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The Catcher in the Rye

by J. D. Salinger

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How is Holden Caulfield an anti-hero in The Catcher in the Rye?

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Holden Caulfield is an engaging and relatable narrator partly because he lacks heroic qualities and is very upfront about this. Anti-heroes are, by definition, more common than heroes, and Holden is, in most of his characteristics, a thoroughly typical teenager: complaining and evading rather than taking decisive action. Unlike many anti-heroes, Holden never regards himself as heroic. In fact, he generally dismisses heroism as phony. He dislikes Sir Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet because Olivier plays the character in a manner he regards as too heroic:

He was too much like a goddam general, instead of a sad, screwed-up type guy.

Holden’s sheltered life means that he generally approaches ideas of heroism and courage through the medium of art, particularly film and drama. He seldom sympathizes with the hero of the film or play he sees, generally identifying with a subsidiary character, if anyone. Before meeting Carl Luce, he watches a movie which he predictably describes as putrid and phony. The film makes him think about war, however and how he might fare in a combat situation:

I don’t think I could stand it if I had to go to war. I really couldn’t. It wouldn’t be too bad if they’d just take you out and shoot you or something, but you have to stay in the Army so goddam long.

Quite apart from the fact that Holden admits that he lacks heroic qualities such as courage, fortitude, and perseverance, he does not value heroism. It might be said that his one aspiration, to be a “catcher in the rye,” saving children from danger, has some of the attributes of heroism, but it is typical of him that the only kind of heroism he regards as valuable is an imaginary occupation based on the misunderstanding of a distinctly unheroic song.

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An anti-hero in literature is a protagonist who lacks heroic qualities and is considered to be the opposite of a conventional hero. Holden Caulfield would be considered an anti-hero because he is the antithesis of a hero and has few redeeming qualities as a protagonist.

Holden lacks bravery, courage, integrity, and honesty throughout the novel, and is a relatively jaded, critical individual, who continually complains about nearly every aspect of society. There are several scenes throughout the novel that demonstrate Holden's lack of strength, courage, and integrity. Holden takes a cheap shot at Stradlater while he is brushing his teeth and ends up losing the fight. Holden also gets beat up by a pimp named Maurice, who ends up stealing an extra five dollars from Holden.

Unlike a conventional hero, Holden is viewed with contempt by other characters and continually embarrasses himself. At the beginning of the novel, Holden mentions that he lost the fencing team's equipment on the subway and was ostracized by the entire team. Holden is also failing out of school, and nearly every adult he speaks to is concerned about his well-being. Women generally think he is weird and men find Holden annoying.

Holden is also not a romantic individual and ends up ruining his date with Sally Hayes after he calls her a "royal pain in the ass." Throughout the novel, Holden squanders numerous chances to better his life and makes several terrible decisions, which ruin relationships with others and lead to his mental breakdown. As an anti-hero, Holden has few desirable character traits and is portrayed as a relatively weak, sensitive person, who struggles to succeed in life.

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An anti-hero is a protagonist who lacks heroic qualities such as courage, proactive decision-making abilities, and a strong sense of purpose. Holden tends to dream of acting like a hero in certain hypothetical situations, but when push comes to shove, Holden backs down, gets beat up, or avoids the altercation all together. For example, when he's walking back to his hotel from Ernie's in chapter 13, he imagines what he would have liked to have done if he had caught the guy who stole his gloves at Pencey. He prefaces his heroic adventure by first saying the following:

"I wished I knew who'd swiped my gloves at Pencey,, because my hands were freezing. Not that I'd have done much about it even if I had known. I'm one of these very yellow guys. I try not to show it, but I am" (88).

Once he admits that he is a coward, he continues on to describe what he would do if he were brave. He would confront the guy to his face and ask why he stole them. Then, when the guy denies knowing about the gloves, Holden says he would stand there and want to punch the guy. Rather than throw the first punch, Holden admits that he would probably just say something "very cutting and snotty, to rile him up" (89). Next, if the guy asked Holden if he was calling him a crook, then he would answer back that he didn't know, but the gloves were found in the guy's galoshes. In the end, Holden admits the following:

"Finally, though, I'd leave his room without even taking a sock at him. I'd probably go down to the can and sneak a cigarette and watch myself getting tough in the mirror" (89).

Holden is like this in many other situations throughout the story. He thinks big, but he doesn't act; he wants to be brave, but he backs down; and, he is still only searching for his purpose in life. He is probably incapable of committing to a purpose and sticking to it, even if he had one. Therefore, Holden proves to be one of the great anti-heroes in literature.

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According to the definition of "antihero," as a character that is in many ways the antithesis of a hero, Holden certainly fits the bill.  If you consider many of his interactions, he is incapable of reacting in the way that the audience would hope a hero would react.  He cannot understand Mr. Antolini's willingness to help him and provide a helping hand.  He fantasizes about being the "catcher in the rye" to save the little kids, but he is unable to follow through on almost any of his heroic ideas.

He is unable to defend Jane from Stradlater in a heroic way and ends up in a desultory fist fight with him instead.

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