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The Catcher in the Rye

by J. D. Salinger

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In the book The Catcher in the Rye, in chapter 20, why does Holden do his "bullet in the guts" number again?

In chapter 20 of the book The Catcher in the Rye, Holden does his "bullet in the guts" number again because he feels more secure in a fantasy world than in the real world. Holden needs to feel secure as he's about to give Sally Hayes a call.

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In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden first acted out his "bullet in the guts" routine in chapter 14, after his altercation with Maurice:

About halfway to the bathroom, I sort of started pretending I had a bullet in my guts. Old Maurice had plugged me. Now I was on the way to the bathroom to get a good shot of bourbon or something to steady my nerves and help me really go into action.

Holden starts play-acting to avoid reality. He imagines himself as a character in a noir thriller or a pulp fiction magazine because this gives a superficial glamor to his squalid situation. In chapter 20, when he is drunk, he reverts to this fantasy again:

When I was really drunk, I started that stupid business with the bullet in my guts again. I was the only guy at the bar with a bullet in their guts. I kept putting my hand under my jacket, on my stomach and all, to keep the blood from dripping all over the place. I didn't want anybody to know I was even wounded. I was concealing the fact that I was a wounded sonuvabitch.

There is an interesting contradiction here. Holden is concealing "the fact" that he is wounded, but this fact is itself a fiction, since he is not wounded. He is hiding something which is not really there. His drunken state prevents him from analyzing the irony of this, as he certainly would if he were sober. However, Holden does feel wounded mentally and emotionally, just as he did after the episode with Sunny and Maurice. He uses the "bullet in the guts" as a metaphor for the real pain he feels, and which he is trying to conceal from everyone, at the same time as he wishes he could find someone to understand his anguish. Holden is awkwardly poised between childhood and adulthood, and his fantasy life here reflects the awkwardness of his position.

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Earlier in the story, Holden had fantasized that he had a bullet in his gut. He'd just been punched in the stomach by Maurice after an argument, and Holden tried to deal with the pain by imagining himself to be a character in a movie who's just been shot in the guts.

Although Holden cordially loathes movies—“The goddam movies. They can ruin you. I'm not kidding”—he briefly acts out a part from one as a way of dealing with a very unpleasant situation. This can be seen as a form of escapism borne out of a chronic inability to deal with reality.

The “bullet in the gut” fantasy can also be seen as a means of making him feel a little braver after what he regards as the cowardice he displayed in his fight with Maurice.

Later on in the story, Holden goes through the whole number again. This time, he's sitting at a bar, completely drunk out of his mind. He retreats into the movie-inspired fantasy world of the bullet in the gut just...

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before he givesSally Hayes a call. Perhaps one can see this as a form of Dutch courage, a way to help Holden deal with a potentially unpleasant situation.

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Holden is extremely drunk at this point, as, in retrospect, he is well aware. So his pretence about being shot is directly related to this; he's just acting daft. It also shows his tendency to melodrama and to imitate the movies even though he apparently loathes them. Earlier he says: "I hate the movies like poison, but I get a bang out of imitating them." Back at Pencey, he pretended to be a tap-dancer in the style of a musical. When he is pretending to be shot, he's obviously mimicking crime and gangster movies. He emphasizes this when, on phoning Sally, he tells her that "Rocky's mob" has got him.

Holden's acting wounded at this point is also symbolic of the fact that he has been wounded emotionally; he is in a mess. But he doesn't want to let on:

I was concealing the fact that I was a wounded sonuvabitch.

Although he is wracked and confused mentally and emotionally, he hides his emotional pain. Getting blind drunk is the only escape for him by this stage in the book. However, things do get a little better after this, at least for a time. He goes to visit his kid sister Phoebe, who seems to be the only person in the entire story he has a genuine connection with.

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At this point in the story, Holden really seems to be falling apart and struggling to hold things together.  His act of pretending to get shot in the stomach has something to do with the fact that he does not like the way he feels about himself, he knows he is broken in a way and this act is a way of trying to work through it.

In some ways it may also be a way of pushing back the reality that he is starting to have to face, the reality of going home, that he doesn't have anyplace to go and that he eventually is going to have to allow someone else to care for him.

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