In The Catcher in the Rye, how does J.D Salinger present his characters?

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William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

It would seem that J. D. Salinger's characterization is so trenchant and often so amusing because, in addition to describing people as seen through the eyes of a sarcastic and rebellious teenager, he represents types as individuals. This should be obvious in Chapter Two when Holden goes to visit Mr. Spencer. As far as Holden is concerned, Mr. Spencer is a unique individual--but from the reader's point of view this is a typical old man with many of the weaknesses and idiosyncrasies common to old men in general.

This meeting is hilarious when one sees it as a young person's unsympathetic and unblinking perception of old age. It is because of Holden's still uncompromised, uncorrupted childlike vision, along with his talent in expressing himself in the vernacular, that The Catcher in the Rye has been so often compared with Huckleberry Finn. Holden can't help seeing reality because life hasn't made him phony yet--as it probably will. Like Huck Finn, he is a good liar, but he isn't a phony--and there is a big difference. A phony is a liar who doesn't know he is a liar. Holden, like Huck, always knows when he is lying.

Getting back to Mr. Spencer, who is very important because he is the first character Holden deals with in the novel, these are some of Salinger's observations expressed through his viewpoint character.

He was reading the Atlantic Monthly, and there were pills and medicine all over the place, and everything smelled like Vicks Nose Drops.

The Atlantic Monthly characterizes Mr. Spencer as something of an intellectual. Most of us have visited old people in rooms smelling of something like Vicks Nose Drops and have probably felt just about as depressed as Holden--but we older types try not to admit having such feelings because we know we are supposed to be feeling something else. Most of us hate visiting people in hospital rooms, where everything seems sticky and covered with germs and smells vaguely of urine and chicken broth. But we pretend we're happy to be there, and we ask phony questions about the quality of the food and can't wait to get out of there.

I don't much like to see old guys in their pajamas and bathrobes anyway.

Who does?

He started going into this nodding routine. You never saw anybody nod as much in your life as old Spencer did. You never knew if he was nodding a lot because he was thinking and all, or just because he was a nice old guy that didn't know his ass from his elbow.

This is not an old man, it is old men.

He also started picking his nose. He made out like he was only pinching it, but he was really getting the old thumb right in there.

I moved my ass a little bit on the bed. It was the hardest bed I ever sat on.

Later Holden calls it "his cement bed." Owning, and probably enjoying, such a hard bed is characteristic of many old men. Here again, Salinger is describing a type but having his boy-narrator see him as an individual.

E-notes has a policy about only answering one question per posting, so I will confine my remaining thoughts to Mr. Spencer and not try to deal with any other characters, except to say that many of them can also be seen as types, including Ackley, the prostitute called Sunny and the bellhop named Maurice, even Mr. Antolini the closet queen. They are all "types," but Holden is too young to see them as such.

All he did was lift the Atlantic Monthly off his lap and try to chuck it on the bed, next to me. He missed. It was only about two inches awy, but he missed anyway.

gunggaygirl | Student

Holden seems to show some sort of respect for Mr. Spencer, his history teacher. He is Holden's favorite teacher at Pencey. Mr. Spencer is an old man who Holden thinks should not be teaching anymore. He appears only i. the beginning of the book before Holden leaves Pencey. He has a talk with Holden, but the conversation does not take very long after Mr. Spencer starts to discuss Holden's grades with him. 

Mrs. Morrow is the mother of one of Holden's classmates, Ernie Morrow. He meets her on the train after she sits next to him. Holden describes her to be quite attractive for a mother and a woman for her age. He shows some respect for that he does not show for most people. Once she hears that he's from Pencey, she starts to talk about her son with Holden and he lies to her about how amazing Ernie is to appease her. 

Richard Ackley is a boy in the same dorm as Holden in Pencey. Their rooms are right by each other and Ackley walks in whenever he wants, which annoys Holden. He is disgusting and repulsive, especially in appearance. He is described to be very pimply and when he was in Holden's room, he messed around with his pimples and nails a lot. He is oblivious to Holden's annoyance, but he hates Holden's roomate, Stradlater. 

Ward Stradlater is Holden's senior roomate at Pencey. He is described to be big and a lady's man and a jock. He is very full of himself, and is not very bright. He frequently boasts about his sexual prowess. 

Faith Cavendish is a girl that one of Holden's friends knows. She isn't exactly a prostitute, but she's a rich girl who likes to frequently sleep around. 

The three girls at the bar just looked for celebrities to come in. Holden comes up to them and dances with them for a while until he sees that they are all quite dull and stupid. 


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The Catcher in the Rye

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