Construct a clear and arguable thesis on Holden's relationship with the past and how this contributes to the meaning of The Catcher in the Rye as a whole.

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

There are a variety of ways one can go in constructing a thesis statement about the relationship that Holden has towards his past and how it impacts his work.  One potential thesis might center on Holden's inability to understand anything in concrete terms, including the past.  This thesis could resemble the following:  "Holden's uncertainty regarding the past is reflective of the lack of certainty within the work as a whole."  This thesis would focus on how Holden cannot find much in way of absolutism and certainty in his own life.  Focusing on his inability to develop relationships with others would be a part of this. As evidenced in his own peer group such as with Stradlater and Jane, and in older individuals like Mr. Antolini, Holden cannot understand the role of these interpersonal forces in his past and thus is unable to really understand the purpose of the past.  While he demonstrates a narrative capacity to relay the past for the entire novel is told from the past referential point, Holden is not able to ascribe any real meaning to it.  The result is that Holden is a character who is unable to formulate any real judgment on the past.  This lack of certainty is reflective of the work as a whole.  There are no absolute answers generated from the work. Rather, there are more questions.  In understanding the lack of totality within the world, the novel makes a definitive statement against the time period in which it is set.  The 1950s was a context in which answers appeared to be simple.  Thus, just as Holden is unable to make any real statement about the past, the novel suggests that certainty must be repudiated in the name of asking and generating more questions.

Another approach to take about Holden's relationship to the past and its impact on the work as a whole is to suggest that Holden experiences nostalgia. Holden's understanding of the past is one rooted in nostalgia, thus making his predicament, and the work as a whole, a tragic recollection of that which has passed.  A thesis on this point might resemble something akin to "Holden holds a tragically nostalgic view of the past, a condition that is echoed throughout the work."  In developing this thesis statement, I think that you would have to look at how Holden looks at Phoebe.  Throughout his view of Phoebe, there is an understanding of the past that is nostalgic, something that mourns the loss of that which is gone and lives in the present with its ache at the center of its being:

I was sort of afraid she'd fall off the goddam horse, but I didn't say anything or do anything. The thing with kids is, if they want to grab for the gold ring, you have to let them do it, and not say anything. If they fall off, they fall off, but it's bad if you say anything to them.

When Holden sees Phoebe on the carousel, there is a collision between the past and the future.  The need to go back into the past and undue the pain evident collides with the reality that change is a part of being in the world.  Holden loves the museum because  "everything stayed right where it was. Nobody'd move."  However, it becomes clear that when Holden sees Phoebe, he is forced to accept a world in which there is movement in the reality of her "falling off." This becomes part of Holden's understanding of the past.  It becomes tragic, a sensibility in which one recognizes a particular beauty in a lack of movement, but an understanding that change is inevitable.  This tragic condition ends up haunting the ending of the work in which Holden suggests that  "don't ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody."  The past is a reality that cannot be held, only mourned.  Thus, the future is constructed with a sense of inevitable mourning intrinsic to it. This idea is seen in the work, as a whole, where a sense of sadness in contrast to progress is evident.  In seeing the thesis in this light, the work becomes a recollection in tragic sensibility more than hopeful optimism.

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The Catcher in the Rye

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