As Chapter 12 of J. D. Salinger's classic of American literature The Catcher in the Rye begins, Holden Caulfield, the novel's narrator and protagonist, is getting into a taxi, the quintessential New York City experience. As Holden begins his cab ride, he regales the reader with insights regarding this huge metropolis that in and of themselves display a certain irony. Indeed, the opening passage references what could be considered two ironic situations. As Salinger's young narrator, the cynical and depressive prep school drop-out, observes, the city this particular evening is not what he would normally expect:
"What made it worse, it was so quiet and lonesome out, even though it was Saturday night. I didn't see hardly anybody on the street. . . New York's terrible when somebody laughs on the street very late at night. You can hear it for miles. It makes you feel so lonesome and depressed."
Why is this passage ironic? Because it depicts New York City, America's premier concentration of humanity crowded in amongst skyscrapers and famous for its raucous nightlife, as "quiet and lonesome, even though it was Saturday night." Additionally, Salinger, through his protagonist, emphasizes Holden's alienation by having him comment on his lonesomeness and depression upon hearing the laughter of others.
Holden Caulfield is an acerbic, intellectually curious individual. Some readers also interpret him as a character who goes out of his way to bring out the worst in others and who then professes ignorance as to why his actions would have the intended consequences. Again, his experience in the cab provides an opportunity for irony. Though some readers see Holden as sincere in asking the old cabdriver, Horwitz, about the ducks that congregate around the lagoon in Central Park, I would argue that Holden is baiting the old man:
"The ducks. Do you know, by any chance? I mean does somebody come around in a truck or something and take them away, or do they fly away by themselves—go south or something?" Old Horwitz turned all the way around and looked at me. He was a very impatient-type guy. He wasn't a bad guy, though.
"How the hell should I know?" he said. "How the hell should I know a stupid thing like that?"
"Well, don't get sore about it," I said. He was sore about it or something.
"Who's sore? Nobody's sore." I stopped having a conversation with him, if he was going to get so damn touchy about it.
Holden has provoked the cabdriver's anger, and, professing ignorance as to the reason for Horwitz's change in demeanor, continues to ask about the ducks:
I didn't say anything for about a minute. Then I said, "All right. What do they do, the fish and all, when that whole little lake's a solid block of ice, people skating on it and all?"
Old Horwitz turned around again. "What the hellaya mean what do they do?" he yelled at me. "They stay right where they are, for Chrissake."
"They can't just ignore the ice. They can't just ignore it."
"Who's ignoring it? Nobody's ignoring it!" Horwitz said. He got so damn excited and all, I was afraid he was going to drive the cab right into a lamppost or something.
Again, Holden provokes a negative reaction from this bystander to his social alienation. Whether this is an example of Holden being made aware of the irony in his situation is debatable. If we interpret Holden as claiming to be surprised by anger he deliberately provokes, however, the irony of his actions is clear.
Chapter 12 of The Catcher in the Rye is full of ironic commentary on the part of Holden Caulfield. Holden complains of loneliness but is filled with contempt, or so he says, for virtually every other human with whom he comes into contact, save his sister Phoebe. As Holden enters a crowded bar, he complains incessantly about the people he encounters. Sitting alone in the bar, he states, "I certainly began to feel like a prize horse's ass, though, sitting there all by myself. There wasn't anything to do except smoke and drink." Yet his response to being approached by Lillian Simmons, his brother's former girlfriend, is a further expression of his distaste for others.
Holden does not so much become aware of ironic situations in Chapter 12 of The Catcher in the Rye; he is the personification of irony.
Irony is when the unexpected happens and Holden is conscious of of two events where irony occurs. It is interesting, though, too, that in chapter twelve other ironies are happening around Holden that he doesn't observe. First, the two events that he does notice are how weird it is that Horowitz the cabby would be so ornery every time he answers a question. Holden asks a simple question about ducks and the cabby seems completely annoyed, but then turns around and tells Holden that mother nature takes care of her own. Surely he didn't expect to learn anything or hear something wise come out of a grumpy cab driver. Second, he finds it uncouth for a guy at the bar to be groping a girl under the table while talking about someone's suicide at the same time--that's not exactly romantic. Plus, Holden marvels that good looking people seem to have unintelligent conversations. Holden doesn't count on the fact, though that as he is out on the town looking for companionship to avoid his loneliness, all he seems to get is disappointment, and that is ironic, too. "People are always ruining things for you"(87) he says at the end of the chapter. Maybe he's discovering that nothing is ever as it seems to be, which is a great discovery of irony, too.