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The Catcher in the Rye

by J. D. Salinger
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List some of the people and actions Holden sees as phony, and then discuss how he is phony himself in The Catcher in the Rye.

Holden describes many people and things as "phony" throughout The Catcher in the Rye, and this appears to be his favorite criticism. For example, Holden calls the headmaster of Pencey Prep a "phony slob" and criticizes his brother D. B. for being a phony sell-out for wanting to write Hollywood screenplays. However, Holden himself loves to fabricate stories and thus is also "phony." He even says he is "the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life."

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Holden Caulfield of The Catcher in the Rye is critical of many things and nearly everyone with whom he has contact, including himself. Most of his frustration and criticism has to do with his belief that others are "phony"—that is, that they or their actions are fake and/or superficial. Holden dearly loves his little sister, Phoebe, as well as his deceased brother, Allie—these are some of the only characters Holden does not accuse of phony behavior. It's important to note that Holden's criticism is a bit hypocritical: Holden often lies and deceives others, meaning that he, too, is somewhat of a phony.

Holden accuses the following people and things of "phoniness":

  • Pencey Prep
    Pencey Preparatory School, which has expelled Holden, has advertised the school as having a polo team, but Holden states he has seen no horses there. In the advertisements, there is a line that reads, "Since 1888 we have been molding boys into splendid and clear-thinking young men." Holden contends that the school does no more "molding" than any other school. Indeed, Holden, Stradlater, and Ackley do not seem to meet the standard promised by the school's advertising (Ch. 1).
  • D. B. Caulfield
    Holden's brother D. B. was once an original writer, but Holden considers him a phony since he has gone to Hollywood, where he is "being a prostitute." That is, he has sacrificed his artistic talents for writing screenplays (Ch. 1).
  • Stradlater
    Holden's roommate, Stradlater, seems to look neat, but Holden declares he is "a secret slob." Holden says Stradlater "looked all right," but his razor was rusty with hairs and "crap" on it. Also, Stradlater has Holden write an essay for him and plans to turn it in as his (Ch. 4).
  • Ernest Morrow
    A classmate named Ernest Morrow is described by his mother as "a very sensitive boy." However, Holden comments, "That guy Morrow was about as sensitive as a —— toilet seat" (Ch. 8).

Examples of Holden's own "phony" or hypocritical behavior:

  • Holden confesses to the reader that he is "the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life" (Ch. 3).
  • He complains about Ackley's being in his room too long, but he stays in Ackley's room and sleeps for hours in his roommate's bed (Ch. 7).
  • Holden praises some of the faculty although he has earlier criticized them. He calls them phonies because they "act like" teachers, meaning their demeanor is different in the classroom than when they engage in a private conversation (e.g., Mr. Spencer).
  • When Holden meets Ernest Morrow's mother, Holden falsifies his name, telling her he is Rudolf Schmidt, the name of the school's janitor.
  • After Mrs. Morrow says that Ernest loves the school, Holden praises her son, even though he regards Ernest with disdain: "Then I started shooting the crap around a little bit... 'He adapts himself very well to things. He really does. I mean he really knows how to adapt himself' " (Ch. 8). However, earlier in Chapter 7, Holden describes Eric in derogatory terms, calling him "the biggest bastard that ever went to Pencey."
  • Holden tells Mrs. Morrow that he is on the train home because he must have an operation for a brain tumor. Then, when Mrs. Morrow invites him to visit, Holden says he is going to South America with his grandmother. (Ch.8)
  • In another aspect of his life, Holden is also hypocritical. He is upset with Stradlater for his cheap sexual exploits, believing that people should not engage in sexual activity unless they care for each other deeply and have respect for one another. However, he tries hard to lose his virginity, even agreeing at a hotel to pay for a prostitute. Yet he also claims to value innocence.
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PHONIES.  About the only two people that Holden does not consider phonies are his sister, Phoebe, and his dead brother, Allie. Virtually everyone else fits this label.

  • Holden calls the headmaster of Pencey Prep a "phony slob."
  • Pencey Prep
  • Lillian Simmons
  • Sally Hayes.  Holden believes his ex-girlfriend has acquired a snooty, Ivy League outlook.
  • Mr. Antolini.  Although he is Holden's favorite teacher, he is also a phony because Holden believes him to be a pervert.
  • D. B. Caulfield.  Holden believes his brother has sold out for the financial success of Hollywood.
  • Stradlater.  His "obnoxious" roommate is handsome but intellectually lazy.
  • Sunny, the prostitute.  She accepts payment from Holden, but then returns with her pimp for more money; Holden wasted her time by talking instead of having sex.
  • The Edmont Hotel.  It's full of "perverts and morons."
  • The Seattle girls.  Their main goal of being in New York is to see celebrities.

HOLDEN'S PHONINESS.  Perhaps the best example of Holden's own phoniness comes when sister Phoebe claims that he hates "a million things." When Holden tries to disprove this, the only two things that he can admit to himself that he likes is Phoebe and his dead brother, Allie. Holden's hatred of virtually everything reveals his own mental instability: He is the worst phony of them all because he can see nothing good in anything around him--a world that should provide him at least a few pleasures. 

However, despite his totally negative attitude as the narrator, he often pretends to be someone else when he is around others--particularly females. He always tries to impress them by pretending to be something he is not.

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