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The Catcher in the Rye

by J. D. Salinger

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Who is a flat character in The Catcher in the Rye?

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Because flat characters receive little development, it is arguable that Sally Hayes is a flat character in The Catcher in the Rye. She appears in the novel more than once, but there is no appreciable growth or change in her character from one episode to the next.

Sally Hayes is a conventional girl that comes from a similar upper-class Manhattan background as Holden. Like him, she attends boarding school. Her outlook is superficial, and her thoughts trend toward socializing, clothes, and a predictable future. She is a nice-looking date for Holden but nothing more. When he tries, imperfectly, to get her to see that he wants a less conventional life in the future, she is dismissive and does not understand him. She is self-absorbed and vain and fails to recognize the emotional pain Holden is suffering.

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Flat characters are typically one-dimensional characters who are not complex and do not change throughout the course of the story. In J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, there are several flat characters who interact with Holden Caulfield. Holden's roommate, Stradlater, is a flat character. He is a self-assured, charismatic young man with an affinity for girls. Holden refers to Stradlater as a "secret slob" and is jealous of the fact that he took Jane Gallagher on a date. Stradlater is considered a flat character because he does not experience a change throughout the story and is not depicted as a complex individual. He is the prototypical confident, sexually active teenager who attends social events and enjoys attention from others. Another flat character is Sally Hayes. She also does not change in the story and is depicted as a conventional, superficial teenage girl. Holden views her as a "phony" and cannot stand her infatuation with movies and Broadway stars.

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Let us first define the traits of a flat character in order to appropriately attribute them.

A flat character is one which does not go through any significant changes as a result of the sequence of events that occur in the novel. This is a character that serves as a support system to the main character who is usually round, or changing, also known as "dynamic". Moreover, a flat character is two-dimensional which means that the reader does not learn a lot of information about their inner thoughts and emotions; they are an active part of the plot, but are not affected by it. Therefore, we could conclude that the character of Phoebe Caulfield is a flat character.

Phoebe, who is much more intellectually and socially mature than her older brother Holden, preserves these very traits all throughout Holden's narrative. This is the first fact that would define her as a flat character. The second fact is that she serves as an anchor of support for Holden. So important is her presence in Holden's life that it is Phoebe who inspires his wish to become the catcher in the rye. Phoebe is Holden's go-to support mechanism and the mutual love that exists between Phoebe and Holden does not change either.

As a flat character, Phoebe is also two-dimensional. We do learn some information about her, but hardly any really intimate facts that reveal her differently to the reader. She remains the same Phoebe in the eyes of Holden, and in the reader's own eyes.

Lastly, but not less importantly, the events in Holden's life do not directly affect Phoebe. She remains on the sidelines performing her role as Holden's support system. The fact that she is unaffected confirms that she is a flat character. Had she undergone any significant changes as a result of Holden's problems, then she would have been a round or dynamic character.

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Is Holden in The Catcher in the Rye a flat or round character?

When E. M. Forster came up with the distinction between flat and round characters in his book Aspects of the Novel he defined a flat character as one that is not fully formed or developed and who has maybe only one or two defining characteristics. A round character, by contrast, is one that is fully developed and who is psychologically presented in all of his or her fullness to the reader.

When we consider these definitions, it becomes clear that Holden can only be considered a round character. Consider the way that Salinger, throughout the novel, exposes the full character of this immensely troubled young man through showing the way that he is so unaware of what is happening to him and also how he is almost out of control of his actions. An early section in the novel which is a good example of this is when Holden talks about his brother, Allie, and how he responded to Allie's death:

I slept in the garage the night he died, and I broke all the goddam windows with my fist, just for the hell of it. I even tried to break all the windows on the station wagon we had that summer, but my hand was already broked and everything by that time, and I couldn't do it.

We begin to realise that the narrator who is telling us his story is clearly unreliable as he is not aware how damaged his brother's death has made him, and his rather reckless adventures can be viewed as being a result, at least in part, of his unresolved grief for his brother. Such psychological complexity is only possible in a round character.

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Is Holden in The Catcher in the Rye a flat or round character?

Holden Caulfield differs from all the other characters in the novel because he is putatively the narrator. Actually it is J. D. Salinger who is writing the novel but using the fictitious persona of a precocious adolescent the way Mark Twain used Huckleberry Finn. It would seem that Salinger’s main reason for telling his story through a fictitious narrator was not to analyze the narrator’s character but to offer a fresh view of the people Holden was encountering.

Humorist Andy Rooney once said that his main satisfaction in writing was to tell people what they already knew but didn’t know they knew. Salinger’s characters are almost all familiar “types,” but by presenting them through Holden’s naïve point of view, Salinger makes them seem like unique individuals. To Salinger they are types; to Holden they are individuals. If they were not familiar types, the reader would not be able to visualize them so clearly and sharply. We all know Sally Hayeses, Stradlaters, and Mr. Spencers.

Most of the questions asked about The Catcher in the Rye have to do with Holden Caulfield, but he is only a sort of ventriloquist’s dummy for the real narrator, who is J. D. Salinger, a notorious introvert, a much older man with a genius I.Q. For the sake of verisimilitude and other purposes, Salinger made Holden a rebel and a dropout, probably modeling him after himself as an adolescent; but Holden’s descriptions of the other characters are what make the novel so brilliant.

Holden is an enigma because he doesn’t have any sense of direction. Readers will never be able to figure him out. Salinger admitted that The Catcher in the Rye is rambling and episodic. Unlike Huckleberry Finn and Homer’s Odyssey, Salinger’s book doesn’t have much of a plot because Holden doesn’t know what he is looking for. Salinger justifies this discursiveness late in the book by having Holden, the narrator, tell Mr. Antolini why he flunked Oral Expression at Pencey.

“The boys that got the best marks in Oral Expression were the ones that stuck to the point all the time—I admit it. But there was this one boy, Richard Kinsella. He didn’t stick to the point too much, and they were always yelling ‘Digression!’ at him….he’d start telling you about this letter his mother got from his uncle, and how his uncle got polio and all when he was forty-two years old, and how he wouldn’t let anybody come to see him in the hospital….It didn’t have much to do with the farm—I admit it—but it was nice. It’s nice when somebody tells you about their uncle. Especially when they start out telling you about their father’s farm and then all of a sudden get more interested in their uncle.”

By using a gifted but unprofessional and antisocial misfit like Holden as his faux naïf narrator, Salinger is able to create a modernistic, multi-dimensional mosaic of Manhattan which is as hallucinatory as the city itself and the “types” who inhabit it.

J. D. Salinger is implicitly describing himself through the character he created to narrate his novel in the adolescent vernacular of the day. Holden Caulfield is a very “round” character. He is a dual personality. He has a past, present, and a future. He is wise beyond his years, and he is still just a kid.

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