The antagonist for a story can also be called the villain, or one who provides the obstacles for the protagonist. Conflicts in literature can be categorized into man vs. man, man vs. self, man vs. nature, and man vs. society, etc. In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden has many adventures which pit him against society and other people; but for the most part, Holden antagonizes himself.
One of the first ways Holden antagonizes himself is by getting kicked out of three schools. Mr. Spencer, a teacher, tries to help Holden realize the path he is on by having a heart-to-heart talk with him before he must leave Pencey--his third school.
"'If I'm not mistaken, I believe you also had some difficulty at the Whooton School, and at Elkton Hills.' He didn't say it just sarcastic, but sort of nasty, too.
'I didn't have too much difficulty at Elkton Hills,' I told him. 'I didn't exactly flunk out or anything. I just quit, sort of'" (13).
Here Holden admits that he quit. This only hurts himself in the long run. Holden gets into a pattern of self-destruction on many levels that he just can't break.
Another way Holden gets in his own way is by obsessing over different things. He obsesses over where the fish go in the winter time, for example. The worst is how he obsesses over his roommate going on a date with Jane Gallagher, a girl he's crushing on. When his roomy gets back from the date, he keeps asking him how far he got with her. After pushing Stradlater to his limits, and then not taking his warnings, Stradlater must beat Holden up to get him to stop whining about Jane:
". . . I went over and took a look at my stupid face in the mirror. You never saw such gore in your life. I had blood all over my mouth and chin and even on my pajamas and bathrobe. It partly scared me and it partly fascinated me" (45).
Holden would not have had to go through such a beating if he had just left Stradlater alone. Stradlater had to do something to get Holden off his back about Jane; therefore, Holden is to blame for this fight.
Finally, a third time that Holden gets in his own way, is when he's on a date with Sally and asks her to marry him. Sally is the voice of reason and tries to talk him back to reality. He gets so mad at her that tells her that she's a pain in the ass. If he had just not said that one thing, she probably would have forgiven him for the rest of the crazy things he was saying. But the following happened:
"Boy, did she hit the ceiling when I said that. I know I shouldn't've said it, and I probably wouldn't've ordinarily, but she was depressing the hell out of me. Usually I never say crude things like that to girls. Boy did she hit the ceiling. I apologized like a madman, but she wouldn't accept my apology. She was even crying" (134).
Holden does not have much self-control and therefore can't maintain relationships or keep himself on track. It's sad, really. After reading passages like the ones above, one might even argue that the real antagonist is his mental illness because without it, Holden would be a smart, intelligent boy going to school and leading a productive life. Luckily, he is admitted into a hospital in California that should be able to help him with his true nemesis.