Irony In Catcher In The Rye

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jeff-hauge's profile pic

jeff-hauge | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Associate Educator

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Well, an overall ironic element is Holden's desire to preserve the innocence of the young. Yet while he goes about trying to accomplish this, he cannot help bringing corrupting influences into those lives. While trying to keep his little sister pure, he smokes, swears, drinks, runs away, and is needlessly and purposefully cruel to her. He is also very selective in who he thinks is worthy of this purifying effort. Jane Gallagher is meant to be protected because he believes her to be worthwhile and hates the idea of Stradlater making empty promises and aggressive sexual advances toward her. Yet, he carries out this same behavior with Sally. 

He is stuck between the adult world and the world of children. When he is thrown into an adult situation, he acts like a child, as seen with Sunny, Carl Luce, etc. But when he retreats to the world of children, he brings his faux-adult act with him, as seen with Phoebe, or his fantasy destiny as the Catcher in the Rye. 

It is fitting that his fascination with the ducks in Central Park occurs when he feels lost. The ducks innately know it is time to leave and where to go when the pond freezes and time changes. Holden's childhood pond is, like a museum, frozen, but he is shut out. Like his question about the ducks, he doesn't fly away; he is taken away by men in trucks, presumably wearing white jackets. 

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katharinebooth's profile pic

katharinebooth | In Training Educator

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One specific example of irony in The Catcher and the Rye, which ties into the book's overall theme, is Holden's distinctive habit of swearing coming out in speaking with his younger sister, Phoebe, despite his efforts to protect her and her classmates from vulgar language. 
Holden very often peppers his language with "goddam," which eventually comes out within a few pages of speaking with his younger sister, Phoebe. For example, Holden says the following, in response to Phoebe putting a pillow over her head in frustration with Holden getting kicked out of school, "C'mon, Phoeb, take that goddam thing off your head." (Salinger, 183) Holden in this context is trying to reassure Phoebe that, in reference to her insistence that their father will "kill" him for getting kicked out of school, that "Nobody's gonna kill me." (Salinger, 183) However, he continues swearing during his conversations with Phoebe, prompting Phoebe to say, "Don't swear so much." (Salinger, 186) Holden ignores this, and continues to relate his recent struggles.  
This is ironic because Holden, while sneaking into Phoebe's school, find the phrase "F*** you" written on a wall. He immediately becomes incensed, narrating, "I kept wanting to kill whoever'd written it." (Salinger, 221) He even projects a demeaning assumption on the anonymous writer, saying "I figured it was some perverty bum". (Salinger, 221) Holden then rubs off the phrase on the wall, an action which ties into the book's major theme of Holden's desire to protect children from what he sees is a sick, corrupted world. He does not recognize that he frequently swears in front of his younger sister, a child. He also does not recognize that he and this supposed "perverty bum" who wrote the vulgar phrase in Phoebe's school are not, in fact, so different. Thus, Holden is much closer to the corrupted adult world than he cares to admit.