What is the central/primary purpose of "The Catcher in the Rye"?

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William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

J. D. Salinger wrote a number of stories about characters who had genius I.Q.s. All the members of the Glass family were geniuses. Seymour Glass, who committed suicide in "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," was most intelligent of all. Salinger does not specifically state that Holden Caulfield is a genius, but the fact that this teenager can allegedly write a book like The Catcher in the Rye speaks for itself. In his novel Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov suggests that this can be a handicap. Nabokov says of Mona Dahl, Lolita's best friend at Beardsley School: “She was burdened with a 150 I.Q.” The central/primary purpose of Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye is to show how a high I.Q. can be both an advantage and a burden, as it undoubtedly was for the eccentric, reclusive author J. D. Salinger himself.

According to the Binet Scale of Human Intelligence, a person with a 150 I.Q. would be mentally as far superior to a person with an average I.Q. as that average person would be mentally superior to a moron--that is, a person with an I.Q. of around 60. Holden is young. He doesn’t yet realize that he is intelligent, although he knows he is good at writing compositions. He is always getting into conflicts with people and frequently ends up calling them morons. He calls Stradlater a moron repeatedly during their quarrel and finally makes his athletic roommate so mad that he knocks him down with a punch to the jaw. Later when Holden has decided to leave Pencey prematurely, he pauses in the dormitory corridor and yells, “Sleep tight, ya morons!” When he has the confrontation with Maurice at the hotel, he tells him:

“You’re a dirty moron. . . . You’re a stupid chiseling moron  . . . .”

Holden ends up on the floor after Maurice punches him in the stomach.


Significantly, he speaks highly of the intelligence of his older brother D.B. and his younger brother Allie who died, as well as of his little sister Phoebe. Of himself he says:

I’m the only dumb one in the family. . . . I’m the only really dumb one.

It seems apparent that Salinger wanted to show that Holden was always getting into trouble in school because his genius I.Q. made him a nonconformist who antagonized his teachers and schoolmates. (Some improvements have been made in teaching gifted students sinceThe Catcher in the Ryewas published.) Holden is at an age where he is just beginning to think for himself; naturally he is confused and inconsistent and makes wrong judgments. Practically everything he does in Manhattan shows confusion and bad judgment. When he calls people morons, he doesn't understand how truthfully he is speaking. His I.Q. makes him a misfit and a lonely outsider. He is always on a futile search for human contact, as symbolized by his hunting hat. He mistakes people for “phonies” when they are only average human beings. He is angry at the world because he doesn't understand why everyone seems to reject him. He antagonizes people without meaning to do so and without understanding why they react the way they do. These include Stradlater, Sally Hayes, the two cab drivers, Maurice, Carl Luce, and even his sister Phoebe who loves him. He is a typical ugly duckling who, hopefully, will one day find out that he really is a swan.

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The Catcher in the Rye

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