Holden Caulfield is the protagonist of J.D. Salinger's well-known novel published in 1951, The Catcher in the Rye.
Reflective, bright, but in a state of despair, Holden Caulfield is presented as a portrait of a boy becoming a man and resisting the process every step of the way.
Critics have understood Holden's reluctance in a number of ways, some of which find deep flaws in the character's psyche and others in the world he is thrust into.
Commented the great American novelist William Faulkner, who praised Salinger's novel, "When Holden attempted to enter the human race, there was no human race there."
Holden is a young man, a teenager, who flunks out of a prep school at the opening of the book and spends a few days in New York City, alone though his family lives there, trying to avoid telling his mother and father that he has been kicked out of yet another school.
Holden's choice to fend for himself in the city is in keeping with his character.
Holden Caulfield is a deeply troubled sixteen-year-old boy who is totally alienated from his environment and from society as a whole.
Over the course of the story, Holden reminisces about his younger brother who died of leukemia and reflects on his experiences with the people he has known in his life. While in New York, Holden also goes on a date, meets up with his younger sister Phoebe, and has a meeting with another friend from the past. Various adventures befall Holden along the way, including two negative sexual encounters (or psuedo-sexual encounters).
For reasons that remain open to interpretation, Holden feels that he must rebel against the falseness of society that he sees around him. He wishes to protect the innocence of his sister Phoebe, as well as his own sense of innocence.
Often, Holden rails against the "phonies" he sees in the world around him and espouses a distinct preference for the companionship of children. He is a complex figure, full of turmoil and bearing a "bleeding heart", struggling to find some semblance of salvation for himself though we (the audience) cannot know the exact nature of the demons that haunt him.
We only know what Holden, as the first-person narrator, tells us.
Holden Caulfield is both tragic and funny, innocent and obscene, loving and cruel, clear-sighted yet viewing the world from a warped perspective, an expert in identifying phonies and the greatest phony himself.
Holden Caulfield is a fictitious character who is used by his creator to express J. D. Salinger's views of humanity, just as Huckleberry Finn was used by Mark Twain to express not-too-dissimilar views of humanity in the novel to which The Catcher in the Rye has often been compared. Salinger wrote a number of stories about geniuses. One of the earliest was "Teddy," included in the anthology titledNine Stories. Seymour Glass and the other children in the Glass family, including Franny and Zooey, all had genius I.Q.s. Seymour committed suicide in "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" because of his negative view of humanity, including his own airhead wife. Salinger himself was undoubtedly a genius. He was notorious for his reclusiveness. He lived in a house surrounded by a high wall, never gave interviews, and fled from reporters. No doubt his own view of humanity was mostly negative. This can be noted especially in his two long stories, "Franny" and "Zooey," published together in a single volume.
Salinger does not indicate that Holden Caulfield is a genius--but he hardly has to do so when the entire book is supposedly being written by a sixteen-year-old boy. How many sixteen-year-old boys could writeThe Catcher in the Rye? Holden's biggest problem is that he is a genius, and this makes him a misfit, a rebel, an outsider. When he decides to leave school and go to New York, he stops for a last look down the corridor in the dormitory and then yells, "Sleep tight, ya morons!"He doesn't realize how truthfully he is describing them. If he has an I.Q. of, let us say, 160, then people with average I.Q.s of around 100 are relatively morons. The "morons," unfortunately, are in the majority, as can be seen on the bell-shaped curves in psychology textbooks.
The Catcher in the Ryeis full of brilliant observations and what the French call apercus. That is what makes the novel such delightful reading, and re-reading. Out of many examples, here is one that shows Holden's uncanny perceptiveness and prophetic prowess:
"You're a dirty moron," I said [to Maurice the bellboy]. "You're a stupid chiseling moron, and in about two years you'll be one of those scraggy guys that come up to you on the street and ask for a dime for coffee. You'll have snot all over your dirty filthy overcoat, and you'll be--"
Holden is hardly the first person who sees the shortcomings of humanity. Here is an example from the great German philosopher Schopenhauer, who had such a strong influence on so many creative writers:
O for an Asmodeus of morality who for his minion rendered transparent not merely roofs and walls, but also the veil of dissimulation, falseness, hypocrisy, grimace, lying, and deception that is spread over everything, and who enabled him to see how little genuine honesty is to be found in the world and how often injustice and dishonesty sit at the helm, secretly and in the innermost recess, behind all the virtuous outworks, even where we least suspect them.
John the Baptist, like a lot of other prophets in the Bible, had a rather jaundiced view of his contemporaries. He greeted the Pharisees and Sadducees with the words
"O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" (Matthew 3:7)