No more parents. No more rules. Complete control over your own life. Many teenagers fantasize about the day that they enter adulthood and no longer have to be a child. Unfortunately, they soon realize that adulthood comes with an immense amount of responsibility, and they become overwhelmed. This results in teenage angst that is often associated with adolescence. J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye has a main character by the name of, Holden Caulfield. Holden is immensely terrified of his transition from childhood to adulthood and fears losing his innocence and becoming a phony adult, which he despises.
The fear that Holden has of adulthood, causes him to fixate on this idea of preserving his youthful innocence. An ideal that is unattainable in a corrupt society.
Holden believes that phoniness describes the adult world’s deceitfulness and superficiality. He uses phoniness to reduce his fears of adulthood. “What disturbs Holden about the world in which he finds himself is adults and adult values.
He sees that the world belongs to adults, and it seems to him that they have filled it with phoniness.” (Seng). Holden feels as though all adults are phony no matter what and that by avoiding adulthood himself, he will avoid becoming a phony. Throughout the numerous private schools Holden attends, he notices that the phoniness of the adult world has seeped into the mindsets of the students as they begin their journey from adolescence into adulthood. Holden is deeply disturbed by the shift in mindset, which demonstrates his deeply seeded fear of having to adapt the adulthood mindset which includes money, liquor, and sex.
“You ought to go to a boys’ school sometime. Try it sometime. It’s full of phonies, and all you do is study so that you can learn enough to be smart enough to be able to buy a goddamn Cadillac someday, and you have to keep making believe you give a damn if the football team loses, and all you do is talk about girls and liquor and sex all day, and everybody sticks together in these dirty little goddamn cliques.” (Salinger 170). Judging all peers and adults on their phoniness is Holden’s defense mechanism to cope with his fear of adulthood.
Unfortunately, by criticizing everyone he meets, Holden is unable to form a stable relationship which pushes himself into isolation.
Holden’s isolation is something he relies on as a way to protect himself from the corrupt adult world that surrounds him. He adopts a dismissive attitude towards his peers and flees to New York City. But of course, he had to leave with the last word. As Holden left Pencey, he “…yelled at the top of my goddamn voice, ‘Sleep tights, ya morons!’ I’ll bet I woke up every bastard on the whole floor” (Salinger 68). The superior attitude that Holden upholds results in isolation from his peers. “Salinger invests Holden with a sensitivity that prevents him from finding his place in the world, a feeling to which many teenagers can relate” (Privitera). Holden feels as though he can escape phoniness and preserve his innocence by running away from Pencey Prep to New York City.
The fear of becoming a phony adult, causes Holden to focus on preserving his innocence, in which case he looks to his deceased brother, Allie. Holden embraces this fantasy of himself as a ‘catcher in the rye’ as a way to honor Allie’s everlasting innocence. He imagines himself high upon a cliff in a field of rye where children are playing. “What I have to do, I have to catch [the children] if they start to go over the cliff-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. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all” (Salinger 225). Holden’s vision depicts the longing he has to preserve the innocence of all children, imitating Allie’s innocence, which is frozen in time because of his death. Along with this, Holden hopes to save children from falling into the phoniness and corruption of the adult world, like he was exposed to at Pencey Prep. Salinger encapsulates the word “hold” within the main character’s name to reflect the desire to hold back or hold on. Holden embodies the catcher in the rye theme with his desire to resist the phonies in his world and preserve innocence.
Holden’s role as the Catcher in the Rye is completed with his red hunting hat which is symbolic of the red-haired boy, Allie, and the embodiment of the catcher and the caught. Holden is able to connect with Allie’s purity and innocence through the red coloring of the hat which is similar to Allie’s hair color. When Holden wears the hat with the bill turned toward the back it suggests the direction of moving backward because Holden wishes to hold onto the innocent past and preserve childhood. “The way I wore it, I swung the old peak way around to the back-very corny, I’ll admit, but I liked it that way. I looked good in it that way” (Salinger 24). When a phony peer, Ackley, asks Holden why he wears the hat, Holden responds, “This is a people shooting hat. I shoot people in this hat” (Salinger 30). Holden feels the need to eliminate or “shoot” all the phony people in his life as a protector of innocence. Therefore, the red hunting hat, along with Allie’s baseball mitt, is a symbol for Holden attempting to preserve childhood innocence in his corrupt society.
The use of profanity from Salinger at Phoebe’s school is a transitional moment for Holden. He cannot protect the innocence of childhood and the phoniness of society, he slowly realizes. As the first “fuck you” in pencil came into Holden’s view, he was filled with pure anger and fear that Phoebe and her classmates will discover its true meaning. “I thought how Phoebe and all the other little kids would see it, and how they’d wonder what the hell it meant and then finally some dirty kid would tell them-all cockeyed, naturally-what it meant, and how they’d all think about it and maybe even worry about it for a couple days” (Salinger 260). Immediately, Holden rubs the profanity off of the wall, feeling his duty of saving the children was fulfilled. However, that was only temporary once he found the second “fuck you” that was non-erasable. Holden realizes that even if he “had a million years to do it, [he] couldn’t rub out half the ’fuck you’ signs in the world” (Salinger 262). He begins to realize that the battle he’s fought to preserve innocence as the ‘catcher in the rye’ is futile and at some point, society will corrupt all youth.
When Holden falls at the Museum of Natural History, it represents his reconsideration of the role he plays as the catcher in the rye. The desire Holden has to preserve childhood innocence has proven to be impossible and ends in a symbolic death. “…before I got to the door, I sort of passed out. I was lucky, though. I mean I could’ve killed myself when I hit the floor, but all I did was sort of land on my side. It was a funny thing, though. I felt better after I passed out. I really did” (Salinger 265). Holden’s actual collapse was a symbolic fall out of the field of rye and into the abyss of adulthood. “Many readers agree that Holden’s fall is necessary before any process of healing can take place. It also confirms the futility of his efforts to save the innocent of the world, a fact to which he becomes resigned…” (Unrue 38). The role of catcher in the rye no longer defines him and he no longer clings to it. “Holden has reached his own physical and emotional limits, and he must finally acknowledge that he can neither prevent the loss of innocence nor save children from experience” (Unrue 115). Holden must now come to terms with the transition he is making from childhood to adulthood and accept change as something that is an unavoidable part of life.
Due to Holden’s fear of becoming a phony adult with corrupt values, he drags himself into isolation as an attempt to preserve his childhood innocence. He fantasizes himself as the catcher in the rye, saving children from tumbling off of a cliff into the dark abyss of phony adulthood. Holden realizes that the battle to preserve innocence is futile when he is unable to erase the profanities at Phoebe’s school and begins to accept that he cannot preserve children’s innocence. Change is an inevitable part of life. When Holden falls, it symbolizes that he has reached his physical and emotional limits as the ‘catcher in the rye’. He begins to accept that he will not be able to prevent the loss of innocence of the children nor can he save them from corruption. Holden’s new role is to help Phoebe make better decisions than he did as an adolescent. Like many other teenager, Holden Caulfield, is lost when trying to transition from childhood to adulthood. While Salinger exaggerates Holden’s emotions,
The Catcher in the Rye portrays the reality of adolescents transitioning from childhood to adulthood and the anxiety that is associated with it. Although it is not a guarantee that a teenager will grow into a responsible adult, effective role models, and a supportive environment can allow for stability and guidance to help them mature into adulthood.
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