‘Then, just to show you how crazy I am, when we were coming out of this big clinch, I told her I loved her and all. It was a lie, of course, but the thing is, I meant it when I said it. I’m crazy. I swear to God I am’ (The Catcher in the Rye 125). Narrators in novels seldom claim to themselves that they are crazy, but Holden in The Catcher in the Rye tells the audience outright that he is crazy and reveals his contradictory nature.
Holden is a very controversial character as some have criticized him for his vulgarity and immorality, as well as his obsession for death. Others believe that Holden is ‘perceptive, sensitive, creative, and even intelligent in his own way’ (Bennett). Although Holden holds some unrealistic ideas and can be deemed unusual compared to the other teens his age, he is this way initially because of the societal situation that brings about a corrupted adulthood.
Holden’s distaste of adults can be seen from the start of the novel. The beginning scene is a flashback that depicts Holden playing football with his two friends.
However, a teacher Mr. Zambesi interrupts their fun by telling them to stop and go to their dorms. This signifies adulthood encroaching upon the childhood innocence and introduces the start of Holden’s fear of growing up (Bryan 1065). As the novel progresses, Holden sensitivity makes him critique adults in the society further, causing him to stray further away from societal conventions.
Holden’s first symptom of not conforming to society can be revealed through his decision to run away from his boarding school Pencey Prep. The reason for this being that he wanted to escape the ‘phoniness’, a word he uses to describe many adults, of Pencey Prep. Although many people at Pencey are still teenagers, Holden believes that they have already gained ‘phoniness of adults in the society (Eberhard 4). One such example of this is Ward Stradlater. Stradlater has a good build and handsome according to both Holden and the school (Bryan 1068).
However, despite all the popularity he gains from his peers, Holden claims that Stradlater is a ‘secret slob’ that plays around with girls (Eberhard 4). Society sees Stradlater as a good student, but Holden only sees him as a phony adult in the making. Holden also witnesses that people who graduate out of Pencey also ends up as hypocritical adults. Mr. Ossenburger is a Pencey graduate who made a lot of money for organizing funerals and burying family members. Although honored at the school with a dorm named after him, Holden believes that he just ‘‘shoves them in a sack and dumps them in the river” (The Catcher in the Rye, qtd. in Ohmann 28). In order to prevent himself from becoming such people, Holden decides to run away from Pencey to New York. Hoping that outside of Pencey Prep, he can find a place without all the ‘phoniness’, he ventures out, but his efforts fail. One instance, he visits an elementary school, but then sadly discovers an obscene word graffiti on the wall. When he saw the innocence and stability of the school being damaged by actions of others, Holden realized that he cannot find a peaceful place in society that is not disturbed by actions of ‘phony’ adults (Eberhard 16).
Not only does Holden hate society for the adults that ruin childhood innocence and fear that he may become someone who does the same as he becomes an adult, but he also hates society for its class consciousness. He dislikes the tendency for rich people to stay away from poorer people because of their class distinction and the inability for him to form relationships with people of different class because of this stigma (Ohmann 32). When Holden was at his previous boarding school Elkton Hills, his roommate Dick Slagle was in a lower class than he was. Holden owning a Mark Cross suitcase drew a line between him and Dick’s relationship. Holden is depressed from being the victim of Dick’s resentment, while Dick feels shameful for his own lacking suitcase. At the same time, Dick tries to ‘benefit from the class antagonism’ by making others believe that he owns the Mark Cross suitcase instead. Holden hopes for a world where ‘qualities like intelligence and sense of humor would be the ground of relatedness’ instead of how much money one has (Ohmann 31).
The corrupted capitalistic society ultimately causes Holden to want to escape to a cabin in the West where he will not need to interact with any humans. He tells this unrealistic idea to Sally Hayes, his ex-girlfriend, but Sally tells him to wait till they are adults. to leave to the West where he won’t have to interact with any human beings and work at a gas station. Most people will respond like Sally and consider the costs and impracticality of two teenagers with no money running away. However, Holden’s distaste of society and its people blind him from seeing the unrealisticness of his plan.