The Catcher in the Rye heralds the America of the 1950s: the Eisenhower-Nixon administrations, the McCarthy investigations, the men in the grey flannel suits. It was a world of economic expansion and social complacency. The young, blacks, and women had little power, yet the voice of protest was muted. It seemed that things would go on in the same way for a long time.
This is the society in which Holden Caulfield lives. Speaking for many of his generation, he rails at the phoniness of his world but feels incapable of effecting any meaningful change. He cannot even connect with another individual. His instinct is to cut and run. In vivid and concrete detail, The Catcher in the Rye thus anticipates the major catchwords of the 1950s: alienation, the silent generation, the lonely crowd. Although the novel has been criticized for not dealing with specific social issues, time has shown that it caught the peculiar social malaise of the 1950s with remarkable accuracy.
The most obvious theme of The Catcher in the Rye is the conflict between the individual and society. Holden abhors the phoniness of his world. An idealist, he wants people to meet on a purely human basis, an I-thou relationship; but this son of a wealthy corporation lawyer is sensitive to the barriers erected between individuals and classes by the bourgeois materialism of midcentury America. Genuine communication remains problematical. The novel suggests the rich ambiguities latent in...
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Hatred of Phonies
"Phonies" is arguably the word most often associated with J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. Sixteen-year-old Holden Caulfield has a thirst for authentic experience, and the fake behavior and attitudes he finds among other people sicken him. The first time the term occurs is when Holden describes the headmaster of Pencey Prep as a "phony slob." He rejects the school's high-faluting statements about how it molds "splendid, clear-thinking young men" as mere advertising propaganda. Since school is supposed to be Holden's primary social sphere, this shows how much he is at odds with his peers.
When he travels into New York, he fares no better. He is put off by the fatuous celebrity-hunting of the girls from Seattle with whom he dances, and positively repulsed when he meets his brother's old girlfriend, Lillian Simmons, who spouts phony platitudes. When Holden goes out with Sally Hayes, her phony-sounding conversation with an Ivy League acquaintance irks him and contributes to the disastrous ending of the date. These are just some of the more glaring examples.
In the repressed post-World War II American society, Holden's hatred of phonies and unwillingness to tolerate them sets him apart. The reader senses that this tendency may either lead Salinger's protagonist to greatness or destroy the young man.
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