The Catcher in the Rye Questions and Answers

J. D. Salinger

Read real teacher answers to our most interesting The Catcher in the Rye questions.

What are Holden's perceptions of Mr. Antolini?

Holden Caulfield is portrayed as an exceptionally intelligent, observant, sensitive, and articulate but still an immature, naïve adolescent. His description of Mr. Antolini shows both his perceptivity and naiveté. In Chapter 22 he writes,

I wanted to phone up this guy that was my English teacher at Elkton Hills, Mr. Antolini. He lived in New York now. He quit Elkton Hills. He took this job teaching English at NYU.

Holden does not realize the implications of what he has written. Later, the reader will guess that Antolini probably did not “quit” Elkton Hills but may have been asked to leave because he was showing the same interest in boys he subsequently shows in Holden at his apartment. Holden says, “He lived in New York now.” This implies that Antolini was a resident teacher at Elkton Hills.

The job he “took teaching English at NYU” was most likely part-time and untenured, because a man teaching at a prep school for adolescent boys would have been highly unlikely to have a PhD to step into a secure, full-time faculty position. Married to a wealthy woman, he might only want the university as a sort of aegis or facade, just as his relationship with an older woman was evidently a mariage de convenance as well as a meal ticket. Being married would have disguised his sexuality, and his older wife would have known that her money had bought her a pleasant companion, escort, host, and conversationalist.

When Antolini answers the door,

He had on his bathrobe and slippers, and he had a highball in one hand. He was a pretty sophisticated guy, and he was a pretty heavy drinker.

Antolini continues drinking heavily throughout their conversation and right up until the time he makes up the couch for Holden. The young guest misses most of the implications in Antolini’s questions and remarks, which become more and more suggestive. With his heavy drinking, Antolini seems to be working up the courage to hit on Holden, who is described as a handsome young man. Here are a few of Antolini’s questions which should have given Holden a warning:

“How’re all your women?”
“They’re okay.” I was being a lousy conversationalist, but I didn’t feel like it.
“How’s Sally?” He knew old Sally Hayes. I introduced him once.
“She’s all right. I had a date with her this afternoon.” Boy, it seemed like twenty years ago! “We don’t have too much in common any more.”
“Helluva pretty girl. What about that other girl? The one you told me about, in Maine?”
“Oh—Jane Gallagher. She’s all right. I’m probably gonna give her a buzz tomorrow.”

Antolini evidently gives up trying to get Holden to talk about his love life. He says,

“All right. Good night, handsome.”

By now, Antolini must be very drunk. Holden should have taken that comment as a warning—but he sees and does not see. That is what is unique about him, what characterizes him. He sees everything but does not necessarily understand everything, because so much is new to him in this complicated and devious world. He is a good example of a faux naïf narrator. He mentions that

I didn’t have any pajamas either and Mr. Antolini forgot to lend me some. So I just went back in the living room and turned off this little lamp next to the couch, and then I got in bed with just my shorts on.

Mr. Antolini most likely did not forget. The entire novel is about how a sheltered young man from an upper-class home learns many lessons about the real world, and this experience with Antolini will be one of the most significant. The man Holden respects and trusts ends up violating that trust when Holden is at his most vulnerable.

How does J. D. Salinger contrast Holden with other characters?

It can be noted that J. D. Salinger uses the age-old artistic technique of contrast in order to make his scenes effective and his characters stand out in the reader's imagination. Throughout the novel, Holden is interacting with characters who are markedly different from him in various and sundry respects. In one of the early chapters, he goes to see Mr. Spencer, his former teacher.

In many of the episodes, Holden is paired and contrasted with female characters. In Chapter 8, he meets Mrs. Morrow on the train going to New York. In Chapter 9, he has a phone conversation with the hard-boiled Faith Cavendish. In Chapter 10, Salinger has Holden encounter three people, all women. They are Bernice, Marty, and Laverne, three out-of-town visitors to the big city. Salinger focuses on Bernice by having Holden take her off to the dance floor. Marty and Laverne hardly figure in the episode except as companions to Bernice.

In Chapter 11, Holden reminisces about another girl, Jane Gallagher, who means a lot to him. In Chapters 13 and 14, he has an encounter with the tough sex worker who calls herself Sunny. He also has an unpleasant encounter with Maurice, but there is a strong contrast between Holden and Maurice, who is older, tougher, illiterate, dirty-minded, mercenary, and sadistic—a lot of things Holden is not.

In Chapter 15, Holden encounters two nuns. In Chapter 17, he has a date with Sally Hayes, a character who is different from Holden not only in being female but also in being gushy and extroverted:

"Holden!" she said. "It's marvelous to see you! It's been ages." 

Holden then has a secret meeting with his little sister, Phoebe. Here again, the contrast is sharply drawn. Holden keeps swearing, and Phoebe tells him not to swear. Phoebe, a young child, presents a strong contrast to all the other characters in the book.

When Holden has an encounter with a character of any importance, Salinger invariably arranges it so that there are only two persons involved. This is true even when Holden talks to the two cab drivers. The technique of presenting two characters interacting alone is observable when Holden talks to the pseudo-intellectual, pseudo-sophisticated Carl Luce at the Wicker Bar in Chapter 19, and when he has the fight with Stradlater at Pencey. Although the story is set in New York City, Salinger manages to exclude the millions of people and zoom in on just two people having a tete-a-tete.

Holden's most memorable encounter with a male character is with Mr. Antolini. There is a Mrs. Antolini, but Salinger only gives the reader a glimpse of her and sends her off to bed. Mr. Antolini is different from Holden in many ways. He is a heavy drinker. He is getting old. He has pretty much sold out in life. He just wants to be comfortable and secure. The advice he gives Holden is in keeping with his character. Quoting Wilhelm Stekel, he says, "The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one." Antolini considers himself a mature man living humbly for a cause, but in reality he is worn out, has a drinking problem, and is in a loveless marriage to a wealthy older woman.

Contrast is used in every art form. It is a highly important factor in characterization in The Catcher in the Rye. None of these characters, including Holden Caulfield, is a real person, but Salinger's artistry makes us feel that all of them are real and that some of them are people we have known all our lives.

Is The Catcher in the Rye still relevant today?

The overall picture created by The Catcher in the Rye is like a big mural or montage with many seemingly unrelated scenes juxtaposed. The gifted J. D. Salinger deliberately created a confused adolescent hero who is lost—or who has lost something and is trying to find it without knowing what it is. One of the main scenes in this impressionistic mural or montage is a boy standing in a field of rye wheat and watching children at play in the distant background. Salinger creates his patchwork effect by using a viewpoint protagonist who has motivation but lacks a goal. Phoebe admonishes him for not having any sense of direction, but Holden is like many adolescents both then and now: sailing the seas without a compass; going out with girls he despises; going here, there, and everywhere without any plan or purpose; wasting his one life as if he had a dozen others to squander. The novel may be even more relevant today than it was when it was published.

How is Holden Caulfield an ugly duckling?

Holden Caulfield has an inferiority complex. In Chapter 10, he reveals his poor opinion of his intelligence:

You should see her [Phoebe]. You never saw a little kid so pretty and smart in your whole life. She’s really smart. I mean she’s had all A’s ever since she started school. As a matter of fact, I’m the only dumb one in the family. My brother D.B.’s a writer and all, and my brother Allie, the one that died, that I told you about, was a wizard. I’m the only really dumb one.

Holden thinks he is dumb because he has been expelled from three schools for poor grades and nonconformity. He has been criticized by the teachers and administrators at these school, by some of his fellow students, and by his parents.

For nonconformity the world whips you with its displeasure (Emerson, “Self-Reliance”).

For example, Stradlater, who did not like the descriptive essay Holden wrote for him, says,

“God damn it.” He was sore as hell. He was really furious. “You always do everything backasswards.” He looked at me. “No wonder you’re flunking the hell out of here,” he said. “You don’t do one damn thing the way you’re supposed to. I mean it. Not one damn thing.”

It is rather ironic that Stradlater asks Holden to cheat for him and then says Holden does not do anything the way he is supposed to. That seems to reveal the other boy’s value system, which may represent the majority view.

In the opening chapter, Holden reveals that he was “ostracized” by the entire fencing team because he left all the foils and equipment on the subway. Holden antagonizes others because he is lost in his own thoughts. He thinks his problem is that he is dumb, and he is just as hard on himself as his critics. Yet he is actually at least as intelligent as his brother D.B. and his sister, Phoebe. Holden’s keen intelligence is shown in many ways, including the fact that he is writing an entire novel without even realizing he is a “writer,” as well as the fact that his narrative is filled with precocious insights.

His curiosity about the ducks and where they go in winter shows he is curious about everything, which is a sign of intelligence. Intelligence is hard to conceal. You can see it in small children’s eyes—the way they look around and take in everything with obvious wonder.

In Hans Christian Andersen’s story:

The poor duckling was driven about by every one; even his brothers and sisters were unkind to him, and would say, “Ah, you ugly creature, I wish the cat would get you,” and his mother said she wished he had never been born. The ducks pecked him, the children beat him, and the girl who fed the poultry kicked him with her feet. So at last he ran away, frightening the little birds in the hedge as he flew over the palings.

It is interesting that one of the things in which Holden shows curiosity is the welfare of the ducks in Central Park. Salinger may be hinting at the ugly duckling motif in his story of an unhappy boy who is lost and confused and does not realize he is only trying to find himself.

Hans Christian Andersen was something of an ugly duckling, too. Andersen survived and persisted, and in time he became world-famous. Denmark recognized him as a “national treasure.” His work brought him the love he never received as a child.

Both Holden and the Ugly Duckling have adopted the opinions of themselves that have been expressed by others. Both Holden and the Ugly Duckling criticize themselves and want to die because they are so lonely and unhappy, and also because they have been conditioned to dislike themselves. There is a strong tendency in human nature to dislike and fear others who are different, and those who are hated and feared the most are sometimes those who are in some way gifted.

Did Salinger intentionally pattern his story after Hans Christian Andersen's? More likely, both stories dramatize a truth about life and human nature. Gifted people are often made to suffer rejection and abuse in childhood and adolescence because they are different.

What is significant about Stradlater telling Holden "don't stick all the commas and stuff in the right place"?

In Chapter 4, Stradlater asks Holden Caulfield to write a descriptive composition for him. When Holden halfheartedly agrees, Stradlater says: "Just don't do it too good, is all. That sonuvabitch Hartzell thinks you're a hot-shot in English, and he knows you're my roommate. So I mean don't stick all the commas and stuff in the right place." This gives Holden "a royal pain." He comments that "He wanted you to think that the only reason he was lousy at writing compositions was because he stuck all the commas in the wrong place."

A sharp English teacher could tell at a glance, of course, that if somebody like Stradlater turned in a really interesting and original composition with all the "commas and stuff" correct, it would mean he had plagiarized it or had it written by somebody else, most likely his talented roommate. This little incident is an interesting insight into human nature, but its main purpose is to add further evidence that Holden, though a dropout and a misfit, is capable of writing a novel like The Catcher in the Rye. Stradlater acknowledges, in a left-handed way, that Holden is a very good writer and also tells us that the teacher named Hartzell (who must be an English teacher, judging from the assignment) "thinks you're a hot-shot in English." We also learn that two other teachers, Mr. Spencer and Mr. Antolini, express high opinions of Holden's talent as a writer. In addition, Stradlater's concern about the commas being in the right places indicates that Holden is not only good at self-expression but that he is fully competent in such "stuff" as punctuation, spelling, and capitalization. So the reader can feel assured that this sixteen-year-old boy (and not the invisible author J. D. Salinger) is solely responsible for every word in the story, as well as for the quality of the grammar, spelling, and punctuation. We have the illusion that we are actually reading the work of a precocious teenage boy who has flunked out of several prep schools. Salinger did not want the reader to think that the manuscript had passed through the hands of professional editors at some publisher's office. We may be reading a published novel, but Salinger evidently intended to create the illusion that we are reading a long memoir in some kind of manuscript format.

In what way is Holden Caulfield on a slippery slope?

Although Holden Caulfield is only sixteen years old, he has been expelled from three prep schools. It would appear that he has had virtually no high school education. This must be making it increasingly difficult for him to keep up with his schoolwork. By his age he should be entering the 11th grade, but he has missed out on much of the instruction he should have received in the 9th and 10th grades. The only reason he is able to write what is represented in Salinger's novel as his autobiography is that Holden likes to read. He is pretty much self-educated, and he does all right in English classes because he can not only write competent English but he is obviously very intelligent and not inhibited about expressing himself. His English teachers appreciate him, but the other teachers, such as Mr. Spencer, consider him a problem student. Holden is only self-educated to some degree in the kind of literature he likes to read. He is probably quite weak in such subjects as mathematics, science, and history.

Once Holden gets on that "slippery slope" by failing to absorb the subject matter for one year, probably due to trauma and mental health issues, he is forced to play "catch-up" for the rest of his academic career. The instruction and the books tend to seem more and more opaque, and also more and more esoteric and inconsequential. School becomes a rather strange and mysterious place.

Holden Caulfield is a lonely outsider. He has been to three prep schools already, and when he goes on to a fourth school he is bound to be a lonely outsider there.

How is Mr. Spencer significant?

In the opening chapters of The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield describes the school and several of the students, but the real author, J. D. Salinger, must have felt it would seem incomplete if his narrator did not give some description of the teachers as well. This probably explains why Holden goes to say goodbye to Mr. Spencer. The elderly teacher actually is, in one respect, a representative of the entire faculty at Pencey. Mr. Spencer is speaking for all of Holden's teachers when he explains in an apologetic manner why he had to give the boy an "F" as his final grade. The other teachers probably felt the same way as Mr. Spencer. They could not help feeling that they might have done something—and should have done something—to "motivate" this bright and talented but totally indifferent young student. They know it will look bad for Holden when he goes home to face his parents, who were paying a lot of money to send their son to one of the most prestigious prep schools in the country, one that supposedly has been "molding young boys into splendid, clear-thinking young men" since 1888 and runs magazine ads showing one of these splendid, clear-thinking young men leaping over a fence on horseback. It looks bad for Holden, but it also looks bad for the teachers, the headmaster, and the school. The parents might ask, "Why didn't you mold Holden into a splendid, clear-thinking young man instead of sending him home with a report card full of F's?"

Mr. Spencer is not reprimanding Holden for his misbehavior so much as he is apologizing and trying to justify his own perceived failure. Holden is kind of a super-dropout. He has flunked out of two prestigious prep schools before, and now he is flunking out of the third. Three times is a charm. He probably will not ever be going back to another prep school. The teachers could not have motivated this problem student, but nevertheless they feel somewhat embarrassed because they sense that some of the blame will attach to them. That is why Mr. Spencer, speaking in a sense for all the teachers, asks:

"Do you blame me for flunking you, boy?"

It seems ironic that Holden ends up consoling his old teacher:

Well, you could see he really felt pretty lousy about flunking me. So I shot the bull for a while. I told him I was a real moron, and all that stuff. I told him how I would've done exactly the same thing if I'd been in his place, and how most people don't appreciate how tough it is being a teacher. That kind of stuff. The old bull.

Holden and Mr. Spencer seem to change places, which is underscored by Holden saying, "I would've done exactly the same thing if I'd been in his place."

How did Holden become a good writer?

J. D. Salinger wanted to use a sixteen-year-old boy as a persona and as the narrator of his novel, but Salinger was concerned about verisimilitude. How could Holden Caulfield, a boy who has flunked out of three of the best prep schools and has therefore had virtually no high school education, narrate a novel as perceptive as The Catcher in the Rye? Salinger has two different persons compliment Holden on his writing ability. One is his roommate, Stradlater. When he cons Holden into writing a descriptive composition for him, 

"Just don't do it too good, is all," he said. "That sonuvabitch Hartzell thinks you're a hot-shot in English, and he knows you're my roommate. So I mean don't stick all the commas and stuff in the right place."

Holden may use a lot of slang and profanity in the novel, but we can see from reading The Catcher in the Rye that he has all the "commas and stuff" in the right places.

The other person who compliments Holden on his writing is Mr. Antolini, his former English teacher at Elkton Hills. Mr. Antolini wants to know why Holden got expelled from Pencey Prep.

"What was the trouble?" Mr. Antolini asked me. "How'd you do in English? I'll show you the door in short order if you flunked English, you little ace composition writer."

A large part of Holden's writing ability is attributable to his keen interest in reading. He is an autodidact. In Chapter 3 he tells us:

I'm quite illiterate, but I read a lot.

This probably means that he reads what he feels like reading but has failed to read a lot of the books he was supposed to read, including the textbook for Mr. Spencer's class, of which Holden says, "Well, I sort of glanced through it a couple of times."

Holden tells us:

I read a lot of classical books, like The Return of the Native and all, and I like them, and I read a lot of war books and mysteries and all, but they don't knock me out too much. 

He mentions The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy, Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham, and Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen, as well a collection of short pieces by Ring Lardner. We can see that he must be intelligent and discriminating as well as eclectic in his tastes. This explains why he has become a good writer although he has such a deplorable academic record. The Return of the Native, Of Human Bondage, and Out of Africa are heavy reading for a sixteen-year-old who flunks out of his third school for scholastic ineptitude. Here is a boy who gets A's in English and F's in everything else. We easily get hooked on The Catcher in the Rye and are easily able to believe it was written by a sixteen-year-old boy just like Holden Caulfield.

What is the significance of the relatively disjointed plot of The Catcher in the Rye?

The overall picture created by The Catcher in the Rye is like a big mural, or montage, or collage, with many unrelated scenes juxtaposed. Salinger deliberately created a confused adolescent hero who is lost—or who has lost something and is trying to find it without knowing what it is. Such a confused hero is bound to create a disjointed story. One of the main scenes in this impressionistic mural or montage is a boy standing in a field of rye wheat and watching children at play in the distant background.

Salinger creates his patchwork effect by using a viewpoint protagonist who has motivation but lacks a goal. Holden's little sister, Phoebe, admonishes him for not having any sense of direction—but Holden is like a forerunner of many adolescent boys today, sailing the seas without a compass; going out with girls he despises; going here, there, and everywhere without any plan or purpose; and wasting his one life as if he had a dozen lives to squander.

How is Mr. Antolini's advice ironic?

During their late-night conversation, Mr. Antolini offers Holden Caulfield some advice that is ironic in view of the fact that the inebriated teacher is not following any of it himself. Quoting Wilhelm Stekel, he says, "The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one." Mr. Antolini has given up on life. His form of living humbly for a cause is staying drunk on whiskey highballs and being married to an older woman who has a lot of money and is keeping him as a companion and escort. He stays up late because he does not want to get in bed with her while she is still awake. He may have recently lost his teaching job at Elkton Hills, a boys' prep school, because he was showing the same interest in boys that he shows in Holden. He is currently teaching English at NYU. He could not go from a boarding school to an important post at a big university; he is most likely a part-time instructor in an introductory English class and may only teach one course per semester. His advice is not really worth taking seriously since he is not even trying to follow any of it himself. It is the advice of a man who has sold out for security and comfort. He is a "kept man" of an older woman who is "lousy with dough." He is more useful to Holden as a bad example than as a mentor.