of Holden’s for whom he secretly had feelings. Stradlater on the other hand is confident about himself and matures at an accelerated rate compared to that of Holden. Stradlater is able to clearly express himself and his thoughts on women, even saying to Holden, “I told, I’m through with that pig [ex-girlfriend]. Yeah? No kidding she’s my type. “(Salinger, 30) greatly contrasting Stradlater who exhibits confidence where Holden exhibits nervousness. This difference in confidence leads to Stradlater “taking these shadow punches down at my [Holden] shoulder.”(J.D Salinger, 25), as he berates him for being essentially ‘below him. Holden and Stradlater eventually fight, and the repercussions Stradlater faces for this brawl is inapplicable, as he gets away with it. Stradlater is also described as a “very sexy bastard” (J.D Salinger, 23), as he openly talks about sex and his relationships with women. Though many one would assume there to be repercussions for these actions, Stradlater’s position at the top of the hierarchy allow the societal burdens to be lessened compared to that of an outcast such as Holden.

Throughout the novel, Holden mentions numerous instances of Stradlater’s appearance, where it is not directly implied, Holden ultimately envies and desires his roommate’s physique, as this is also what makes him initially accepted by society. We observe this through Holden’s observations of Stradlater’s appearance, where he observes that Stradlater while “He was combing his gorgeous locks.” (J.D Salinger, 22). From his desires to match Stradlater, we observe the clear societal standings between Holden and Stradlater, where it supports the idea in which Stradlater is placed above Holden, as Holden holds Stradlater as an object of desire. Stradlater being inherently dominant to Holden means that he can be viewed as a societal character above that of Holden, where his conflicts and burdens are lessened than that of Holden’s. Stradlater is also a ‘phony’ in the eyes of Holden, where he is seen suppressing undesirable traits to be socially accepted. We observe this when Holden states that, “Stradlater was more of a secret slob. He always looked all right, Stradlater […] He always looked good when he was finished fixing himself up, but he was a secret slob anyway, if you knew him the way I did.” (J.D Salinger, 21).

Through this interaction, we note how Stradlater’s desires to hide the ‘slob’ side of him ultimately lead to his acceptance by society and his date with Jane Gallagher. This jealousy from Holden is a result of his observations of Stradlater being higher in the societal hierarchy, and thus “being higher in the social hierarchy led to significant advantages […] greater access to sexual partners, greater access to food, and a greater likelihood that your genes would be passed on to the next generation.” (Class and Class Conflict The State and Social Reform, 1890-1970).

When observing the societal standards through a Marxist lens, the social hierarchies resulting imposed societal burdens and its effects on the various characters, we can analyze the relation in which Stradlater, the prostitutes, and Holden share and identify the difference in society views and impacts comparatively, and conclude that there is a clear hieratical difference between these characters. Analyzing this from a Marxist lens, we can deduce the hierarchy in which the characters are situated: Holden and the prostitutes at the bottom of the hierarchy, and Stradlater at the top. It is evident that Stradlater’s societal burdens and repercussions greatly differ from that of Holdens, where physical abuse and plagiarism of work face no repercussions compared to Stradlater, while we immediately see Holden get expelled and bullied by his peers for his inactions from the beginning of the novel. Ultimately seeking out companionship, Holden demonstrates his clear positioning within the societal hierarchy, where he among the prostitutes sit at the bottom of the hierarchy. Understanding this tale of an adolescent attempting to find himself in this world, one can draw connections to one’s self and the many indirect forces and burdens in which individuals within a society face on a daily basis. At its core, the ideas in the novel boil down to the realities of growing up- of sexuality, violence, and corruption (or ‘phoniness’), and journey of discovering one’s place within a hierarchical society.

Works Cited

  1. Dromm, Keith, and Heather Salter. The Catcher in the Rye and Philosophy. Open Court, 2012.
  2. Eagleton, Terry. Criticism and Ideology: a Study in Marxist Literary Theory. Verso, 2006.
  3. Hanes, Richard Clay, et al. Prejudice in the Modern World. Thomson/Gale, 2007.
  4. Pinsker, Sanford. The Catcher in the Rye: Innocence under Pressure. Twayne Publ, 1993.
  5. Salinger, J. D. The Catcher in the Rye. Back Bay Books/Little, Brown and Company, 2018.
  6. Class and Class Conflict The State and Social Reform, 1890-1970. Open University Press, 1985.
  7. Political Economy: a Marxist Study. National Book Agency, 2006.

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Societal Burdens and Expectations within "The Catcher In The Rye". (2021, Jan 28). Retrieved from

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