The Catcher in the Rye Themes at a Glance

The Catcher in the Rye key themes:

  • The Catcher in the Rye captures the zeitgeist of the 1950s; Holden reflects the malaise of the discontented youth who felt alienated from the larger culture and powerless to effect change.
  • Holden’s rejection of mainstream values represents the struggle of the individual to find a place for himself in society.
  • Holden learns to accept the inevitable progression of time: while he initially tries to protect other kids from transitioning to the phony world of adults, by the end he comes to terms with the process of change.
  • Holden’s idealism and rebellion against social conventions urges readers to dismiss trivial preoccupations and focus on more important humanistic values like goodness and beauty.
  • Holden’s reaction to phoniness illustrates his desire for authenticity in a world of false appearances and fake behavior.

Social Concerns / Themes

The Catcher in the Rye heralds the America of the 1950s: the Eisenhower-Nixon administrations, the McCarthy investigations, the men in the grey flannel suits. It was a world of economic expansion and social complacency. The young, blacks, and women had little power, yet the voice of protest was muted. It seemed that things would go on in the same way for a long time.

This is the society in which Holden Caulfield lives. Speaking for many of his generation, he rails at the phoniness of his world but feels incapable of effecting any meaningful change. He cannot even connect with another individual. His instinct is to cut and run. In vivid and concrete detail, The Catcher in the Rye thus anticipates the major catchwords of the 1950s: alienation, the silent generation, the lonely crowd. Although the novel has been criticized for not dealing with specific social issues, time has shown that it caught the peculiar social malaise of the 1950s with remarkable accuracy.

The most obvious theme of The Catcher in the Rye is the conflict between the individual and society. Holden abhors the phoniness of his world. An idealist, he wants people to meet on a purely human basis, an I-thou relationship; but this son of a wealthy corporation lawyer is sensitive to the barriers erected between individuals and classes by the bourgeois materialism of midcentury America. Genuine communication remains problematical. The novel suggests the rich ambiguities latent in this theme. Is something wrong with the individual because of his inability to adjust to his society? Or is something wrong with a society that alienates such an individual? Must Holden choose between the extremes of conformity and dropping out, or is there a possibility of improving the society?

The novel also has a more "philosophical" theme. Holden struggles not only with society but also against Time, the bringer of old age, decay, and death. During puberty, Holden learns that Time is the great destroyer when his beloved younger brother, Allie, dies of leukemia. Consequently, Holden wants to stop time. He loves the Museum of Natural History because "everything stayed right where it was. Nobody'd move." Holden wants to be "the catcher in the rye," to catch the kids before they fall over the cliff into the phony adult world of time and death. But his young sister, Phoebe, teaches him a better way. First, she reminds him that the line...

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The Catcher in the Rye Themes

Hatred of Phonies
"Phonies" is arguably the word most often associated with J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. Sixteen-year-old Holden Caulfield has a thirst for authentic experience, and the fake behavior and attitudes he finds among other people sicken him. The first time the term occurs is when Holden describes the headmaster of Pencey Prep as a "phony slob." He rejects the school's high-faluting statements about how it molds "splendid, clear-thinking young men" as mere advertising propaganda. Since school is supposed to be Holden's primary social sphere, this shows how much he is at odds with his peers.

When he travels into New York, he fares no better. He is put off by the fatuous celebrity-hunting of the girls from Seattle with whom he dances, and positively repulsed when he meets his brother's old girlfriend, Lillian Simmons, who spouts phony platitudes. When Holden goes out with Sally Hayes, her phony-sounding conversation with an Ivy League acquaintance irks him and contributes to the disastrous ending of the date. These are just some of the more glaring examples.

In the repressed post-World War II American society, Holden's hatred of phonies and unwillingness to tolerate them sets him apart. The reader senses that this tendency may either lead Salinger's protagonist to greatness or destroy the young man.

Suspicion Toward Authority Figures
Holden's speech and general deportment show that his suspicion toward authority figures is not just rooted in crude adolescent rebelliousness. He is sophisticated enough to detect the ring of untruth and will not just accept statements on faith. For instance, he recalls his disdainful reaction to a religious speech given to the school by a wealthy undertaker named Ossenburger. Instead of feeling reverent, Holden felt like laughing when the man talked about praying to Jesus while driving his car, as if there was a connection between spirituality and riches. As well, when his teacher, Mr. Spencer, lectures him about bearing down in his studies and being concerned about his future, Holden recognizes the old man's good intentions but does not simply acquiesce, because he knows the two of them are "too much on opposite sides of the pole."

Perhaps the best validation of Holden's suspicion toward authority figures comes toward the end of the novel when he stays over with his former English teacher. Mr. Antolini gives Holden articulate, intelligent advice about getting his life back on track. But then, the entire effect is undercut when Holden wakes that night to the creepy sensation of Mr. Antolini stroking his hair. The message is clear: don't trust people simply because they occupy respected positions.

Disregard for Conventional Social Roles
John Wayne isn't mentioned in The Catcher in the Rye, but it's a good bet that the movie star would represent aspects of American manhood that Holden despises: the square-jawed, ruggedly handsome macho warrior. Holden shows contempt for his school's football players: "You were supposed to commit suicide or something if old Pencey didn't win." He also dislikes the good-looking Ward Stradlater, who is his roommate. Stradlater affects a bluff, hearty manner and casually flaunts his seductions of various girls. He has no intellectual inclinations (as reflected in the way he asks Holden to write an essay for him), preferring topics like sex and cars. Holden, who reads authors like Isak Dinesen and

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