When is Holden Caulfield "phony" in Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye? What are some examples of Holden being a phony, and who does he think is a phony?

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tinicraw eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield is very judgmental and declares almost everyone he knows a phony, which means fake. As a teenager, he mostly distrusts adults for being phony. For example, in chapter three, Holden describes a Pencey alumnus and wealthy mortician, named Ossenburger, as phony when he gives a speech to the students as follows:

"He told us we ought to think of Jesus as our buddy and all. He said he talked to Jesus all the time. Even when he was driving his car. That killed me. I can just see the big phony bastard shifting into first gear and asking Jesus to send him a few more stiffs" (17).

Holden probably believes it is hypocritical to ask Jesus for more business to make money because Ossenburger's business thrives on people's deaths; however, he doesn't specify. Holden could also not like Ossenburger simply because he is an adult failing to impress boys during a speech. But if Holden doesn't like Ossenburger because he thinks he fabricates his message, then Holden would be a hypocrite because he claims in chapter 3, "I'm the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life" (16). Lying presents a false image or false information; therefore, Holden is a phony whenever he lies. 

Next, Holden hates actors for pretending to be someone they're not. More specifically, he hates bad actors. Holden's gripe about actors being phony is as follows:

"They didn't act like people, and they didn't act like actors. It's hard to explain. They acted more like they knew they were celebrities and all" (126).

Holden is also phony in this way, though. Whenever he puts on his red hunting cap, Holden puts on an act. The hat allows him to present an alter ego, per se, but it is no different from an actor playing a part. 

Finally, one more example about phoniness is found in chapter 19 when Holden goes to the Wicker Bar to meet Carl Luce. Holden describes the place as follows:

"The Wicker Bar is in this sort of swanky hotel, the Seton Hotel. I used to go there quite a lot, but . . . it's one of those places that are supposed to be very sophisticated and all, and the phonies are coming in the window . . . If you sat around there long enough and heard all the phonies applauding and all, you got to hate everybody in the world, I swear you did" (141-142).

It is always easier for Holden to point out the phoniness in others while failing to see it in himself. Whenever he lies or changes his mind about a person, he doesn't realize that he is the one being fake, not them.


literaturenerd eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Holden, from The Catcher in the Rye, constantly calls others phony. He sees people who are insecure, shallow, and too conventional as "phonies".  Holden also believes that actors are "phonies" given they "never act like people". Basically, Holden believes most all people are phony- aside from the nuns and Phoebe.

Holden, therefore, can be considered a phony.  He fails to act like a person at many times throughout the novel.  He ignores the fact that he has a mental issue.  He refuses to see any problem as one he created.  Holden cannot see what is happening to him and hides it with his excuses and own masking thoughts.  If Holden was to take a good look at himself, he would realize that he is not much different from the people he claims to be phony.

lourdes121809 | Student


this is probably a little late but i think i can still help if you are having doubts.

Holden shows signs of being a phony himself when he lies to adults. For example, when he is in the train with Ernest Morrows mom, he tells her he is the janitor when in reality he is just a student from Pencey who gets kicked out. 


He thinks adults, actresses, actors, and some of his friends are phonies.

hope this helps! 

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The Catcher in the Rye

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