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The Catcher in the Rye

by J. D. Salinger

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Themes of failure, phoniness, alienation, and the pain of growing up in The Catcher in the Rye


The Catcher in the Rye explores themes of failure, phoniness, alienation, and the pain of growing up. Holden Caulfield grapples with his perceived failures and views society as phony. His sense of alienation intensifies his struggles, highlighting his pain and confusion during the transition from adolescence to adulthood.

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In The Catcher in the Rye, which minor characters represent themes of failure, phoniness, alienation, or the pain of growing up?

One minor character who definitely can be used to highlight some of the themes mentioned above is Stradlater, who is so desperate to come across as being popular with the ladies. This is something that infuriates Holden, in particular because the girl that Stradlater is supposed to be dating is Jane, a girl that it becomes clear Holden actually cares for himself. Holden desperately tries to find out from Stradlater what happened on their date and how far he got, and is absolutely enraged when Stradlater refuses to respond. However, at the very end of Chapter 7 Holden gives us a detail that may suggest to the reader that Stradlater has actually made up his story about the date. Note what he says as he leaves the school:

Some stupid guy had thrown peanut shells all over the stairs, and I damn near broke my neck.

This is a very strange detail that Salinger includes, and it seemingly is inconsequential unless it is used as proof to indicate that Stradlater did not have a date at all, but just pretended to, and stood on the stairs, eating peanuts whilst he was supposed to be on his "date." This of course reveals why he was so reluctant to talk about what happened on his date. Stradlater is revealed as an awkward young man who tries to pretend he is something that he is not, and is a phony character as a result.

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What themes of failure are portrayed in The Catcher in the Rye?

I think that much regarding the issue of failure is seen in Holden.  A strong argument can be made that Holden's entire being is one predicated upon failure.  There is little that Holden does which isn't failure.  His time at formal schooling can be seen as one mammoth exercise in failure.  He has talent, as Mr. Antolini indicates.  Yet, Holden does not exercise it.  Whether his refusal to do so is grounded in solid reality can be debated, but Holden's consistent and pervasive sense of academic failure is a part of his characterization and permeates the narrative.

Holden's interpersonal failure is another domain in which futility results.  Throughout the narrative, Holden is unable to sustain much in way of personal relationships.  Outside of his connection with Phoebe, there is much failure in how Holden interacts with people.  He has few alliances, seen in his contempt and pity for Ackley and his oppositional relationship with Stradlater.  The fact that Stradlater is perceived to be able to do what Holden cannot is another example of how failure is intrinsic to Holden.  Sexual failure is another dimension to this, as seen with Holden's inability to sustain anything of note with Sally.  Holden's failure in this domain is continued with Faith's rebuffing him, and his experience with the prostitute.  The "fizzling out" with the Seattle girls is another instance of where failure is evident in the realm of sexual interaction.  For Holden, there is a sense of failure in his interpersonal relationships.  Whether this is his fault or the condition of the world around him is secondary to the failure that is present in his being with others.

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