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The Catcher in the Rye

by J. D. Salinger

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How does the American Dream influence Holden's view of gender roles in The Catcher in the Rye?

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In The Catcher in the Rye, the American Dream of the 1950s was reserved mainly, if not exclusively, for males.  All of Holden's prep school classmates are males--they are the elite who are going to be heads of industry; all his teachers are males; the headmaster is male.  Holden's father works; his brother works; his mom stays home; his sister stays home (doesn't go off to prep school).

There are dozens of females in the novel: the nuns, Morrow's mother, Jane, the girls in the bar.  None of them work.  They are the objects of/for men.  Jane and Pheobe are raised to be housewives, domestic servants who wait hand and foot at home on males, the traditional family breadwinners.  The only working woman in the novel, ironically, is a girl--Sonny, the prostitute, who is obviously controlled by a man, Maurice, her pimp.

Holden fears Jane and Pheobe will fall prey to men as well.  He hates that Stradlater is dating Jane; he hates that the word "FU*K" is written on the wall for Pheobe to see.  In this way he wants to be a catcher in the rye: to protect children, namely girls, from sexual objectification and manipulation.  The thing is, he's not very good at it.  He knows he's fighting a losing battle.  He knows the average male, like himself, is obsessed with sex.

So, it is clear: males are meant to be out in the world, making and spending money; women are passive, domestic objects of male pre-occupation, namely sex.  In this way, the novel reflects a conservative, sexist America.  Catcher in the Rye is pre-feminist in its depiction of gender roles and the American dream: it does not anticipate or call for the sexual revolution and the blurring of gender roles.

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