Character of Holden Caulfield Background

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‘The Catcher in the Rye’
Character of Holden Caulfield

Holden Caulfield is 17 years old at the start of the novel in chapter 1 & in chapter 26 and goes on to relate to a psychoanalyst the problems that lead him to the sanatorium in chapters 2-25. These events took place when he was 16 years old.

Holden is a New Yorker, brought up in a wealthy family in Manhattan and educated at expensive private schools. He has an older brother, DB, a writer, a ten year old sister Phoebe whom he adores, and parents that he is anxious not to disappoint but fears he does. He also has unresolved feelings and a sense of injustice about the death of his younger brother, Allie, which influence his attitudes to life.
Holden appears to lack self-esteem:

‘I’m the only dumb one in the family’.

He constantly compares himself unfavourably with his talented writer brother, ‘nice’ Allie and ‘smart’ Phoebe. Yet the reader sees Holden as funny, perceptive and full of integrity despite his problems.
Salinger, in the novel, presents the reader with a portrait of a troubled teenage boy. As the novel develops we learn more about Holden, his adventures during his three days in Manhattan, his problems and attitudes and how they developed, but we are NOT provided with a happy ending for Holden, a solution to his problems. In that way the novel is realistic as people don’t always find solutions to their problems quickly. Holden does not see clearly a way forward for himself at the end of the novel.
The outsider
At Pencey Prep Holden chooses not to conform to the rules and attitudes of the majority. For instance he decides not to support Pencey’s football team:

‘you were supposed to commit suicide or something if old Pencey didn’t win.’

Holden is standing at the top of Thomsen Hill looking down on his peers, both literally and metaphorically, as he does not identify with the school’s ethos and is scornful of school solidarity. Because he cannot fit in with his peers he is uncomfortable at Pencey, he feels alienated and isolated from his peers. Earlier Holden had been ostracised by the fencing team for losing the fencing equipment on the subway, resulting in a cancelled match:

‘It was pretty funny, in a way’.

Because Holden does not take his actions seriously, other pupils become annoyed with him.

Stradlater loses patience with Holden because ‘you don’t do one damn thing the way you’re supposed to.’

Holden displays his difference from his peers by purchasing a ‘red hunting hat’ and wearing it with ‘the old peak way around to the back’.
After a fight with Stradlater Holden runs off to Manhattan for the weekend where he continues to be the outsider and becomes increasingly lonely and isolated. He continually seeks out people to talk with, but either they have no time to give Holden eg. the taxi drivers, or they don’t understand Holden’s ideas and opinions eg. Sally Hayes.

Intolerance of Phonies (see also note on theme of individual & society)
One of the reasons Holden does not fit into private school society is because he is very conscious of his privileged wealthy background which makes him uncomfortable around those with less wealth and status, and because he is now noticing that people treat others according to the power and social status they have. Holden is liberal in his views and they are in conflict with those of his world, which hold success, status and materialism in high regard. Holden, in typical teenage slang, describes people with these attitudes as ‘phonies’.
Holden sees ‘phonies’ all around, from the headteacher, Mr. Haas, who is only interested in talking to the wealthier parents, to the successful former pupil, invited only because he is a rich benefactor, to give Pencey pupils spurious advice, to the pupil who passes off Holden’s expensive suitcases as his own, to people who go to clubs to be seen and admired by others, to people who talk loudly in theatre foyers to be thought of as ‘sharp’. Holden hates the exclusive groups and clubs where membership is a status symbol and to be excluded marks one out as a failure:

‘Everybody was always locking their door when somebody wanted to come in. And they had this goddam secret fraternity that I was too yellow not to join.’

The inequalities, cynicism and pettiness of everyday life sadden and frustrate Holden, but when he tries to point them out to his peers they don’t understand Holden’s views because they conform to society’s rules. As Sally Hayes says, ‘Lots of boys get more out of school than that’ when Holden complains about ‘learning enough to be smart enough to be able to buy a goddam Cadillac some day---‘
Holden is more of an idealist than his peers. We see this when he meets the two nuns whom he admires for their selfless lifestyle:

‘I hate it if I’m eating bacon and eggs or something and somebody else is only eating toast and coffee.’

Holden feels guilty about the equalities in life, where some people are ‘never going anywhere swanky for lunch-‘. He is astute enough to see the hypocrisy of others as he compares the nuns to Sally Hayes’ mother:

‘The only way she could go around with a basket collecting dough would be if everybody kissed her ass for her when they made a contribution.’

Because Holden sets high standards for himself and society he is destined to become disappointed and cynical and frustrated because he does not fit in. Mr Antolini tries to warn Holden of the folly of this idealism:

‘looking for something their own environment couldn’t supply them with’ and dying nobly for ‘some highly unworthy cause’.

Many thoughtful teenagers do have high ideals about how society should conduct itself eg. environmental issues, and rebel against some of life’s hypocrisies and injustices so Holden may be viewed as going through a teenage rebellion. As Mr. Antolini says to Holden ‘---you’ll find that you’re not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behaviour.’
Reluctance to grow up (see also note on theme of innocence & childhood)
Perhaps because Holden finds the adult world such an imperfect and ‘phony’ place he finds it difficult to take the step into adulthood. This reluctance to grow up may also be caused by Allie’s premature death. Holden has a tendency to think nostalgically about his childhood, although these may not be reliable memories. This aspect of Holden’s character is more unusual.

Throughout the novel his reluctance to call Jane Gallagher signifies his reluctance to spoil memories of a happy relationship with Jane, just as he cannot go into the museum beside Central Park once he gets there for fear he realises he is the one who has changed.

Holden notices children, amusing themselves on the street beside their parents singing ‘If a body catch a body coming through the rye’, putting their skates on in the park or looking for the Egyptian mummies in the museum. He offers to help these children but they can cope perfectly adequately by themselves. He tries to protect children from the perceived corruption in the world but sees it as futile:

‘If you had a million years to do it in, you couldn’t rub out even half the ‘F*** you’ signs in the world.’

Holden is starting to recognise at this point that children can’t be totally protected and that his role as ‘the catcher in the rye’ is neither realistic nor desirable.

It is only at the end of the novel that he realises that children have to be given opportunities to learn, from their mistakes if necessary:

‘If they fall off, they fall off –‘

However it is ambiguous as to whether Holden is ‘so damn happy all of a sudden, the way old Phoebe kept going around and around’ because of this realisation that children have to be given opportunities to grow up or because he perceives Phoebe as stuck in time, circling the same experience on the carrousel.

The confused teenager – a crazy, mixed-up kid
Holden frequently contradicts himself throughout the novel. Salinger does this to emphasise that Holden’s opinions are not yet fixed: he’s still working out what he believes in and who he is, typical of all teenagers. He is also at the transition between child and adult.
Often Holden acts in a childish manner, ‘horsing around’ such as inventing an alias, Rudolf Schmidt, for himself when talking to Mrs Morrow and he admits:

‘I act quite young for my age sometimes’.

This is juxtaposed by his emulation of adult manners in an effort to appear grown up:

‘Would you care for a cigarette? or ‘Would you care to stop on the way and join me for a cocktail?’

In New York he smokes, drinks, frequents nightclubs and bars and hopes to be accepted as an adult by others. Holden is six foot two with some grey hair but he often feels a child and at other times he feels he should be grown up. This confuses Holden. His attitudes and behaviour are frequently paradoxical. For instance he states he is ‘a terrific liar’ but he is very honest with the reader, telling us he is a virgin, etc.
Like most teenagers he lacks confidence in sexual matters:

‘In my mind, I’m probably the biggest sex maniac you ever saw.’

But he then admits:

‘Sex is something I really don’t understand too hot.’ and ---‘I’m a virgin, I really am’.

It is this confusion that gets Holden into trouble when he hires the prostitute, Sunny.

He naively excuses hiring a prostitute so he ‘could get in some practice on her, in case I ever get married or anything’ but he is unable to perform the sexual act as he is unnerved by the fact Sunny is around his age and he would be violating her innocence. He treats her as he would Sally or Jane. Ironically as Holden is frantically making excuses to avoid sex Sunny is becoming sexually attracted to him- ‘You’re cute.’

Sunny pays Holden the compliment of ‘You look like a guy in the movies’ when we know Holden disapproves of the movies:

‘The goddam movies. They can ruin you. I’m not kidding’.

Paradoxically Holden often acts out scenes from the movies he disapproves of eg. after Maurice has hit him. His disapproval seems to stem from DB’s decision to profit from his talent, to write film scripts instead of serious literature.
Often Holden is unaware of his contradictory statements:

‘I’m quite illiterate, but I read a lot’.

He tells us of his reading of the classics and his opinions show his involvement in what he reads. Holden is neither illiterate nor ‘dumb’.
Towards the end of the novel Holden re-assesses his original view, which is a step towards maturity. When he wakes up to find Mr. Antolini stroking his hair he panics and leaves, thinking this is a homosexual or ‘flitty’ gesture. In the cold light of day he reviews his opinion :

‘I wondered if just maybe I was wrong about thinking he was making a flitty pass at me.’

Holden’s ability to admit he may be wrong is a sign of growing maturity.
Holden’s breakdown
At the start of the novel there are hints that Holden is experiencing a breakdown:

‘I felt like I was sort of disappearing.’

He also ‘can get a good-by when I need one’.

Both of these comments in chapter 1 puzzle the reader.

When he visits Mr. Spencer he finds it difficult to concentrate:

‘I was wondering where the ducks went when the lagoon got all icy and frozen over.’

The reader is intrigued and baffled by Holden’s odd train of thought. He is a unique character. Later Holden follows up his worries about the ducks when he gets to New York as part of his over developed protectiveness of all things innocent, and like the children, the ducks seem to be taken care of, as he ‘didn’t see a single duck.’
It is obvious that his younger brother Allie’s death had a significant impact on shaping Holden’s outlook on life:

‘I slept in the garage the night he died, and I broke all the goddam windows with my fist, just for the hell of it.’

Holden was sent to consult with a psycho-analyst at that time as he obviously had issues accepting Allie’s death. We see Holden frequently denigrating himself in comparison to Allie’s alleged abilities, as he feels guilty that his younger brother should have died while he lives on.:

‘He was terrifically intelligent’ whereas Holden calls himself ‘dumb’ on occasion.

He cannot accept that Allie has gone and gets very upset when visiting his grave:

‘rained on the grass on his stomach’

Holden is distressed that Allie still feels, and feels he is abandoning Allie when he leaves his graveside, when he knows logically this is silly.

His feelings about Allie’s tragic young death materialise as over-protectiveness of young people generally, such as Jane and his desire to be ‘the catcher in the rye’. Stradlater unwittingly touches on both Holden’s protective feelings for Allie and Jane when he criticises Holden’s essay on Allie’s baseball mitt and refuses to confirm he did not make sexual advances towards Jane Gallagher. Holden reacts aggressively:

‘‘You’re a dirty stupid sonovabitch of a moron,’ I told him.’

Because Stradlater does not understand the reason for Holden’s attack on him he hits Holden, causing Holden to decide on a premature exit from Pencey. Despite despising all Pencey stands for, he is ‘sort of crying’ as he yells his final goodbye. Holden is being irrational and emotional.

When Holden reaches New York late on Saturday night he finds the city an impersonal and uncaring place. Although he tries to engage people in conversation they have their own lives to lead eg. taxi drivers, the girls from Seattle and Lillian. He finds the city makes you feel ‘so lonesome and depressed. I kept wishing I could go home.’ He is so desperate for company he takes up the offer of a prostitute but this unsuccessful attempt makes him ‘--- miserable. I felt so depressed, you can’t imagine. What I did I started talking sort of out loud to Allie.’ When he is unhappy he uses thoughts of his dead brother to comfort him. Holden cannot let go of Allie. Even Phoebe notices this is unhealthy:

‘Allie’s dead’

‘Just because somebody’s dead’ you don’t just stop liking them--‘

Holden clings on to memories of the past and cannot accept the injustice of Allie’s death. Later when he is near to breaking point he again clings to Allie’s memory to help him:

‘ ---I had this feeling I would never get to the other side of the street. I thought I’d just go down, down, down and nobody’d ever see me again. Boy did it scare me. ---I’d make believe I was talking to my brother Allie. I’d say to him, ‘Allie, don’t let me disappear.’ This happens on Monday morning. Holden had the same experience on Saturday afternoon. He feels insignificant in his world. We are worried for his emotional welfare.
Another sign of his anxiety is his frustration over not being able to communicate his beliefs and attitudes to others:

‘Stop screaming at me please,’ she said. Which was crap, because I wasn’t even screaming at her.’

Holden is yelling at Sally because he is frustrated and angry that she does not understand or share his view of phonies, but is unaware his behaviour is volatile. Later he decides that as he cannot communicate successfully with others he will solve the problem by pretending he can’t speak at all:

‘I’d be through with having conversations for the rest of my life. Everybody ‘d think I was just a poor deaf-mute bastard—‘.

Holden’s anxiety at not communicating with others is evident here and, typical of Holden, he has an interesting solution, but to shut himself off from others is unhealthy. We see from the start of the novel he is reluctant to talk to the psychoanalyst:

‘all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it.’

From his arrival in New York Holden admits he feels ‘depressed’, ‘lonesome’ and ‘ blue as hell’ with increasing frequency, to the point in chapter 25 where he says ‘I think I was more depressed than I ever was in my whole life.’ His depression, along with a tendency to cry a lot, is compounded by physical symptoms of illness:

‘shivering like a bastard’, ‘shaking like a madman’, ‘sweating too’ and later he ‘still had this awful headache’.

All these symptoms, along with his confession that he ‘sort of missed’ the people he had left behind at Pencey, confuse and worry the reader and provide clues that Holden is losing his grip on reality. He wants to go home and be looked after by his parents:

‘I figured if they caught me they caught me. I almost wished they did, in a way’.

Holden has had enough of his independent adventure into the scary big world and desires the security of home now. He is then sent to a sanatorium by his parents to recover and get some perspective on his life, which is where the novel begins and ends. We are unclear whether this is successful, however;

‘Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you’ll start missing everybody.’

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