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The Catcher in the Rye

J. D. Salinger


(He may not know what he wants to be in life, but he sure knows one thing he doesn’t want to be—phony! Unfortunately, the world doesn’t seem to agree with him).

Crop of The Catcher in the Rye by edwardaaronart on DeviantArt.

Holden Caulfield is a unique and precious personality in literature.  Although I surely would not want to be subjected in all my reading to the starkness of The Catcher in the Rye, the book is curiously invigorating and liberating.  Despite what one might call the main character’s cynicism, almost paradoxically the strongest draw of the novel for me is that he is refreshing.  Holden is thoughtful, genuine, unsettled, and uninhibited, and these qualities allow the author to portray our secret thoughts and the culture of our time, in the evident hope that we can be enlightened by them.

Among the most apparently frivolous parts of the book (the very aspects that most surreptitiously endear it to us) are its humorous glimpses into the ordinary, its stand-up-comic blurbs on the oddity, even perversity, of our usual lives.  I laughed at many of young Holden’s frank and trenchant comments on people and actions, his exposure of what is really going on beneath the trappings of society.  Another possibly trite observation is his love for his younger sister Phoebe, and its reminder that there is no phoniness in youth.  Holden can be free to love Phoebe because she is real; his disgust is restricted to older people, who tend live by hypocrisy and self-deception.

The plot is not the book.  What he does is secondary to what he is and thinks.  How Holden thinks is what Salinger wants to say, it seems– the simple plot is merely a vehicle.  An unambitious restless teen gets kicked out of another private school and tries unsuccessfully to lose his innocence in New York City for a couple of days before he has to face his parents.  By the end, we respect this antisocial misfit, and realize that what he wants is for the evil in human nature (which he admits is present in him too) to be gone.  Not a bad wish to have.  But it is a wish that cannot come true.  Salinger squashes our hopes to have someone fit Holden’s dream of a person to admire unequivocally, when he reveals that the one giver of good advice in the book, the one adult with whom Holden has an authentic and important conversation, his old teacher Mr. Antolini, is a pervert.  As I was reading this, having admired Mr. Antolini’s comments and sighed in relief that someone had mentioned the truth about what Holden must do for himself, I asked in spontaneous anger why Salinger had to do that to Holden and to us.  But of course I had to realize that the central message is precisely that Holden’s pipe dream is a pipe dream, that something of the phony and the perverted resides in all of us, and will never be eradicated.  This message was, nobly, more important to the author than giving the boy a hero.  A boost to the reader’s optimism is not as important as—in fact, is directly opposed to—the author’s mission to teach us a lesson about human nature.

Holden himself is an interesting paradox, a lost soul who has nevertheless refrained from losing something that has decayed in most others in society.  Even as he disparages education we see his intuitive intellect working.  Even as he lies we see his authenticity.  But we see social failure in him, and it is unlikely that he will ever recover from it.  He ought to have been born into another kind of world, where people are not mean or “phoney bastards”.  But Holden also would be happiest only in a world where the right road is the easiest one.  Holden is a person of desires without ambition, of goodness but no moral strength, of sentimentality but carelessness.  He has the uneasiness and awkward introspection of the stereotypical middle child, the unfulfilled yen for meaning of the thoughtful son of superficial parents, the disgust at the whitewashed tombs and dry husks of society that arises in a sensitive heart upon exposure to the life of the wealthy, and the open recklessness of the person who has love but has nobody who knows what to do with it—or is it that he doesn’t know what to do with it himself?

At any rate, whoever said “We’re all Holden Caulfields”, a statement I see repeated often, was wrong.  The reason we like him is not because we are like him.  Rather, we like him precisely because he is something we aren’t, but perhaps in a strange way think we should be.  We wouldn’t like to be failing 4 out of 5 classes, of course—but perhaps we think that we should be looking at society with a less tolerant and more discriminating eye.  Perhaps we would like to see the phoniness in life and react with repugnance.  Perhaps we would like to jettison our cultured inhibitions for a while and tell people what we think about their decrepit attitudes, even as we admit to ourselves our own and drown our sorrows over them.  Perhaps we like Holden Caulfield because, despite all his faults, he is there bared before us, and he is angry at us for not being as honest with our lives as he is.  To be so conceited as to say we too have this unfettered view of life, to say “We’re all Holden Caulfields”, ironically enough, is to be the opposite of what Holden Caulfield is—in fact it is to be what he hates most, a phony.  


A note on the title, and a thought of Holden’s that relates to it: He has a persistent image (represented by the artwork above and described below in a quote) of a figure who saves kids from falling to their deaths off a cliff at the edge of a rye field. Misrememb

Gin a body meet a body
Comin thro’ the rye,
Gin a body kiss a body,
Need a body cry?



Tidbits of Significance 

(Be aware, Holden has a tendency to express his disillusionment with profanity.)

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.



You take somebody old as hell, like old Spencer, and they can get a big bang out of buying a blanket.



“Boy!” I said. I also say “Boy!” quite a lot. Partly because I have a lousy vocabulary and partly because I act quite young for my age sometimes.



I’m the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life. It’s awful. If I’m on my way to the store to buy a magazine, even, and somebody asks me where I’m going, I’m liable to say I’m going to the opera. It’s terrible.



What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.



Mothers are all slightly insane.



Take the Disciples, for instance. They annoy the hell out of me, if you want to know the truth. They were all right after Jesus was dead and all, but while He was alive, they were about as much use to Him as a hole in the head. All they did was keep letting Him down.



I was way early when I got there, so I just sat down on one of those leather couches right near the clock in the lobby and watched the girls… You figured most of them would probably marry dopey guys. Guys that always talk about how many miles they get to a gallon in their goddam cars. Guys that get sore and childish as hell if you beat them at golf, or even just some stupid game like ping-pong. Guys that are very mean. Guys that never read books. Guys that are very boring—But I have to be careful about that. I mean about calling certain guys bores. I don’t understand boring guys. I really don’t.



If a girl looks swell when she meets you, who gives a damn if she’s late?  Nobody.



The part that got me was, there was a lady sitting next to me that cried all through the goddam picture. The phonier it got, the more she cried.  You’d have thought she did it because she was kindhearted as hell, but I was sitting right next to her, and she wasn’t.  She had this little kid with her that was bored as hell and had to go to the bathroom, but she wouldn’t take him.  She kept telling him to sit still and behave himself.  She was about as kindhearted as a goddam wolf.



Old Luce knew who every flit and Lesbian in the United States was.  All you had to do was mention somebody—anybody—and old Luce’d tell you if he was a flit or not. Sometimes it was hard to believe, the people he said were flits and Lesbians and all, movie actors and like that… He said it didn’t matter if a guy was married or not. He said half the married guys in the world were flits and didn’t even know it. He said you could turn into one practically overnight, if you had all the traits and all. He used to scare the hell out of us. I kept waiting to turn into a flit or something. The funny thing about old Luce, I used to think he was sort of flitty himself, in a way.



She was right, though. It is “If a body meet a body coming through the rye.”  I didn’t know it then, though.  “I thought it was ‘If a body catch a body’,” I said.  Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all.  Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around—nobody big, I mean—except me. And 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 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.  I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy.



He was about the best teacher I ever had, Mr. Antolini. He was a pretty young guy, not much older than my brother D. B., and you could kid around with him without losing your respect for him.



“I’m not trying to tell you,” he said, “that only educated and scholarly men are able to contribute something valuable to the world.  It’s not so.  But I do say that educated and scholarly men, if they’re brilliant and creative to begin with—which, unfortunately, is rarely the case—tend to leave infinitely more valuable records behind them than men do who are merely brilliant and creative.  They tend to express themselves more clearly, and they usually have a passion for following their thoughts through to the end.  And—most important—nine times out of ten they have more humility than the unscholarly thinker.”

-Mr. Antolini, ch.24


That’s the whole trouble.  You can’t ever find a place that’s nice and peaceful, because there isn’t any.  You may think there is, but once you get there, when you’re not looking, somebody’ll sneak up and write “Fuck you” right under your nose.  Try it sometime.




…you want to shake your world up a little bit and make any phoniness come into sharp relief;


…you want to get into the mind of a teen who is disillusioned with humanity, himself included.



(for the enemy of hypocrisy:)

  • Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels  (1726)
  • Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh  (1903)
  • Tennessee Williams, A Streetcar Named Desire  (1947)
  • Edward Albee, The Zoo Story  (1958)

(for those hopeful for a youthfully liberated perspective on life:)

  • Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn  (1885)
  • Antoine de Saint Exupéry, The Little Prince  (1943)
  • J. D. Salinger, Nine Stories, or For Esmé—with Love and Squalor  (1953)
  • E. E. Cummings, poetry  (1904-1962)

Find It!

Hardcover: The Little Brown edition is still in print!  (Not sure if interrupted, but it is the same publisher as the first 1951 edition).

PaperbackBack Bay reissue edition (Boston). 

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