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The Catcher in the Rye

by J. D. Salinger

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What is the main message of The Catcher in the Rye?

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The main message of The Catcher in the Rye is that no single individual can save the world. Holden wants to protect all the world's innocents to compensate for his brother Allie's death, but he starts to understand that he needs to let the people he loves, like Phoebe, take risks.

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One of the main messages in The Catcher in the Rye is that humans desperately need authentic connections with others who care about them.

Holden Caulfield has become an iconic representation of the angst-ridden and moody teen. He swears, drinks, and demonstrates an overall pessimistic view of the world. Expelled from multiple schools, Holden feels that his situation is fairly hopeless and roams around New York because he can't bear to tell his parents the truth about his most recent failure.

Yet in some ways, Holden's inner turmoil is perplexing. After all, his parents have enough money to send him to expensive boarding schools. He has two parents who are still together and who seemingly go to great lengths to help him. His older brother is a screenwriter, and he adores his younger sister.

Holden's tragedy is seemingly rooted in the loss of his younger brother, who died several years prior. This loss deeply affected Holden, who used his fist to smash out the windows in their garage in the immediate grief that followed Allie's death.

Following this loss, Holden is left fairly isolated and unable to make lasting connections. He doesn't want to trouble his mother too much; he worries about her health following the loss of Allie. His father is represented as a fairly dismissive parent, seemingly using boarding schools to house his troubled son so that he doesn't have to intervene much himself.

Holden has a "friend" who asks him to write an essay for him and then harshly judges the final product. Desperate for conversation and connection, he enlists the services of a prostitute without ever really intending to have sex with her; this ends with Holden getting punched in the gut by her pimp. Holden's need for connection is evident by his generosity toward the nuns he meets while eating breakfast; he offers them more money than he initially offered the prostitute.

Holden desperately attempts to connect with various people, from a former teacher to a potential love interest. Ultimately, he finds empathy and true acceptance from Phoebe, who grabs a suitcase and offers to run away with Holden. Through this connection, Holden begins talking about the real source of all his pain—Allie.

The way Phoebe supports Holden demonstrates an authentic compassion for his conflict and pain. She helps Holden feel heard and seen, which is arguably what he has been searching for all along.

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There are various messages the reader might take away from reading The Catcher in the Rye, and the message one selects will be largely determined by how far one identifies with Holden.

Readers who feel a strong affinity with Holden will find in the book the message that the adult world is corrupt and frightening. Children, such as Phoebe and the sainted Allie, are the only people who are truly wise. In the adult world, the more successful and highly respected a person is, the more corrupt they are. Mr. Antolini, the young schoolteacher, was a hero, but Mr. Antolini as he currently is, a rich man living off a rich wife, is suspicious and sinister. Holden's brother, D. B., is a clever young man who has it in him to be a fine writer, but he is being corrupted by Hollywood.

Readers who dislike Holden, are exasperated by him, or even feel sorry for him are more likely to take away from the book the message that external circumstances have no effect on happiness. This is a message Salinger was to explore more thoroughly in his books about the Glass family, which are influenced by Buddhism and Chinese philosophy.

Throughout The Catcher in the Rye, Holden restlessly changes his environment and circumstances, yet he is never happy. He pursues sex, but does not want it when he has the opportunity. He is continually lonely, but company irritates him. He has money, youth, and good looks but always fails to have a good time. He is impossible to satisfy and conveys the message that without inner peace, happiness will always be elusive.

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The main message of The Catcher in the Rye is one that Holden has to learn: that no one person can save the world. Ironically, although Holden wants to become the catcher in the rye, the person who guards children and catches them before they can fall off the edge of a cliff, he begins to mature as he realizes that achieving that goal is impossible.

Holden is haunted by the death of his younger brother, Allie, and in response, he wants to protect all the innocents of the world. This is a noble goal, but it reflects the unrealistic grandiosity of an adolescent. Holden gets into a fight with his roommate, Stradlater, in a futile attempt to protect his friend Jane (ironically, after she has gone on a date with Stradlater, whom Holden sees as a sexual predator). He also gives ten dollars to nuns when he sees them eating a meager breakfast at a diner, and he worries about the fate of fish when the ponds freeze. He wants to fix the world so it will be safe, which is the way he remembers it being before Allie died.

Although Holden is hardly out of the woods at the end of the novel, he is able to watch his beloved sister, Phoebe, ride the carousel without undue worry. He is beginning to understand that he needs to let go and let the people he loves take the risks that are part of being alive.

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What is the overall message that Salinger wanted the reader to take away from The Catcher in the Rye?

There are quite a few, overall meanings you can take from The Catcher in the Rye. One is that the structure of society is contrived and that many of the roles and rituals one must play and go through have become empty: simply a means of achieving successful positions. Holden is more than just a sarcastic kid. He's very intelligent and he can spot phonies when he sees them. He questions authority figures, not just for the sake of rebellion, but because he sees hypocrisy and a lack of authenticity and honesty.

Holden finds fault with Ward Stradlater for conforming to the typical All-American role for the macho male. This role, among others, is something Holden thinks is a facade, something only 'played' as a means to get somewhere in life.

At the end of the novel, Holden goes to Mr. Antolini in order to avoid his parents. Despite some encouraging words, Holden's suspicion of authority figures is again confirmed when he wakes up to find Mr. Antolini stroking his hair.

Holden wants to be a catcher in the rye to save people from throwing themselves over a cliff. Perhaps he wants to warn people, especially young people, about the phoniness of the socially constructed roles you must play in order to have success. He also wants to save people from becoming hypocrites, a trait he sees in almost every adult. And success for Holden is not social standing; it is living an authentic life.

Holden searches for authentic people throughout the book. Near the end of the novel, he considers essentially removing himself from society, the only way to escape living with “phonies.” In Chapter 25, he thinks,

“I figured I could get a job at a filling station somewhere, putting gas and oil in people's cars. I didn't care what kind of job it is, though. Just so people didn't know me and I didn't know anybody. I thought what I'd do was, I'd pretend I was one of those deaf-mutes. That way I wouldn't have to have any goddamn stupid useless conversations with anybody.”

For Holden, hypocrisy and phoniness are the inauthentic paths everyone must face, and try to avoid, when moving from adolescence into adulthood. 

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What is the overall message that Salinger wanted the reader to take away from The Catcher in the Rye?

It would appear that J. D. Salinger’s central/primary purpose in writing “The Catcher in the Rye” was to present his negative but somewhat compassionate view of humanity. He chose to do this by writing in the persona of an exceptionally intelligent and articulate sixteen-year-old boy who was particularly concerned about the subject because he was entering adulthood himself and could see how adults’ characters and values were distorted by the need to survive and procreate in a highly competitive world. Salinger’s novel has been compared with Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, in that both present a dark picture of the human race through the eyes of a child. Another assessment of adults through a child’s perspective is to be found in one of John Cheever’s insightful short stories, “The Sorrows of Gin,” in which the viewpoint character is a little girl about the same age as Holden’s sister Phoebe.

The voices woke Amy, and, lying in her bed, she perceived vaguely the pitiful corruption of the adult world; how crude and frail it was, like a piece of worn burlap, patched with stupidities and mistakes, useless and ugly, and yet they never saw its worthlessness, and when you pointed it out to them, they were indignant.

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