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The Catcher in the Rye

by J. D. Salinger

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In The Catcher in the Rye, how does Holden embody the limbo between childhood and adulthood?

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Holden definitely feels caught between childhood and adulthood because he's practically an adult physically and mentally, but in many ways he is stuck in the past. Holden hasn't fully dealt with his younger brother's death, so he obsesses over that. Plus, he suffers from anxiety and depression about what's happened in the past and what he faces in the future. Becoming an phony adult scares Holden to death, too. He doesn't want to grow up and be fake like the adults he sees around him. Because Holden is in limbo between childhood and adulthood, he gets caught in bad adult situations, asks difficult child-like questions, and has unrealistic ideas about the future.

First, Holden knows how to spend money, catch a cab, and get a hotel room like an adult, but he sure doesn't know how to handle shady people like a pimp and his girl. Holden accepts a guy's offer to send a girl to his room for $5.00. When she gets there, Holden can't go through with it and just ends up wanting to talk. That's one example of Holden not being ready to do adult things; but when the pimp comes back, he is cheated out of $5 more, beat up, and left to learn a lesson on the hotel room floor. Holden describes his caught in limbo feelings as follows:

"I wasn't knocked out or anything, though because I remember looking up from the floor and seeing them both go out the door and shut it. Then I stayed on the floor a fairly long time. . . I thought I was dying. I really did. I thought I was drowning or something. . . I sort of started pretending I had a bullet in my guts" (103-104).

Holden can't deal with reality like an adult, so he does what a child might do and pretend to believe the worst.

Another example where Holden expresses his caught-in-limbo feelings is when he asks cab drivers about what happens to ducks during the winter when the water freezes. This drives the cabbies insane to a point, but it is typical of a child to ask such a polarizing question. The cabbie, though, tells Holden that the fish just stay in the frozen water and wait till spring. From this discussion, a parallel could be drawn between what the cabbie says about fish and Holden because both are caught in a time of life when they don't have control over their life's situations. Both a fish and Holden must patiently wait for the spring to thaw the ice before he can move forward in life (82).

Finally, Holden is still idealistic and not facing reality like an adult should. Instead of planning his future and making plans for college and career, Holden tells Phoebe that he just wants to catch kids from falling off a cliff. He tells his sister the following:

"Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody's around. . . except me. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff. . . That's all I'd do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it's crazy, but that's the only thing I'd really like to be" (173).

Holden, at 16, is not ready for adulthood. He has a mental breakdown and luckily ends up in a hospital in California. He needs to deal with the many issues from his childhood before he can move onto adulthood. Hopefully, the hospital experience will help him to overcome his guilt and anxiety felt in childhood.

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What does Holden believe about adults and children in The Catcher in the Rye?

Holden Caulfield experiences a collision with the adult world that he finds existentially absurd. The insincerity, the superficiality, the hypocrisy, the falseness, the cruelty, and the charades of adults repulse and disappoint Holden, leaving him disillusioned.

Holden feels alienated from all the "phonies" that he encounters. For instance, he finds repugnant the difference between the manner in which teachers act in a classroom and how they conduct themselves in other settings. His observations lead Holden to believe that only children, in their innocence of the world, are genuine.

In this disillusionment with the adult world, Holden wishes that he could protect children from this world of phoniness by "catching" innocent children before they fall victim to the world's falseness. He admires in children their candor, spontaneity, and kindness.

When he sneaks into his home to visit his sister Phoebe, Holden seeks refuge from the hypocrisy of people like his roommate, Stradlater; Ackley, who fabricates his sexual exploits; and his teacher Mr. Spencer, who displayed his sycophancy when Headmaster Thurmer entered his classroom:

Old Spencer'd practically kill himself chuckling and smiling and all, like as if Thurmer was a goddam prince or something.

He feels that Phoebe represents the goodness and honesty of children. But, after listening to his criticisms, she scolds her brother, telling him that he does not like anything that happens. He counters that he likes Allie and he likes sitting with Phoebe and talking. Phoebe reminds Holden that Allie is dead, suggesting that her brother cannot deal with the present. Certainly, Holden longs for the innocence and sensibleness that he believes existed in the past and in his childhood. For this reason, he wants to be a "catcher in the rye," grabbing children before they fall over the cliff of adolescence into the hypocritical world of adults.

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What does Holden believe about adults and children in The Catcher in the Rye?

In The Catcher in the RyeHolden believes that the adult world is full of "phonies" and that people do not look out for the best interests of others whereas children are innocent.  At the beginning of the novel, Holden says that his older brother D. B. is a great writer and that he used to love to listen to D. B.'s stories.  Holden implies that the stories that D. B. wrote were artistic and genuine.  However, D. B. moved to Hollywood to write scripts for films, and after he did that, Holden labeled him a "prostitute" meaning that he believes D. B. sold his talent to be used by the media simply to make money.  Now he thinks that D. B. is just a phony.  So, Holden looks to his other sibling, his younger sister Phoebe, as a symbol of the innocence of childhood.  He wants to be there to protect Phoebe from the ills of the adult world.  So, Holden's relationships with his two siblings reveal his thoughts about adults and kids.

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In The Catcher in the Rye, how do childhood and adulthood figure in Holden's vision of an ideal world?

For Holden, in an "ideal" world, everyone is still a bit naive about life.  Holden wants to protect children from having to face the harsh realities of life (thus his desire to be a "catcher in the rye").  He seems to feel so protective of others based on his own distorted perspective of the world.  He hates the falsity of other people, for example his school (Pencey Prep) which advertises its ability to turn out extraordinary young men, but all Holden sees around him is liars and thieves.  He sees his prep school as a microcosm of New York City, which is full of degenerates. 

Holden's parents, too, show his disdain for adulthood with their cocktail parties and high ranking social position.  They don't "parent" Holden, rather they just send his off to one boarding school after another.  There is no communication between parents and son.  Holden's sister Phoebe, however, reflects the honesty of childhood.  She says what she thinks; she is unafraid to confront life head on.  Adults seems to lose the ability to be honest and forthright about things.  Holden hates that about the process of growing up.

In an "ideal" world, people would always be honest and true, not a bunch of phonies.

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