Avoiding any plot summary and using thoughtful analysis argue why Holden's nostalgic view of the past and how his character's relationship to the past contributes to the meaning of the work as a whole.
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Experiencing his passage into adulthood as one of cynicism and disillusionment--he uses a form of the word "phony" no less than twenty-five times--Holden Caulfield finds himself resenting the past, almost wishing to return to it and reassess it in the hope of avoiding the angst of his adolescence. Key to this idea is the very title, The Catcher in the Rye; for, rather than denoting for Holden the implications of sexual rendez-vous in "When a body meet a body, comin' thro' the rye," Holden remembers when he heard a young boy sing "When a body catch a body, comin' thro' the rye," and envisions himself as this body who catches children in their innocence, saving them from going over a dangerous cliff as he seems to have done psychologically.
He is tortured by the injustice of death that would take Allie, his brother, and James Castle, who did not bother anyone, and he dwells upon these deaths as though he can, somehow, make sense of them. He returns home to talk with his precocious sister, who is always honest with him and may have some advice. But, as Thomas Wolfe so aptly reflects in his novel You Can't Go Home Again,
...you can't go back to your family, back home to your childhood, back home to romantic love, back home to a young man's dreams of glory and fame...away from all the strife and conflict of the world, back home to...someone who can help you, save you, ease the burden for you...back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.
Holden is disgusted with the artistic hypocrisy of his brother in Hollywood, he is repulsed by the behavior and attitudes of his classmates, the injustice of the failure to prosecute and expel the perpetrators of Castle's death, the materialism of his age. Perhaps if he visits the past, he will find some succor from his angst in discovery some meaning, Holden hopes; however, he finds no "escapes of Time and Memory." For, even his experience of revisiting his former English teacher, Mr. Antolini, goes badly as Holden fears that the man's petting of his head while he sleeps indicates some perversity in the man, and he flees. Thus, Mr. Antolini just becomes another figure of the moral emptiness that Holden senses in the present world that Holden finds so troubling.
Holden Caulfield's struggle is truly an existential one as he seeks meaning in life throughout an interpretation of the past. But, he finds no answers:
If you want to know the truth, I don't know what I think about it ["all this stuff"]. ...About all I know is, I sort of miss everybody I told about.
Alienated and alone, Holden feels that in many ways the past represents death; in the wake of World War II, he feels the morbidity of the bomb and the implications of it as demonstrating the insignificance that life can hold for some. He struggles with the thoughts of the past war; while he senses how life has been made insignificant, he contemplates suicide, at other times he is defiant about death:
If there's ever another war, I'm going to sit right the hell on top of [the atomic bomb]. I'll volunteer for it, I swear to God I will.
The past is a powerful thing to deal with. You can either deal with it in a positive way or it can dominate your entire life. Holden's view on the past has total control over him.
The Catcher in the Rye is a tale of a troubled young man. Holden has been troubled his whole life. He can not focus on his future and doesn't seem to care about it. He spends much of his time thinking about the people in his past. He can't let go of the events that have happened to him. When he goes to the hotel, he keeps thinking about the people who had the most hold on him in the past. He longs to reconnect with his old girlfriend. We can tell that Holden is not well. We know that he is being treated for some form of mental illness. As he tells his story, we see that he is clueless about life. He wants to have some kind of life, but he doesn't posses the ability to have one. Whenever things go wrong for him, he turns his thoughts or attention to someone or some event to his past. He lives in the past. We see that there are two main events, that happened in the past, that still have a hold on him. The first is the death of his brother, Allie and the suicide of his former classmate. By constantly going back to his past, Holden's future doesn't seem bright. When Holden recounts something that happened, he tells with such emotion. You feel his restlessness. You want to help him.
Holden Caulfield is probably one of the most famous characters in literature. Anybody who has ever felt discontent in life, can relate to him. The amount of people that feel connected to Holden is staggering. We can see that Holden's reality is warped. He can't let go of the past, even at the cost of his future. The last line in the book sums up the whole attitude of how Holden feels about the past and how it drives the entire story. He warns the reader that telling others about their own experiences will lead them to miss the people who shared them.
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