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The Catcher in the Rye

by J. D. Salinger

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Essential Quotes by Character: Holden Caulfield

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Essential Passage 1: Chapter 2

...I shook my head. I shake my head quite a lot. “Boy!” I said. I also say “Boy!” quite a lot. Partly because I have a lousy vocabulary and partly because I act quite young for my age sometimes. I was sixteen then, and I’m seventeen now, and sometimes I act like I’m about thirteen. It’s really ironical, because I’m six foot two and a half and I have gray hair. I really do. The one side of my head—the right side—is full of millions of gray hairs. I’ve had them ever since I was a kid. And yet I still act sometimes like I was only about twelve. Everybody says that, especially my father. It’s partly true, too, but it isn’t all true. People always think something’s all true. I don’t give a damn, except that I get bored sometimes when people tell me to act my age. Sometimes I act a lot older than I am—I really do—but people never notice it. People never notice anything.


Holden Caulfield has been expelled from yet another school (his fourth) for failure to earn passing grades in four out of five classes. It is nearing Christmas break, and he will not be returning after the holidays. In preparation for his departure, Holden visits one of his favorite teachers, Mr. Spencer, his history teacher (one of the classes he failed). Mr. Spencer is old and is currently recovering from the grippe (the flu). Instead of a pleasant good-bye, Holden finds himself the recipient of the standard lecture from an adult to a teenage slacker. Holden is disappointed. Mr. Spencer questions him on the status of the news of his expulsion being delivered to his parents and their reaction to it. Holden knows that his parents will be irate when the letter from the headmaster arrives, so he has not yet told them about it. He does not want to explore this topic further with Mr. Spencer, someone whom he had once admired but has now found out to be a typically irritating adult.

Essential Passage 2: Chapter 22

Old Phoebe said something then, but I couldn’t hear her. She had the side of her mouth right smack on the pillow, and I couldn’t hear her.
“What?” I said. “Take your mouth away. I can’t hear you with your mouth that way.”
“You don’t like anything that’s happening.”
It made me even more depressed when she said that.
“Yes I do. Yes I do. Sure I do. Don’t say that. Why the hell do you say that?"
“Because you don’t. You don’t like any schools. You don’t like a million things. You don’t.”
“I do! That’s where you’re wrong—that’s exactly where you’re wrong! Why the hell do you have to say that?” I said. Boy, was she depressing me.
“Because you don’t,” she said. “Name one thing.”
“One thing? One thing I like?” I said. “Okay.”
The trouble was, I couldn’t concentrate too hot. Sometimes it’s hard to concentrate.


After almost twenty-four hours of life on his own in New York City, Holden decides to sneak back home for the sole purpose of seeing his little sister, Phoebe. She is overjoyed to find him sitting on her bed, but her feelings change when she learns that her brother has been kicked out of another school. Her disappointment in him turns to anger, and she refuses to speak to him. Holden, who adores his little sister, is seriously bothered by her rejection and tries to speak to her. He tells her how horrible he found Pencey Prep, and the meanness of the teachers and his fellow students. But he is unsuccessful at eliciting any kind of sympathy from Phoebe. She buries her face in her pillow and accurately points out that Holden does not like anything. Holden is shocked at her insight and denies it, though he can think of little to substantiate his denial. Depressed to begin with at the meaningless and emptiness of his life, he sinks further into depression at his sisters rejection.

Essential Passage 3: Chapter 22

“Daddy’s going to kill you. He’s going to kill you,” she said.
I wasn’t listening, though, I was thinking about something else—something crazy. “You know what I’d like to be?” I said. “You know what I’d like to be? I mean if I had my goddam choice?”
“What? Stop swearing.”
“You know that song ‘If a body catch a body comin’ through the rye’? I’d like—“
“It’s ‘If a body meet a body coming through the rye’!” old Phoebe said. “It’s a poem. By Robert Burns.”
“I know it’s a poem by Robert Burns.”
She was right, though. It is “If a body meet a body coming through the rye.” I didn’t know it then, though.
“I thought it was ‘If a body catch a body,’” I said. “Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around—nobody big, I mean—except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff—I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy.”


Holden, having sneaked into his home during the night, is speaking to his little sister, Phoebe, of the implications of his expulsion from Pencey Prep. Phoebe is furious with him and his seemingly antagonistic lone quest against the world. She is worried not only about what their parents will think but also about Holden’s lack of purpose. She asks him point blank what his goal in life is, having accused him of not liking anything. Holden investigates several possible courses in his life and rejects them all. Earlier, he had overheard a child singing the song, “Comin’ Through the Rye,” though he was a bit confused as to the correct lyrics. However, Holden picks up on the phrase, “If a body catch a body comin’ through the rye.” From this he develops a mental picture of himself saving children, who are playing in a field of rye, from inadvertently running over the edge of a cliff. He thus tells Phoebe, despite his misunderstanding of the song lyrics, that this is the only job in which he can imagine himself finding happiness.

Analysis of Essential Passages

Holden Caulfield is the classic example of a disaffected youth. He rebels against rules and authority, more in a passive manner than an active. He sees hypocrites and “phonies” everywhere he looks, and he is actively looking for them at all times.

Holden describes himself physically as tall, with a smattering of gray hair on one side of his head. He states that he frequently is told to quit acting like a child, which he admits that he sometimes does. However, he also insists that there are times when he acts old for his age, but no one notices this maturity. It is only the immaturity that attracts attention and condemnation. Holden’s physical appearance thus belies his youth, making it symbolic of his alienation from those around him. He does not fit in with his age group, finding them hopelessly immature. He does not wish to be a part of the adult world, finding in them the heights of phoniness. He tries to act older than his sixteen years, especially in smoking, drinking, and garnering the attentions of women, yet he always comes off looking like a teenager trying to act older and failing miserably. It is this lack of belonging that has him increasingly depressed, to the point that it is assumed that he either had a nervous breakdown or tried to commit suicide. He finds himself in a psychiatric hospital after his adventures on his own.

Holden’s misanthropic views extend to aspects of his own life, as his ten-year-old sister Phoebe so accurately points out. On principle, it seems, Holden does not like anything. His default position is to despise everything he does, everyone he meets, every place he goes. When Phoebe confronts him, daring him to come up with something he actually likes, he has difficulty expressing it. However, throughout the course of the novel, there are many things that Holden evidently enjoys. He recounts pleasant memories of throwing the football out in the snow with a couple of fellow students. He appreciates the beauty of the snowfall. He has his favorite teachers. He loves literature. He loves his sister Phoebe and his deceased little brother Allie. Yet consciously acknowledging to someone else things that he does indeed like seems a matter of weakness. He achieves strength only by knocking down everyone and everything.

Despite his tough exterior, Holden consistently shows a caring heart. He asks Ackley, an annoying fellow student, to join him and another friend at the movies simply because he knows Ackley has no friends. He regrets hasty judgments he has made, specifically in believing that his favorite teacher, Mr. Antolini, was making homosexual advances to him, when in actuality Antolini was probably just expressing affection for a soul that was hurting. When Phoebe tries to pin him down in naming his goals in life, he creates an entirely unrealistic job of keeping playing children from falling over the edge of a cliff.

The children that Holden envisions saving are symbolic of his desire to protect the innocence of childhood. Before he has learned to recognize the phoniness in the adult world that he is rapidly approaching, before the tragedy of the death of his little brother, before his own grief over Allie’s death, Holden wishes a return to the innocent times of youth. His vision is not to save actual children, but to save that carefree and pure belief in the goodness of life.

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Essential Quotes by Theme: Phoniness