In The Catcher in the Rye, when does Holden lose his innocence?
In a sense, Holden never really does lose his innocence in the book. He is bewildered and frightened by the world and all the changes he’s passing through as an adolescent, but at age seventeen, after narrating all the ‘madman stuff’ (chapter 1) that happened to him recently which has led to him being institutionalized, he still appears to be the same doubting, wondering, dissatisfied consciousness that he has been all the way through.
Holden remains on the brink of adulthood, looking fearfully towards the future but still as yet, he’s not figured out how to relate to his peers, or members of the opposite sex, or what to do for a career. When people ask him if he’s going to knuckle down to study when he returns to school, all he can say is ‘I think I am’ (chapter 26) and in his usual petulant way, he remarks that ‘it’s a stupid question’(chapter 26). He persists, more or less, in acting and thinking like he’s about thirteen’(chapter 2)or ‘about twelve’(chapter 2) as he says himself.
Holden, then, does not seem to really take on board any kind of adult values. He seems unwilling to let go of childhood innocence. All throughout the book we see that it is only children he is really able to interact with, most notably his little sister Phoebe. It could be said that really he wishes to remain frozen in time, in an earlier, happier, simpler time – the time of childhood. The Museum of Natural History, which he remembers visiting frequently as a child with his schoolmates and teacher, functions as an image of this.
The best thing, though, in that museum, was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move (chapter 16)
However, he concedes that people, unlike museum pieces, do change and move on, although he continues to reflect that:
Certain things they should stay the way they are. You ought to be able to stick them in in one of those big glass cases and just leave them alone. I know that’s impossible, but it’s too bad anyway. (chapter 16)
Holden accepts, then, that changes are inevitable after all, that children visiting the museum (like himself and also Phoebe) will develop and, eventually, grow up. However, by the end of the book, it seems he still has not quite shed all his innocence.