The Catcher in the Rye: How Holden Caulfield Deals with Reality

In J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, the protagonist, Holden Caulfield, is put through the harsh reality that is life. Holden is kicked out of school and must make his way back to New York to tell his parents the upsetting news, but he first spends a few days finding himself along the way in the Big Apple. He spends these days thinking and seeing first-hand what the adult world is like, consistently reinforcing his belief that the real world is fake.

His hatred for people in general is only bested by his hate for those whom he considers to be phonies, which is just about everyone he meets throughout the novel.

Salinger uses strong irony, complex characterization, and a specific setting to display Holden Caulfield’s strong hatred towards people that are phonies and prove that no one is immune to the phoniness. A great deal of the irony in Salinger’s novel arises from Holden’s attitude towards adulthood.

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He spends most of the novel explaining why adults have ruined his life and yearning to be an innocent child again, yet he himself shows signs of acting and feeling like an adult.

The first ironic sequence therefore comes into play when Holden arrives in New York: “He tries to use the partial appearance of adulthood to his advantage, for example by standing up to show the [bartender] his grey hair” (Gesler 407). This scene shows that in some respects Holden wishes to be an adult, and to enjoy the perks that come with age, but his ideal lifestyle would be that of a child.

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Children are pure in Holden’s eyes and haven’t succumbed to the darkness that is society. But this isn’t the last time Holden tries to act old; he also invites a prostitute to his room at his hotel.

Sunny, the prostitute, arrives and tries to come on to him her so that she can get the job done, but Holden refuses. He can’t have sex with this random woman because “Holden’s kind of clear-thinking reacts against sex without love, against unclean personal habits, against any manner of rudeness. ” (Moore 162). This is ironic because Holden speaks out against things like sex without live but still invites a hooker to his room. There is more irony to this, though: Holden reacts against rudeness in his mind, but inside he is not a very pleasant guy.

He is very smart and knows how to act in front of people but he looks down upon almost every person he passes. When he is meeting with his sister, Phoebe, for the first time in the book, she stops him in the middle of a sentence and asks the very straightforward question of whether or not there is anything in the world Holden actually likes, and he struggles very much to find an answer for this. Holden’s entire experience of a few days in New York is based around the fact that he thinks that everyone besides him is a phony, but ironically enough, he is a phony.

He lies to himself, and convinces himself that he is not a phony and that his ideal life would be lived in the innocence of a child, when in reality he just goes out into public and pretends to be older than he really is so that he can associate with adults. His admitted worst fault is that he is completely infatuated with a girl named Sally Hayes. Ironically while he calls her the “queen of the phonies,” he admits that he would marry her on the spot and even “proposes to Sally that they go off to New England together to live a Farewell to Arms sort of idyllic life” (Trowbridge 686).

This is the epitome of an ironic sequence: a boy who could go on forever about how he hates the real world and how it corrupts people into phonies, proposing to a girl whom he refers to one of the phoniest of them all! While his wanting to go out of the country was escaping the phoniness, he himself is ironically being a phony by being in love with a phony. The in-depth characterization of Holden Caulfield has led him to be one of the most well-known and remembered fictional literary characters of all time.

Everything about him relates to his hatred of society, adults, and especially phonies. First off, Holden doesn’t believe that school is something that will help him in life, and that it is just something that society is making him do because everyone has to do it. Any part of society, in Holden’s mind, is a bad thing that will corrupt people. Holden’s attitude towards the phoniness of adults is shown early on in the book before he leaves Pencey Prep when he is speaking to his teacher, Mr. Spencer. Spencer tells Holden that life is a game, and you have to play by the rules.

Holden agrees but in his head thinks, “Game, my ass…if you get on the side where all the hot-shots are, then it’s a game all right…but if you get on the other side, where there aren’t any hot-shots, then what’s a game about it? Nothing. No game” (Salinger 12). This is not only directly shooting down advice that an elder has just given him, trying to help Holden out, but it is also showing Holden’s view on life as a whole.

Holden doesn’t believe there is opportunity; there are fake people with money and power, and people who don’t have money and power. This shows his disgust for humans, especially adults. Quite possibly the best example of Holden’s distaste for adults comes from a scene where he doesn’t even see anyone doing anything disgusting, where no adult is actually doing anything wrong. A few nights before he returns to his home for good, Holden sneaks into his house to see his baby sister Phoebe.

During this sequence Holden looks into his sister’s room and sees her sleeping and quickly notices that “adults, they look lousy when they’re asleep and they have their mouths way open, but kids don’t. Kids look all right. ” (Salinger 207). This is the first time in the novel that the reader gets contact between Holden and a child, and he believes that even when the child is sleeping it is better than an adult. Just the very sight of an adult’s mouth being open while he or she sleeps disgusts Holden, while he notes that a child could drool all over itself while he or she sleeps and still look innocent.

This is the same scene where Holden and Phoebe get to talk for the first time in the novel. After talking for a brief moment Phoebe becomes aggravated at Holden’s disgust for almost anything in the world and asks him if there’s anything he likes, if there’s anything he likes to do. Holden admits to his sister that the same scene keeps playing through his head; he is in a field of rye with thousands of little kids running around and playing, where he says “I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff.

What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over—I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them” (Salinger 224-225). Holden is so attached to the idea of innocence and that society corrupts children and turns them into things they’re not, into phonies, that all he can think about is being able to save every child in the world from falling into the traps of society. The setting in The Catcher in the Rye is very important, not only because of the terrible side of New York City, but also because it’s where Holden is from and it is what he knows.

New York in itself is made for adults; there’s not much a child can do there in the first place. It is also a land of the rich, famous, and fake. People in New York tend to be full of themselves because they think that their role in the city means more than the next guy’s. This ties into Holden’s childhood and how he has grown up living among the very people he hates, the phonies. The Museum of Natural History is one of Holden’s favorite places in the world; it is where he went when he was younger to escape from the city.

During his few days living on his own in New York, Holden decided to take a tour of the museum again and ran into a few children when he was there. He took the children to where the mummies were kept on their request and they ran away in fear of the dark room. It is here where Holden notices the words “Fuck You” written on the wall in the sarcophagus room. He believes that only a phony trying to show off for a friend would do such a thing but that it could happen anywhere.

Holden is so convinced that the world doesn’t care about anything that he says: “…If I ever die…and I have a tombstone and all, it’ll say “Holden Caulfield” on it, and then what year I was born and what year I died, and then right under that it’ll say “Fuck you” (Salinger 264). He is so convinced that society has lost all manners and has no care in the world what it offends that he is certain his gravestone will be defiled while he rests under it. The setting also leads the reader to a character that convinces Holden that there are no good adults, that everyone is a phony.

Holden takes it upon himself to go see his old friend and ex-teacher, Mr. Antolini and his wife. He spends a long time having dinner with the couple before Mrs. Antolini goes to bed and leaves Mr. Antolini and Holden to talk about guy stuff. Holden spends some time explaining what he sees wrong with society and Mr. Antolini answers his problems by saying, “Among other things, you’ll find that you’re not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior” (Salinger 246).

Holden looks up to his old teacher and takes these words to heart, that a lot of people are dissatisfied with society and the grotesqueness of people. Holden then spends that night at the Antolini’s home and is awoken in the middle of the night by Mr. Antolini stroking his hand through Holden’s hair. Scared off by his old teacher’s homosexual advance, Holden leaves the house. This is most dissatisfying to Holden because someone he considered to be a wise friend ended up being a phony as well.

Holden Caulfield is disgusted at the very thought of phoniness and his eliefs that society makes people fake and that all adults are bad people eventually leads him to believe that almost everyone is a phony, even though at the same time he is a phony because he himself acts as much like an adult as he can. The fact that the book takes place, for the most part, in New York City greatly adds to Holden’s hatred of phonies because it is a city filled with people, most of them fake. Overall the book plays around that Holden wishes he could stop children from becoming adults so that society would not be able to corrupt them and they would not become phonies like the rest of the world.

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The Catcher in the Rye: How Holden Caulfield Deals with Reality. (2016, Sep 19). Retrieved from

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