In The Catcher in the Rye, is Holden Caufield a sane kid living in an insane world?
What a great question! My answer is yes and no. Let me explain. Firstly, there are some important indications in the text that point towards the massive mental instability of Holden as a result of what he has gone through with his brother's death. Note, for example, what Holden tells us about Allie and how he responded in Chapter Five:
I was only thirteen, and they were going to have me psychoanalysed and all, because I broke all the windows to the garage. I don't blame them. I really don't. I slept in the garage the night he died, and I broke all the goddam windows with my first, just for the hell of it. I even tried to break all the windows on the stations wagon we had that summer, but my hand was already broken and everything by that time, and I couldn't do it.
Such offhand descriptions of what must have obviously been a very difficult time in Holden's life point towards massive unresolved issues of grief and acceptance of his brother's death, which if we psychoanalyse, can lead us to suggest that Holden's breakdown that he experiences in this novel is partly the result of such unresolved issues.
However, on the other hand, looking at this question from a novel perspective, what depresses Holden and upsets him greatly is the "phoniness" that he sees all around him and displayed by everyone in society, even those he trusts most. When we consider this for one moment, we can see that he has a point. Certainly for an idealist like Holden, he sees attributes and characteristics even in those in whom he trusts that causes him to question the world. Consider Mr. Antolini, a favourite teacher of Holden, who abuses that trust by making a pass at him. The world is shown to be lacking in the basic moral principles that Holden holds in high importance. Therefore, to a certain extent, we can also argue that he is the only sane person living in a sane world.
Throughout the novel, Holden Caulfield is portrayed as an anxious, critical, immature boy, who desperately wants to avoid growing up and entering the world of the adults. Holden views the world as a malevolent place, where adults act "phony" in order to get ahead, people seek solace in mindless entertainment, and outer appearance is of the utmost importance.
While Holden is definitely unstable, naive, and a bit of a misanthrope, he does have a point. Holden's acute ability to observe disingenuous behavior is one of the main reasons he seems to view everyone as a hypocritical "phony." Holden's observation of how Mr. Spencer acts differently when the headmaster enters his room is accurate. However, Holden fails to consider the social norms of adult behavior. In Holden's mind, he wishes that everyone was generous, honest, and straightforward. Unfortunately, the world is far from a perfect environment and is full of complex individuals with both selfish and altruistic personalities.
Holden would not be categorized as insane, but he is far from a rational person. Holden's age and the traumatizing deaths he's witnessed significantly impact his outlook on life. Holden is as confused as any adolescent would be if they've experienced what he has at that young of an age without receiving therapeutic help. This imperfect world is not "insane," but is complex and difficult to navigate for a depressed, naive adolescent like Holden.