How does Holden use the term "yellow" in chapters 7–13 of The Catcher in the Rye? Is he "yellow"? What evidence supports this?

Holden uses the term "yellow" chapters 7–13 of The Catcher in the Rye to mean "cowardly." Specifically, he means the kind of "cowardice" that avoids physically fighting other guys over small issues. Holden, however, is not a coward. For example, he fights the bigger and meaner Stradlater over Jane.

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Yellow in this context means cowardly, the opposite of "red blooded" and courageous.

Holden uses this term repeatedly as he ruminates about himself. He frames his definition of courage in terms of stereotypes about masculinity. He believes he is yellow because he doesn't like to fight other guys. For example, he imagines another guy stealing his gloves at Pencey. In this scenario, Holden marches to the other person's room, finds the hidden gloves, listens to guy's weak excuses, and knows he should "sock" him and break his "goddam" jaw. But Holden realizes he wouldn't do that. He thinks about how hard it is to punch a guy when you are looking right at him. Yet, while Holden goes back and forth on his yellowness, he finally comes down on the side of self-criticism:

It's a funny kind of yellowness, when you come to think of it, but it's yellowness, all right. I'm not kidding myself.

Holden castigating himself for cowardice is ironic in the same way that Huck Finn's believing he will go to hell for saving an escaped slave is ironic: in both cases, the youths in questions are acting from a courageous moral center. It is their societies that are warped.

Holden is right to reject a definition of courage that requires him to beat up other men at any sign of provocation. He shows through his thinking that he is a sensitive and compassionate person.

In fact, despite his own self definition, Holden exhibits courage. It took courage, for example, to get into a fist fight with Stradlater, a bigger, meaner guy, but Holden does it to defend Jane (actually, that's why he thinks he does it: it seems more likely that he was acting out of a more generalized frustration). It might have been a foolish and misplaced act, but it does reveal that Holden isn't afraid to physically stand up and fight.

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The term "yellow" in the context of The Catcher in the Rye means cowardly. There are a few theories as to the origin of this term, and it is still widely used as an American colloquialism.

Holden uses the term repeatedly in chapter 13. He first says "I'm one of these very yellow guys," to confess that he is not a confrontational person. He conjures an elaborate fantasy in which he argues with a boy over some missing gloves, studiously avoiding physical violence. He ruminates over his inability to throw a punch and concedes, "It's no fun to be yellow" because he seems to believe that masculinity and courage or aggression are inextricably linked. Then he thinks, "Maybe I'm not all yellow. I don't know. I think maybe I'm just partly yellow and partly the type that doesn't give much of a damn," as he tries to analyze and rationalize the motives behind his own behavior.

Holden continues to mull over his own reluctance to throw a punch. He says, "What you should be is not yellow at all. If you're supposed to sock somebody in the jaw, and you sort of feel like doing it, you should do it." He is still subject to the kind of widespread thinking that inflicting violence on someone who has wronged you is not only acceptable, but expected.

Holden realizes that punching another person in the face has an unavoidable intimacy. The thought of looking the other guy in the face as he punches him is abhorrent. Holden is at heart a gentle soul in a time and place that expects certain male behaviors that feel foreign to him, and this experience deepen his sense of not belonging in society.

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Holden's discussion of "yellow" -- and the two best examples of it -- occur in Chapter 13.  

Yellow means cowardly.  It is similar to the term "chicken."  Holden only uses it in connection with the example he gives about how he would handle it if, hypothetically, he had found out which student stole his gloves at Pence.  He imagines himself going to the thief's room, finding the gloves in the thief's galoshes, and confronting the thief verbally.  "Okay, how about handing over those gloves?"  He then imagines evading the question "Are you calling me a crook?" with "All I know is my gloves were in your goddam galoshes."  He would do this again and again rather than start the fight he'd like to start.  He could not bring himself to say, "Yes, I am calling you a thief," or to confront the thief more directly than with a cutting, sarcastic comment.  He imagines that he would stand there, frozen, for about five minutes, unable to get up the nerve to "sock the guy in the jaw." 

Avoiding a direct confrontation is certainly a form of cowardice.  So yes, Holden is a bit "yellow" in this imagined scene.  Throughout the rest of the book, we see that Holden does not avoid confrontation, but he confronts indirectly.  His tendency is to keep prodding or provoking another person, ignoring social signals, until they snap.  For example, he keeps provoking Stradlater about whether he had sex with Jane, until Stradlater beats him up. Apparently Holden feels it would be better if he were more direct (although this might mean that he would go around punching people.) 

Later in Chapter 13, we see Holden chicken out of having sex with a prostitute who comes to his room.  On the face of it, this might look like cowardice.  But it is not.  It is really sensitivity and compassion.  Holden can't bring himself to treat the girl in a dehumanizing way.  He is unnerved when she simply pulls off her dress, wanting to have a conversation with her first.  He is also depressed by the thought of her life being what it is.  Finally, he can't go through with it, and sends her away, but although embarrassing, this is really to his credit. True to form, he does not tell her directly why he has lost interest.  Instead he makes up a ridiculous lie about having had a recent operation. 

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