Illustration of a man smoking a cigarette

The Catcher in the Rye

by J. D. Salinger

Start Free Trial

In The Catcher in the Rye, what does Holden mean when he says, "Don't ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody"?

Quick answer:

When Holden says "Don't ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody," he means that getting close with others and building meaningful bonds will eventually end in heartbreak and loneliness. Holden's traumatic past has conditioned him to remain aloof and distant from others as a psychologically protective measure. His fear of losing another important person influences him to remain introverted and repress his difficult emotions.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

J. D. Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye ends with the teen antihero, Holden Caulfield, likely in some kind of mental health facility. He’s just let the reader know that everything that he’s told the reader about, he’s written in this place. The quote listed in the question encompasses the last two sentences in his story.

The final thought from Holden has several meanings. One of its meanings is literal. Holden is admitting that he misses the people that he’s been talking about. Despite the fact that he’s spent much of the story describing these people as phonies and morons, as it turns out, he feels a connection to the sources of his contempt.

The sentence also carries a dramatic meaning. Holden is being sweeping and grand. He’s not saying that he misses specific people or certain individuals. He’s not being nuanced; he’s being expansive. The exaggerated meaning ties back to the polarizing quality of Holden’s diction. Throughout the story, Holden tends to speak in absolute terms, like early on in the novel, when he says, “People never believe you.”

Additionally, the quote contains a sentimental meaning. Although Holden has presented himself as a misanthrope—someone who’d rather be a “deaf-mute bastard” than live among people—it appears as if Holden possesses something of a soft spot for human beings after all.

Finally, one could argue that the meaning is deceptive. At the start of chapter 3, Holden warns the reader, “I’m the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life.” Without totally discounting Holden’s statement, it’s possible to argue that Holden is not the most reliable of narrators. Thus, this statement could be taken with a grain of salt.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

This is the last line of the novel, and the context is Holden's conversation with his older brother, D. B.:

D.B. asked me what I thought about all this stuff I just finished telling you about. I didn't know what the hell to say. If you want to know the truth, I don't know what I think about it. I'm sorry I told so many people about it. About all I know is, I sort of miss everybody I told about. Even old Stradlater and Ackley, for instance. I think I even miss that goddam Maurice. It's funny. Don't ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.

Holden is speaking to the power of memory and empathy. People come alive for him as he recalls them, and this makes him miss them.

This shows us two conflicting things about Holden. First, he wants to hold people at a distance because his experience has been that when he gets close to someone, he experiences pain and loss. He wrongly feels that by isolating himself, he can save himself from pain. Further, not only are the memories painful, telling people about them builds an intimacy that he finds threatening because it can lead to more pain.

But despite his advice to cut oneself off from memory and empathy, this passage shows just how humane and empathetic Holden is. He likes people, even the people he would have a good reason to hate. His feelings are alive, and he responds deeply to others. He longs for connection. This sensitivity to others shows that Holden is not oriented toward using people, but toward loving them—this trait helps redeem him as a character.

Salinger also suggests that the very sensitivity that causes Holden to have a breakdown is also at the core what makes him human.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Holden makes this comment at the end of the book, and this quote highlights his fragile emotional state and inability to cope with difficult, complex feelings. Instead of cultivating meaningful relationships and sharing his thoughts with people he cares about, Holden psychologically puts up "walls" to protect himself. When examining this quote, it is important to analyze Holden's background and social experiences. Throughout the story, he is portrayed as a hypercritical, anxious teenager who is extremely immature and judgmental. Holden fears becoming an adult and struggles to cope with his traumatic childhood experiences.

When Holden was thirteen, his younger brother, Allie, died of leukemia, which negatively affected his emotional state and social development. In addition to experiencing his brother's death, Holden also witnessed his classmate, James Castle, commit suicide. His parents are also aloof, and his older brother, D. B., moved away when he needed him the most.

These traumatic experiences have a negative impact on Holden's psychology, emotional stability, and social life. He never fully copes with Allie's death and purposely distances himself from those he cares about as a protective measure. A prime example is Holden's refusal to call Jane Gallagher. Jane is one of the few people who genuinely cares about Holden, but he continually hesitates to call her. Instead, Holden interacts with remote, insensitive individuals who do not understand him.

Holden believes that if he shares his feelings and opens up to people he cares about, they will eventually abandon him, leaving him traumatized and lonely. Unfortunately, Holden is too immature and emotionally scarred to understand that repressing difficult feelings and distancing himself will only make his situation worse. The audience recognizes that Holden would benefit from communicating with others, expressing his difficult feelings in a composed manner, and coping with the death of his younger brother.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

When Holden makes this statement, he means that once you get close to someone and depend on them for emotional support and you have a real connection, you can really miss that person, because they can leave you. People leave, they die, they are unreliable.

Holden technically has lost both his brothers. Allie, his younger brother died, and D.B. has left and gone to California. He feels very distant from D.B., because he thinks he is a sell-out, writing movie scripts instead of serious books. Two people Holden really needs in his life are gone.

Jane Gallagher, the girl that Holden really cares about, she seems far away to him. He misses her too, even though all he has to do is call her. He can't or he won't, and because of this inability to get close to someone, other than his sister, he suffers from isolation.

He fears sharing his feelings with anyone; he has developed a protection strategy, don't get close to anyone and you are safe. He is seriously misguided in this belief, and because of it, he has an emotional breakdown.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial