Holden often uses the word “phony” to express his criticism in The Catcher in the Rye. What would you say he is critical of?

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William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

A lot of teenagers would probably express just as much negative criticism as Holden—if they had Holden’s ability to express himself in writing. This may be one of the reasons the novel has been so popular with young people ever since it was published in 1951.

Holden’s main problem, although he isn’t aware of it, is that he doesn’t want to grow up. He dislikes adults because he doesn’t want to become an adult. Consequently he sees everything that is wrong with adults—and there is plenty!

Here is a significant quote from one of John Cheever’s best short stories, “The Sorrows of Gin”:

The voices woke Amy, and, lying in her bed, she perceived vaguely the pitiful corruption of the adult world; how crude and frail it was, like a piece of worn burlap, patched with stupidities and mistakes, useless and ugly, and yet they never saw its worthlessness, and when you pointed it out to them, they were indignant.

Most adults learn that they have to be at least a little phony to get along in the world. The adult world would grind to a halt without the oil of insincerity to lubricate the wheels. Children see through all this easily—but adults are well aware of its existence and necessity. Even the President of the United States (whoever he may be) doesn’t always feel like greeting the Girl Scouts in the Rose Garden, but he braces himself and puts on a big smile for the cameras.

Here is another quote:

Useless pursuits and conversations always about the same things absorb the better part of one’s time, the better part of one’s strength, and in the end there is left a life grovelling and curtailed, worthless and trivial, and there is no escaping or getting away from it—just as though one were in a madhouse or a prison.

                       Chekhov, “The Lady with the Dog”

Like it or not, Holden is being dragged kicking and screaming into adulthood. His negative view of the world is his resistance to growing up. Childhood is better in many respects. It is probably the only time we are really happy—at least some of us, some of the time--but it can’t last. Children can be happy because they live in a world of fantasies and illusions. They haven’t found out that they are mortal, and therefore they are immortal like the gods.

ophelious eNotes educator| Certified Educator

An easier question to answer is "what was Holden not critical of"...there would be a lot fewer things!

Anyhow, look at that word: phony.  Loosely, this means someone (or something) that is not acting genuinely, or in a fraudulent way. Holden finds many people in the story guilty of violating this code of conduct.  He has in his head a set of behaviors that he feels are genuine and when people don't act according to them they become, in his head, a phony.

The interesting point is trying to determine where Holden draws that "line" for people to cross.  There is no universal code for "non-phonyness," so he invents one of his own.  It appears to include people, like Stradlater, who:

  1. Put a false face on in public
  2. Think highly of themselves
  3. Tell exaggerated stories
  4. Think they are better than others
  5. Act immodestly
  6. Are suave with women
  7. Are hypocritical
  8. Have hidden, disgusting habits.
  9. "Sell out" to money, power, etc.

This is not an all-inclusive list, but it gives you an idea.

It is also useful to look at the kind of people that Holden does not call phony, like his sister Pheobe, his brother Allie, and Jane.  These people all share some common characteristics that Holden seems to think of as "genuine":

  1. They are sympathetic and friendly toward him
  2. They are intelligent
  3. They are fun to be around
  4. They are talented
  5. (in some cases) they have come to tragic ends, or have suffered through some tragedy in their lives
  6. They are modest

So there you go.  He is critical of any person or institution that violates his inner code of what makes a person "genuine."  Unfortunately for the world, that includes most things.  I suppose we should be glad for this fact or else Catcher in the Rye would have been one heck of a dull read!


kimfuji eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, the main character of Caulfield views the world as a place where valuable human qualities such as love and kindness have been overridden by the middle class version of “success," which is based chiefly on money and power. Holden Caulfield is an idealist clinging desperately to the notion that basic human kindness is far more vital to a happy existence than material wealth. Salinger continuously portrays Holden as a cynical character, particularly in regards to issues surrounding wealth and corruption, as can be seen in the following passage which describes the character’s opinion of lawyers like his father:

“Lawyers are all right, I guess – but it doesn’t appeal to me," I said. "I mean they’re all right if they go around saving innocent guys’ lives all the time, and like that, but you don’t do that kind of stuff if you’re a lawyer. All you do is make a lot of dough and play golf and play bridge and buy cars and drink Martinis and look like a hot-shot. How would you know you weren’t being a phony? The trouble is, you wouldn’t." (172)

He belives that people are phony because they accept middle class values. He is critical of all middle class values.

Wiggin42 | Student

Holden is critical of phonies or hypocrites. He hates his brother for "selling out" to Hollywood. In reality, he hates his brother for becoming a successful adult. Above all else, Holden is critical of adults. He sees children has pure beings and wants to remain a child for as long as he can. Once we accept that Holden is an unreliable narrator, we see that he's not really critical of phonies but of success and adulthood. 

willrj | Student

Taylor Gang

pechito | Student

he hates movies, he hates old people specially the ones that wear pijams what else that he hates. basicly he does hate mostly everubody its like he is against everyone.

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The Catcher in the Rye

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