The Catcher in the Rye Questions and Answers
by J. D. Salinger

The Catcher in the Rye book cover
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What are some ways to approach a character analysis for the novel The Catcher in the Rye?

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Michael Del Muro eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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One way you may want to approach your character analysis of Holden is to actually conduct a psychoanalysis of him. (Here's a quick summary of this theory.)

The reason why this type of character analysis might work is that it's suggested on the opening page ("I got pretty run-down and had to come out here and take it easy"), but confirmed at the novel's end, that Holden himself is undergoing therapy, most likely psychoanalysis.

What you would probably want to do is look at the Freudian concepts, particularly id, ego and superego. Simply put, the id is the unconscious part of the human psyche that responds to instincts and human desires (sex, food). The ego is the mediator between the id and the real world (from SimplyPsychology):

The ego operates according to the reality principle, working out realistic ways of satisfying the id’s demands, often compromising or postponing satisfaction to avoid negative consequences of society. The ego considers social realities and norms, etiquette and rules in deciding how to behave.

And the superego functions to create the feelings of right and wrong and moral and immoral in a person. Guilt comes from the superego.

I would probably focus on how Holden's superego is his dominant psychological force. He thinks of things in terms of what's right and wrong. For example, according to Holden, Stradlater shouldn't have sex with Jane Gallagher because he doesn't know about how she keeps all her kings in the back row. Throughout the novel, Holden's superego battles with his id. While Holden refuses to have sex, he is driven by that human desire. This is why he hires a prostitute and calls Sally Hayes. In each of these instances, Holden's superego, unconsciously, convinces him that it's wrong. He wants to talk to the prostitute, not have sex with her. He asks Sally to run off with him because it's pretty clear from them making out in the cab and Holden telling her he "loved her and all" that his relationship with her, especially if he went over to "trim the tree Christmas Eve," could lead to his first real sexual encounter. So, it's possible that when he asks her to run off with him, he's purposely sabotaging the relationship.

Obviously, this is a different type of character analysis, but it can be effective. 

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kadams05 | Student

Because J. D. Salinger’s 1951 novel The Catcher in the Rye is narrated by Holden Caulfield, readers see his inner thoughts and emotions. As the narrative unfolds, Holden reveals troubling aspects of his life as he copes with adolescence, sexuality, an uncertain future, the loss of his brother, and possible abuse. With all of these complex issues, it is no wonder that Holden is such a troubled and fragile character who eventually undergoes a mental breakdown.

As Holden tells his story, he frequently displays defensive behaviors that reveal his fragile sense of self. For example, he often tries to boost his own ego and impress his audience by describing himself as a smooth-talking Romeo. He often describes himself as "suave as hell" and "seductive as hell" when interacting with girls, but as the reader, we realize that such bragging is most likely unwarranted when other characters repeatedly comment on his youth and immaturity. Holden is concerned about how others see him and he wants to see himself in a better light too.

Holden's unstable character is also depicted through his fear of intimacy. He displays a wariness of opening up to others. For example, early in the story, Mr. Spencer asks Holden about his school troubles. Instead of taking this opportunity to share his troubles, Holden remains guarded and says, “I didn’t feel like going into the whole thing with [Mr. Spencer]. He wouldn’t have understood it anyway.” Later in the novel, Holden reveals that he was once very close with Jane Gallagher. He had even shown her his brother's baseball mitt. But now, Holden is scared to reconnect with Jane and he never reaches out to her, even though he repeatedly talks about doing so. Such behavior suggests that Holden now fears becoming close to others or being rejected.

Another one of Holden's defensive behaviors is escapism. He tries to physically flee his troubles, such as when he wanders around New York City after flunking out of school instead of going home. He also tries to mentally escape his troubles. For example, after his run in with Maurice, Holden elaborately pretends that he gets into a shooting match with the man where he came out victorious. Such pretending allows Holden to escape his feelings of cowardice and confusion while boosting his self-esteem. This fiction also helps Holden to feel more in control of his downward-spiraling life. 

These examples show Holden to be a troubled young man who struggles with insecurities and a fragile well-being. Though he tries to come across as tough and mature, we readers come to know a more vulnerable and uncertain Holden.

emily-sophie | Student

With Holden there are a few things in particular to pay attention to:

1. Holden is an extraordinarily judgmental person. He calls nearly everyone he meets "phony" because he believes their behavior is insincere, yet he makes no effort to get to know these people and see through their superficiality. The only person he doesn't judge is his little sister Phoebe. Holden admires and wants to protect the innocence of children so that they do not become "phony" like the adults.

2. Holden has suffered trauma early on in his life with the death of his brother Allie and it has led him to become a troubled young man. Ultimately, Holden is brought to a hospital to see a psychoanalyst, though we as readers do not find out what exactly he is being treated for. When Holden roams through New York City he is plagued by the question: What happens to the ducks in Central Park when the pond freezes? However, this concern can also be understood as Holden asking what is going to happen to him now that he has left school.

3. Holden desperately wants to hold onto childhood innocence, while simultaneously enjoying adult pleasures such as smoking, cursing and sex. When Phoebe asks him what he wants to do with his life, Holden says he wants to be a "Catcher in the Rye" like he once heard in a song. He wants to stand in a field of rye and prevent playing children from falling off the cliff's edge (chapter 22). This can be interpreted as Holden wanting to prevent children from growing up and by extension stop himself from truly growing up.