Holden Caulfield

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Last Updated on June 3, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1632

Extended Character Analysis

J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye is narrated by Holden Caulfield, the jaded, brash, and irreverent protagonist. Holden is a 17 year old who has been admitted into a psychiatric hospital in California. While there, he details the events following his expulsion from Pencey Prep School. Holden is afraid of returning to his parents early. He decides to spend the last three days until his school break wandering New York before returning to his parents. During his time in New York City, he seeks companionship and understanding, but is often unsuccessful.

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Each character interaction within The Catcher in the Rye highlights an aspect of Holden’s character. Holden’s first important interaction is with Mr. Spencer, his history teacher from Pencey Prep. In their interactions, Holden reveals his immaturity, claiming that he sometimes acts like a 12 or 13 year old. He also shows his ageist attitude toward the elderly Mr. Spencer. He describes Mr. Spencer’s agedness and sickliness as depressing, even expressing regret over his decision to visit and say goodbye. Holden rejects Mr. Spencer’s efforts to help during this visit. Holden shows contempt for the “phony” adults that have surrounded him in all his schools. Furthermore, he is restless, careless, and has no future aspirations. Yet, he also exhibits a creative side through his inner monologue.

Holden is disillusioned with adulthood and detached from his surroundings. A large part of this may be due to this younger brother Allie Caulfield’s untimely death. Holden has been negatively affected by Allie’s death, and reflects on Allie’s life often. When Holden is feeling depressed, he “talks” to Allie, and imagines a conversation with him. This shows how Holden is stuck in the past where his brother was still alive instead of being in the present. Holden’s detached sentiment is also apparent when he interacts with people he dislikes. In his interaction with Ackley, he demonstrates acute but rude observational skills. Holden is good at making Ackley and those around him uncomfortable and irritated. Additionally, Holden’s observations are often irreverent and matter-of-fact. Yet, Holden idealizes his deceased brother Allie, his sister Phoebe, and his friend Jane Gallagher. Holden views these people in a loving light. He notices their small and endearing characteristics. Furthermore, Holden is a self-proclaimed liar and pacifist. He lies easily to his teacher Mr. Spencer and to many others. For example, he picks a fight with Stradlater over his mistreatment of Jane Gallagher. Holden is unable to match Stradlater’s violence, and loses.

At the end of the first part of The Catcher in the Rye, Holden decides to leave Pencey Prep and head to New York for a few days before returning to his parents. This showcases Holden’s spontaneity and indicates how little regard he has for personal consequences. Holden also exhibits signs of depression at this point; he admits to crying and feeling dark and lonely. As a last hurrah, and as an example of Holden’s often obnoxious bravado, he yells, “Sleep tight, ya morons!” to the sleeping students in his dorm before leaving.

On the train ride to New York, Holden meets a classmate’s mother. They start a conversation, but Holden hides his identity and his dislike for the classmate. This conversation shows Holden’s manipulative side. He enjoys “chucking the old crap around,” or making things up, and getting the interest and attention of his classmate’s mother. He tells her he is having an “operation” as a way of explaining him being out of school earlier than he should be. However, Holden feels uncomfortable when he sees how genuine the mother’s reactions are. Although he enjoys making up stories, he doesn’t enjoy receiving undeserved pity.

During Holden’s meanderings through New York, he appreciates characters who don’t talk much. For example, the taxi driver that brings Holden from the train to his hotel says very little. Holden, who labels most people as “phony,” describes the taxi driver as “great company” and a “terrific personality.” Holden’s time at the hotel pushes him to reflect on his view of sex, and his inability to understand it and control it. He sees people doing things that he has a hard time comprehending. Holden calls a woman named Faith Cavendish, who was an ex-burlesque dancer. She refuses to meet him due to the late hour of night. Holden cannot understand that his actions are unusual, nor that Faith doesn’t want to go out for cocktails with him.

Later on at the Lavender Lounge, Holden meets three women from Seattle. Although he thinks the women are shallow, he tries to engage with them in conversation. When they don’t connect with him, Holden writes them off as being unable to hold an intelligent conversation. Holden’s inability to converse with the three women shows his isolation from the adult world. Yet, Holden feels that he is a part of the corrupted world, even though he contempts it. Additionally, Holden tends to only have shallow contact with the adults he encounters.

Restless and depressed again, Holden leaves the hotel to go to Ernie’s, a nightclub in Greenwich Village. Holden describes Ernie as a man that won’t talk to you unless you are important. Ernie’s classist attitude highlights Holden’s view that adults are judgmental, socially driven, and shallow. Holden leaves the bar after he encounters Lillian Simmons, his older brother’s ex-girlfriend. He doesn’t want to deal with another person who bores him and can’t provide him with a genuine connection. On the walk back to the hotel, Holden reflects on his “yellow,” or cowardly, nature. He wishes he could act on things with resolve and stand up for what he wants. Holden exhibits his “yellowness” as soon as he returns to the hotel. He can’t refuse Maurice, the hotel elevator operator, who asks him if he wants a prostitute sent to him. Disturbed, Holden sends the prostitute, Sunny, away and is later confronted by Maurice for not paying the prostitute what she asked. Holden’s behavior during the confrontation is child-like. He cries and is difficult, even though his cooperation would help defuse the dangerous situation.

Holden is torn between the innocence of childhood and the darkness of adulthood. Holden sees children, such as his sister Phoebe and his deceased brother, Allie, as ideal. They haven’t been corrupted like him and the adults that he meets. After the run-in with Sunny and Maurice, Holden feels depressed. He considers that his inner demons of depression, meaninglessness, and isolation might be cured with suicide. Although he does not kill himself, Holden keeps his depression at bay by creating temporary relationships. He thinks of calling his friend Jane, whom he met the previous summer. Jane could supply him with the genuine interaction he desires, but he can’t bring himself to reach out to her.

Holden is trapped in the cycle of the materialistic world. Holden despises the fake renditions of life in movies and the adults around him. Yet, he finds himself consistently meeting people and doing things he dislikes. He continues to form temporary connections and is unwilling, for most of the novel, to call a genuine person like his sister or Jane. Holden craves companionship and asks to see his old classmate Carl Luce. Yet, he verbally abuses and insults Carl. Holden tends to reject any physical touch or kindness from the adult men around him. This can be seen when Holden meets with his former English teacher, Mr. Antolini. Holden holds Mr. Antolini in high regard. Mr. Antolini was his former teacher. He also was the only one to pick up Holden’s classmate, James Castle, after he killed himself. Although Holden describes Mr. Antolini in a positive way at first, this changes. Holden runs from Mr. Antolini’s home in fear later on. Mr. Antolini had been stroking his hair while he slept. Disturbed by this, Holden leaves and doesn’t return or call Mr. Antolini again. Their interaction demonstrates Holden’s disconnection from the adult male world. It shows his fear of other men and of physical touch. Holden feels bad for running from Mr. Antolini, but in the end he rejects Mr. Antolini’s help and presence.

Near the end of The Catcher in the Rye, Holden sneaks into his family’s home to meet with his sister Phoebe while his parents are away. Here, Holden reveals his loving side as well as his lack of direction and negative outlook on life. Phoebe is the only character whom Holden expresses benevolent emotions towards. For example, Holden is happy when he buys Phoebe a record. He also cries out of joy when she gives him all her savings. Last, at the end of the novel, Holden experiences true happiness when he sees Phoebe riding on a carousel. Holden even tells Phoebe about his dream of “catch[ing] children” in a rye field to keep them from falling off a cliff while they play. This is a dream that demonstrates Holden’s desire to protect the purity of childhood. Holden’s ideal place is one where adults don’t exist and children can happily play.

The Catcher in the Rye ends with Holden finishing his story at the psychiatric hospital. He expresses how he doesn’t know what he’ll do until he actually does it, reinforcing Holden’s meandering and unsettled nature. Holden, who had planned at one point to go to the West and start a new life, is now in the West in California. However, he is living quite a different life. He is still affected by his mental breakdown, his memories of Pencey Prep, and his three-day adventure through New York City.

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