Can someone help with the theme of identity in The Catcher in the Rye?

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accessteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

What is key to realise about Holden's identity is that, particularly in the area of his sexual identity, he struggles to cope with a massive paradox in his life, which is that he likes sex and is obsessed by it but is also a prude and struggles to remain innocent. This of course mean that any kind of sexual act to Holden is "crumby," which leaves him in significant problems as regards his identity, as he at once tries to place himself in situations where he can have sex and draws back from precisely those kind of situations. This is demonstrated in the way that he frequently sabotages the opportunities that he has to have sex, such as when he is with the prostitute. Note the following quote from Chapter 9:

I mean that's my big trouble. In my mind, I'm probably the biggest sex maniac you ever saw. Sometimes I can think of very crumby stuff I wouldn't mind doing if the opportunity came up. I can even see how it might be quite a lot of fun, in a crumby way, and if you were both sort of drunk and all, to get a girl and squirt water or something all over each other's face. The thing is, though, I don't like the idea. It stinks, if you analyze it.

Holden therefore recognises within himself precisely the kind of sexual desires that he so despises in others around him such as Stradlater. As Holden says just a few lines after this quote about sex, "I keep on making all these rules for myself, and then break them right away." The problem that Holden has with his identity therefore stems largely from his understanding and ideas about sex, and how he sets himself impossible standards to strive to remain innocent and fulfill his own ideas of what he should be like, whilst at the same time finding that his body and his hormones have very different ideas.

gmuss25 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The theme of identity is explored through Holden's perception of himself, how he wishes to be perceived, and how society actually perceives him. As one of literature's most famous unreliable narrators, Holden continually exaggerates his abilities and experiences. Holden also contradicts himself throughout the entire novel, which illustrates his distorted perception of himself. Holden mentions that he is an unread pacifist but enjoys reading and gets into several physical altercations. Holden thinks he looks mature because of his gray hairs and tall physique, yet waiters continually deny him from purchasing alcoholic beverages and older women comment on his youth. At times Holden feels "pretty sexy" but cannot follow through with acting upon his desires and misinterprets how women feel about him. Holden also claims to hate everyone but goes out of his way to call random people and meet up with associates.

The most predominant factor in regards to Holden's identity concerns his struggle to become an adult. Holden desperately attempts to hold onto his childhood and not grow up. He lives in the past and mentions to Phoebe that he wants to become a catcher in the rye, someone who prevents children from falling off of cliffs. Holden's wish to be a catcher in the rye metaphorically represents his desire to stop children from growing up to become "phony" adults. Essentially, Holden struggles to transition from being a child to an adult. He wishes to remain a child, while society expects him to act and think like a young adult. Holden's identity crisis is the cause of his anguish, which leads to his mental breakdown.

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The Catcher in the Rye

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