In J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, how does Holden's memory of his past, specifically his childhood friend Jane, contribute to the book as a whole?

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Holden Caulfield, of course, is the literary personification of alienation.  With the exception of his little sister Phoebe, he hasn’t much good to say about anybody.  Further, his cynical attitude and anti-social behavior has made it very difficult for him to develop personal relationships, including platonic friendships.  He can’t bring himself to admit it, but the fact that his roommate, Stradlater, is the physical, mental and sexual antithesis of Holden is a source of enduring frustration, but there is also envy there.  Stradlater may lack Holden’s intellect, but Holden’s intellect isn’t going to get him anywhere anyway. In the meantime, Stradlater is the one scoring with all the hot babes.  Into this cauldron of teen angst comes the date between Stradlater and Holden’s childhood friend, Jane Gallagher.  Jane never appears in the novel except in references, in conversation between Holden and his roommate, and in Holden’s recitation of memories from his childhood.  They have since gone their separate ways in life, so it is with great shock that Holden learns that Stradlater’s date this one particular Saturday night is Jane Gallagher:

"Jane Gallagher," I said. I even got up from the washbowl when he said that. I damn near dropped dead. "You're damn right I know her. She practically lived right next door to me, the summer before last. She had this big damn Doberman pinscher. That's how I met her. Her dog used to keep coming over in our--"

This bit of information reshapes Holden’s outlook for the rest of the novel.  From this point on, Jane is an obsession – the unrequited love of his youth over whom he continues to pine.  The reader can be forgiven for being surprised by the excitement with which Holden receives the news of Jane’s imminent arrival for her date with Stadlater.  Holden cannot let go of this information, and continues to pester his roommate while the latter shaves and prepares for his date: 

"Jane Gallagher," I said. I couldn't get over it. "Jesus H. Christ."

 Old Stradlater was putting Vitalis on his hair. My Vitalis.

 "She's a dancer," I said. "Ballet and all. She used to practice about two hours every day, right in the middle of the hottest weather and all. She was worried that it might make her legs lousy--all thick and all. I used to play checkers with her all the time."

Finally, Stradlater suggests Holden go down to the lobby and greet Jane when she arrives:

"Jane Gallagher. Jesus . . . I couldn't get her off my mind. I really couldn't. "I oughta go down and say hello to her, at least."

"Why the hell don'tcha, instead of keep saying it?" Stradlater said.

I walked over to the window, but you couldn't see out of it, it was so steamy from all the heat in the can.. "I'm not in the mood right now," I said. I wasn't, either.”

This passage is telling, as, for the remainder of the novel, Holden will contemplate phoning Jane to get reacquainted, but invariably changes his mind (“[t]he only reason I didn't do it [call Jane] was because I wasn't in the mood. If you're not in the mood, you can't do that stuff right”; “I thought of giving old Jane a buzz, to see if she was home yet and all, but I wasn't in the mood”; etc.).  When he finally does get up the nerve to call Jane, he uses as an excuse to terminate the phone call the possibility of one of Jane’s relatives answering the phone:

“When I came out of the record store, I passed this drugstore, and I went in. I figured maybe I'd give old Jane a buzz and see if she was home for vacation yet. So I went in a phone booth and called her up. The only trouble was, her mother answered the phone, so I had to hang up. I didn't feel like getting involved in a long conversation and all with her. I'm not crazy about talking to girls' mothers on the phone anyway. I should've at least asked her if Jane was home yet, though. It wouldn't have killed me. But I didn't feel like it. You really have to be in the mood for that stuff.”

Holden is seriously obsessed with Jane; almost ‘stalking’-obsessed.  But, there’s another element to the relationship with Jane, an element that seriously affects their relationship and Holden’s ability to engage other females on a sexual basis.  Chapter 11 of The Catcher in the Rye provides Jane’s ‘backstory.’  It is in this chapter where Holden describes his childhood relationship with Jane, and provides the essential details that allow us to view Jane as the novel’s most sympathetic character despite the fact that we never actually meet her.  Earlier in the novel, when Holden and Stradlater are discussing the latter’s imminent date with Jane, Holden somewhat nonchalantly informs his roommate of Jane’s personal life:

"Her mother and father were divorced. Her mother was married again to some booze hound," I said. "Skinny guy with hairy legs. I remember him. He wore shorts all the time. Jane said he was supposed to be a playwright or some goddam thing, but all I ever saw him do was booze all the time and listen to every single goddam mystery program on the radio. And run around the goddam house, naked. With Jane around, and all."

While Stradlater fixates – to the extent he fixates on anything – with the titillating information regarding
nudity and the young woman with whom he would soon be dating, Holden’s divulgence of this information strongly suggests a background involving incest, with Jane the victim. Holden doesn’t make the connection, and is too obsessed with the notion of this unsophisticated roommate having sex with Jane:

“I didn't turn it off right away, though. I just kept laying there on Ely's bed, thinking about Jane and all. It just drove me stark staring mad when I thought about her and Stradlater parked somewhere in that fat-assed Ed Banky's car. Every time I thought about it, I felt like jumping out the window. The thing is, you didn't know Stradlater. I knew him. Most guys at Pencey just talked about having sexual intercourse with girls all the time--like Ackley, for instance--but old Stradlater really did it.”

In Chapter 11, though, Holden provides more details that, combined with that earlier information, leaves one unable to draw any other conclusion.  Recalling an instance on Jane’s porch playing checkers when her stepfather approaches to ask if either of the kids has a cigarette, only to witness Jane completely ignoring this adult figure of authority, Holden describes the event as follows:

“Finally the guy went inside the house. When he did, I asked Jane what the hell was going on. She wouldn't even answer me, then. She made out like she was concentrating on her next move in the game and all. Then all of a sudden, this tear plopped down on the checkerboard. On one of the red squares--boy, I can still see it.  She just rubbed it into the board with her finger. I don't know why, but it bothered hell out of me. So what I did was, I went over and made her move over on the glider so that I could sit down next to her--I practically sat down in her lap, as a matter of fact. Then she really started to cry, and the next thing I knew, I was kissing her all over . . .”

Jane holds a special place in Holden’s heart.  Sadly, he is too self-absorbed to consider the tribulations with which this apparent victim of sexual abuse has existed.  The central character in The Catcher in the Rye is so narcissistic in his own way that he fails to acknowledge who throughout his life has been the real victim.

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The Catcher in the Rye

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