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The Catcher in the Rye

by J. D. Salinger

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Major events and cultural issues in The Catcher in the Rye


The Catcher in the Rye addresses major events and cultural issues such as teenage angst, alienation, and the struggle for identity. It critiques the phoniness of the adult world and explores themes of innocence, mental health, and the impact of post-World War II American society on youth. The protagonist, Holden Caulfield, embodies these conflicts as he navigates his way through adolescence.

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What are the three major events in The Catcher in the Rye?

Three key scenes from The Catcher in the Rye are the following:

  1. After Holden has been expelled from Pency and his fight with Stradlater 
  2. Holden's date with Sally
  3. At home with Phoebe 

1. This first scene introduces Holden's disdain for phoniness, as well as exemplifying Holden's silent contempt for adults. 

After Holden is expelled, he goes to the house of Mr. Spencer, a teacher who has failed him. Mr. Spencer asks Holden if he does not have any qualms about what he has done and concerns about his future. Further, Mr. Spencer asks Holden if he has a grudge against him for having failed him. Then he lectures Holden about life being but a game that a person must play according to the rules. Holden expresses his contempt for what he perceives as phoniness:

Some game. If you get on the side where all the hot-shots are, then it's a game, all right—I'll admit that. But if you get on the other side, where there aren't any hot-shots, then what's a game about it? Nothing. No game. (Ch. 2)

2. The second scene is Holden's date with Sally, a scene that reveals the darkness of Holden's state of mind.

Holden is unrealistic in his expectations with Sally. When they go out, Holden thinks "she looked terrific"; however, he is repelled by her as she joins the "phonies" in the lobby. Then he narrates,

I sort of hated old Sally by the time we got in the cab, after listening to that phony Andover bastard for about ten hours. (Ch. 17)

Later, he asks Sally to run away with him and get married. Holden's desperate need for love is in sharp contrast here with Holden's inability to deal with all the complexities of the real world, much as in his encounter with the nuns in Chapter 15, in which his behavior is also inappropriate.

3. The third scene is Holden's visit to Phoebe.

After having lost his brother, Holden cherishes his little sister Phoebe, who shares the intelligence of their dead brother. Phoebe loves Holden, too, and gives him a feeling of security as she sees past his idiosyncrasies.

Holden comes to visit Phoebe as he feels her innocence will refresh him. He tells Phoebe that he wants to be the "catcher in the rye" and catch children if they run too close to the edge of a cliff. This wish is an expression of trying to stop time for Phoebe and keep all children innocent. "...That's the only thing I'd really like to be" (Ch. 22).

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What are three cultural issues in The Catcher in the Rye?

PROSTITUTION.  Holden is so depressed in Chapter 13 that he accepts an invitation from the hotel elevator operator for a visit from a prostitute. He tells her that he only wants to talk, but she becomes bored and demands more money. It is difficult to determine if Holden refuses the opportunity for sex because he is afraid, or if he is honoring his earlier belief that sex should be with a loving companion. Holden does not demean Sunny, the prostitute, as one might expect. Although he is uncomfortable in her presence, he seems to enjoy her company. 

HOMOSEXUALITY.  When Holden accepts an invitation from his old teacher to spend the night, he awakes to find the teacher patting his head. Holden takes this as a homosexual advance, and he immediately hits the streets in the middle of the night. After reconsidering, he cannot decide whether he is mistaken about the teacher's intentions or not.

YOUTHFUL REBELLION.  It is long before the time of Vietnam protests, but Holden finds a reason to rebel against nearly everything. His inability to accept the era's social role models is particularly troubling.

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