Last Updated on August 8, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1445
The Preservation of Innocence: One theme in The Catcher in the Rye is innocence and the preservation of innocence. Holden Caulfield finds that he is disillusioned by adult society. He sees adults and those who adhere to societal expectations as phony and affected. Conversely, thinking of his deceased younger brother, Allie, or of his younger sister, Phoebe, brings Holden joy. While Holden is wandering through New York City, he sees a child singing a song, “Comin’ Thro’ the Rye,” and eventually imagines himself as a “catcher in the rye” who saves children from falling off a cliff. Holden’s fantasy reveals a wish to preserve the innocence of children: as a catcher in the rye, he could shelter children from the disappointing reality of adulthood.
- For discussion: What is Holden’s fantasy about being “a catcher in the rye”? How does this fantasy connect to Allie, childhood, and adulthood?
- For discussion: Holden thinks about Jane Gallagher throughout the novel, but he is never able to speak with her. How does Holden describe Jane? Why might Jane be so significant to Holden? Why might Holden avoid reaching out to Jane? What might he be afraid of confronting?
- For discussion: How does Holden describe his younger sister, Phoebe? Do you think Holden idealizes Phoebe? Why or why not? Is there any similarity between Holden’s view of Phoebe and his view of Jane? If so, how?
Grief as a Catalyst of Character: Holden struggles with the recent death of his younger brother, Allie, throughout the novel. After Allie’s death, Holden permanently injured his hands by punching a wall out of grief, anger, and guilt. The Catcher in the Rye makes it clear that Holden’s bereavement has been left otherwise unacknowledged, and as a result, he is disconnected from his parents and frustrated with the world. Holden’s grief shapes his character and motivates many of his actions and attitudes.
- For discussion: At the beginning of chapter 14, Holden talks out loud to his deceased brother, Allie. What does he say to Allie? What memory does Holden revisit? Why does Holden feel guilty when he recalls it?
- For discussion: How does Holden view death? What does he think about cemeteries, and how does he want his body to be processed after he dies? What does Holden say about Allie’s grave? Refer to chapter 20.
- For discussion: What question does Phoebe ask when Holden first visits her? How does he answer her question? What does his answer imply about his feelings about Allie’s death?
- For discussion: In chapter 25, after Holden leaves Mr. Antolini’s home, he becomes anxious as he walks up Fifth Avenue. What does he think is going to happen to him when he steps off the sidewalk to cross the street? How does he feel in that moment, and what does he say out loud to Allie? Why does he speak to Allie?
- For discussion: What does Holden’s narration tell you about his grief over Allie’s death? How does his grief influence his narration? In what ways does his grief influence his actions?
Individuality Versus Social Expectations: The drive for individuality in the face of social expectations is a central theme in The Catcher in the Rye. Holden’s individuality stems from his view of adults and society as inauthentic. He sees little value in school, social gatherings, and adult interactions. Holden breaks social conventions and establishes his individual character by rebelling, performing poorly in school, and making offhand and immature statements. Holden exemplifies the human drive for individuality, and in turn that drive offers a useful window into Holden’s character.
- For discussion: In what ways does Holden rebel against societal expectations? What are some reasons behind Holden’s behavior and perception of adults and society?
- For discussion: Holden asks Sally Hayes to run away with him. What are the differences between these two characters? How does Holden break conventions, and how does Sally uphold conventions? Why does Sally refuse to run away with Holden? Why might Sally sees the world differently from Holden?
- For discussion: When Holden meets up with Carl Luce, he acts immaturely and speaks about inappropriate subjects. How does Carl Luce respond to Holden’s behavior? What does Holden’s behavior suggest about his understanding of and respect for social conventions? What does his behavior highlight about his character?
- For discussion: Holden spends a large part of the novel alone and in search of company. Apart from his younger sister, Phoebe, why do you think he is unable to find meaningful connections with those around him? What does this say about Holden’s individuality and separation from society?
- For discussion: To what extent are Holden’s individualistic and rebellious tendencies typical of adolescence? In what ways are they exceptional? Do the other adolescents in the novel display such tendencies? In your experience of the world, do adolescents act as individualistic and rebellious as Holden?
Additional Discussion Questions:
- In New York City, Holden asks several times where the ducks go during the winter. Why do you think Holden is so interested in the ducks? What might the ducks symbolize?
- Holden claims to be “the most terrific liar” at the beginning of the novel. What does this say about his reliability? Are there points where you think he is lying or embellishing his narrative?
- When Holden is on his date with Sally, she asks him twice to stop yelling. Holden believes he did not yell while speaking with her. Do you believe Holden’s interpretation of the conversation? Why or why not?
Tricky Issues to Address
Depression, Suicide and Death: Holden Caulfield exhibits signs of depression; he acts out, overdrinks, and isolates himself. His grief over the death of his younger brother, Allie, is likely a contributing factor to his emotional state. At one point in the novel, Holden considers taking his life by jumping out of the window of his hotel. Holden’s depressed state, his cynical outlook on the world, and his preoccupation with the death of his brother may be disturbing to students.
- What to do: Remind students that the novel is a bildungsroman, or a coming-of-age novel. Holden is beginning to face the challenges of adulthood, including the death of a loved one, the pressure of expectations, and the falseness of the social world. Holden’s depression and contemplation of suicide can be understood as a response to the changing conditions of his life.
Idiomatic Language: Holden’s narration strikes a casual tone, one feature of which is his use of idiomatic words, phrases, and expressions. In Holden’s words, to make a phone call is to “giv[e] somebody a buzz” and to act quickly is to be “very snappy.” In many cases, these idioms will be familiar and sensible to students. In others, they may distance students from the text or pose challenges to comprehension.
- What to do: Encourage students to note unfamiliar idiomatic words and phrases that they come across. Compile a running list of these idioms, along with their definitions.
- What to do: Discuss the artistic purpose of idiomatic language. Encourage students to consider why Salinger chose such a tone for Holden’s narration. What effects do idiomatic language produce?
Alternative Approaches to Teaching The Catcher in the Rye
While the main ideas, characters, themes, and discussion questions above are typically the focal points of units involving teaching The Catcher in the Rye, the following suggestions represent alternative readings that may enrich your students’ experience and understanding of the novel.
Focus on Holden Caulfield as an antihero. An antihero is a protagonist that lacks the conventional attributes of a heroic character. Instead of upholding morals, acting courageous, and pursuing ideals, Holden acts immaturely and is cynical and depressed. He is disillusioned, and sees the world around him as “phony” and “lousy.” As an antihero, Holden may be more human and relatable than conventional fictional heroes. Ask students to consider why an author might write about an antihero, rather than a typical hero.
Focus on Holden Caulfield as an unreliable narrator. Holden is an unreliable narrator whose narrative style is rambling, perfunctory, and full of crude language. It aptly reflects Holden’s thoughts as he grapples with depression and disconnection from the world around him. Holden’s unreliability as a narrator—exemplified by his tendency to lie, his fantasies, and his sometimes questionable interpretation of reality—raises questions about the state of his emotional and mental health. Ask students to analyze Holden’s narration and discuss how it reveals his character, as well as his understanding—or misunderstanding—of the world around him.
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