In J. D. Salinger's novel Catch in the Rye, where do we see the theme of reality vs. illusion? Does it appear throughout the story?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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In J. D. Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye, the contrast between appearance (or illusion) and reality – which is a standard theme in many literary works – seems relevant in a number of different places and ways, including the following:

  • As the book opens, Holden Caulfield is a patient in a psychiatric facility in California. This setting already suggests that Holden has had some difficulty in distinguishing between reality and illusion.  Thus the theme of reality vs. illusion is already implied at the very beginning of the novel. Indeed, Holden himself announces the theme in the very first, high famous sentence of the novel:

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. [emphasis added]

Notice how many parts of this sentence already imply the theme of illusion and reality: childhood is supposed to be a happy time, but Holden considers the reality of his childhood to have been “lousy.” Standard writing about childhood, such as Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, is “crap,” but Holden intends not to report illusions but to tell the “truth.”

  • Early in the first chapter, Holden contrasts the illusory way (in his opinion) in which his prep school has been advertised and the disappointing reality he has experienced.
  • As he contemplates leaving this school, he meditates on the contrast between how strongly he thinks he should feel and the reality of his reaction, which is one of little feeling at all.
  • At the end of Chapter 1, Holden is under the illusion that his visit to Mr. Spencer will not be unpleasant, but his actual meeting with Mr. Spencer at the beginning of Chapter 2 is far less pleasant than Holden had anticipated.
  • One of the key contrasts in the novel is the contrast between people who are authentic (or real) and those who are “phony” (or present attractive illusions).
  • In Chapter 3, Holden considers Ossenburger, an alumnus, as someone who proclaims his Christianity in order to make money – another contrast (at least in Holden’s mind) between a superficially attractive appearance and disappointing reality.
  • In Chapter 4 of the novel (in the words of the eNotes summary linked below):

Holden makes a point of describing Stradlater as a person who is excessively concerned about his personal appearance, but, in reality, is a “secret slob.”

  • Stradlater asks Holden to write an assignment on Stradlater’s behalf but to be careful not to make it seem too well written, lest the teacher discern the difference between the illusion (that Stradlater has written the paper himself) and the reality (that it has been written for him by someone else).

As these examples suggest, the theme of reality vs. illusion is significant throughout the book and is already implied frequently even in the first few chapters.




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