What does Holden think about himself in Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye?

Expert Answers

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

Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye , has a remarkably unique perception on his world. Truthfully, Holden's main talent lies in his ability to criticize others. In Holden's viewpoint, most people he encounters are bastards, phonies, morons, liars, and so on. This raises...

See
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, has a remarkably unique perception on his world. Truthfully, Holden's main talent lies in his ability to criticize others. In Holden's viewpoint, most people he encounters are bastards, phonies, morons, liars, and so on. This raises the interesting question as to how Holden views himself.

Holden's hasty criticisms of friends, acquaintances, and strangers often seem wholly misanthropic. His tolerance for negative character traits is practically nonexistent, and he occasionally applies his own high standards to himself.

For one thing, Holden certainly seems aware of his own mental instability. After spontaneously asking an old romantic flame, Sally Hayes, if she wants to get married, he reflects on his impulsive action: "I don't even know why I started that stuff with her . . . I swear to God I'm a madman" (134).

Holden is embarrassed about his academic shortcomings; when confronted by Mr. Spencer about a mediocre essay that he had written on the Egyptians, Holden cringes and becomes uncomfortable. He seems to view himself as an intelligent boy that is capable of better work, which is further suggested by his excessive criticism of others.

He also considers himself to be weak and passive. He does not necessarily believe in violence—apart from roughhousing with Stradlater—and he describes himself specifically as a "pacifist." Holden also admits to being a "terrific liar," a trait that he certainly loathes in others.

Holden Caulfield does not necessarily have tremendous self-esteem, which could possibly be caused or affected by his misanthropy. In many ways, his hasty criticisms act as a defensive shield to avoid getting hurt by others. His dismissal of everyone as a "phony" brings about the question as to whether or not he views himself as phony. As a whole, it seems as though his self-awareness is so keen that it cripples him; in other words, as seen in his interaction with Sally Hayes, he becomes conflicted in his feelings. By fearing hypocrisy—or becoming like one of those he holds contempt for—he is not able to act sincerely toward others. He asks Sally Hayes to marry him but then retreats into his protective shell. Holden aims to stay sincere but consequently struggles to find his identity.

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

Holden Caulfield is one of literature's most famous unreliable narrators and continually contradicts himself throughout the entire novel. As a teenage boy struggling with the traumatic death of his younger brother, Holden has a difficult time transitioning into adulthood and is depicted as an extremely moody, unstable, jaded young man. Holden is a hypochondriac who struggles to make friends, has a difficult time speaking to women appropriately, and behaves awkwardly in social settings.

At times, Holden has an elevated view of himself and carries himself with confidence. Holden refers to himself as being "quite sexy," says he's a "pacifist," and thinks he is "pretty healthy." However, Holden contradicts these statements by mentioning that he is a virgin, demonstrates his violent nature by punching Stradlater, and continually smokes cigarettes. One of Holden's most memorable statements illustrating how he perceives himself takes place when Holden tells the reader,

I'm quite illiterate, but I read a lot. (Salinger, 10)

The majority of the time, Holden has a negative self-perception and tells the reader that he is a "moron," a "liar," and a "very weak guy." Despite the many adjectives that Holden uses to describe himself, the most telling comment he makes regarding his self-perception is when he tells the reader, "I'm a madman" (Salinger, 81). One could argue that one of Holden's biggest vices is his lack of self-perception. As an adolescent transitioning into the competitive world of adults, Holden struggles to accurately define himself, which results in his extremely inflated confidence as well as his low self-esteem.

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

Holden Caulfield is a 16-17 year-old boy who attends college preparatory schools. (Schools is plural because he's been kicked out of three of them.)He's also been through a lot in his young life, such as losing his little brother Allie to leukemia, and he's not functioning very well because of it. In an effort to cope with life, Holden lies:

"I'm the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life. It's awful. If I'm on my way to the store to buy a magazine, even, and somebody asks me where I'm going, I'm liable to say I'm going to the opera. It's terrible" (16).

The above passage is so ironic because Holden is also very critical of other people who he views as phonies. Usually phonies are adults, but he points out many others throughout the book as well. What's ironic, is he never figures out that he's probably one of the greatest hypocrites, too. At least he knows he's a liar, right?

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team