Identifying holdens peculiarities
The number of readers who have been able to identify with Holden and make him their hero is truly staggering. Something about his discontent, and his vivid way of expressing it, makes him resonate powerfully with readers who come from backgrounds completely different from his. It is tempting to inhabit his point of view and revel in his cantankerousness rather than try to deduce what is wrong with him. The obvious signs that Holden is a troubled and unreliable narrator are manifold: he fails out of four schools; he manifests complete apathy toward his future; he is hospitalized, and visited by a psychoanalyst, for an unspecified complaint; and he is unable to connect with other people. We know of two traumas in his past that clearly have something to do with his emotional state: the death of his brother Allie and the suicide of one of his schoolmates. But, even with that knowledge, Holden’s peculiarities cannot simply be explained away as symptoms of a readily identifiable disorder.
The most noticeable of Holden’s “peculiarities” is how extremely judgmental he is of almost everything and everybody. He criticizes and philosophizes about people who are boring, people who are insecure, and, above all, people who are “phony.” Holden carries this penchant for passing judgment to such an extreme that it often becomes extremely funny, such as when he speculates that people are so crass that someone will probably write “fuck you” on his tombstone. Holden applies the term “phony” not to people who are insincere but to those who are too conventional or too typical—for instance, teachers who “act like” teachers by assuming a different demeanor in class than they do in conversation, or people who dress and act like the other members of their social class. While Holden uses the label “phony” to imply that such people are superficial, his use of the term actually indicates that his own perceptions of other people are superficial. In almost every case, he rejects more complex judgments in favor of simple categorical ones.
A second facet of Holden’s personality that deserves comment is his attitude toward sex. Holden is a virgin, but he is very interested in sex, and, in fact, he spends much of the novel trying to lose his virginity. He feels strongly that sex should happen between people who care deeply about and respect one another, and he is upset by the realization that sex can be casual. Stradlater’s date with Jane doesn’t just make him jealous; it infuriates him to think of a girl he knows well having sex with a boy she doesn’t know well. Moreover, he is disturbed by the fact that he is aroused by women whom he doesn’t respect or care for, like the blonde tourist he dances with in the Lavender Room, or like Sally Hayes, whom he refers to as “stupid” even as he arranges a date with her. Finally, he is disturbed by the fact that he is aroused by kinky sexual behavior—particularly behavior that isn’t respectful of one’s sex partner, such as spitting in one’s partner’s face. Although Holden refers to such behavior as “crumby,” he admits that it is pretty fun, although he doesn’t think that it should be.
A brief note about Holden’s name: a “caul” is a membrane that covers the head of a fetus during birth. Thus, the caul in his name may symbolize the blindness of childhood or the inability of the child to see the complexity of the adult world. Holden’s full name might be read as Hold-on Caul-field: he wants to hold on to what he sees as his innocence, which is really his blindness.
Before we meet Phoebe, Holden’s side of the story is all we’ve been given. He implies that he is the only noble character in a world of superficial and phony adults, and we must take him at his word. There seems to be a simple dichotomy between the sweet world of childhood innocence, where Holden wants to stay, and the cruel world of shallow adult hypocrisy, where he’s afraid to go. But Phoebe complicates his narrative. Instead of sympathizing with Holden’s refusal to grow up, she becomes angry with him. Despite being six years younger than her brother, Phoebe understands that growing up is a necessary process; she also understands that Holden’s refusal to mature reveals less about the outside world than it does about himself. Next to Phoebe, Holden’s stunted emotional maturity and stubborn outlook seem less charming and more foolish. Phoebe, then, serves as a guide and surrogate for the audience. Because she knows her brother better than we do, we trust her judgments about him. Our allegiance to the narrator weakens slightly once we hear her side of the story.
Phoebe makes Holden’s picture of childhood—of children romping through a field of rye—seem oversimplified, an idealized fantasy. Phoebe’s character challenges Holden’s view of the world: she is a child, but she does not fit into Holden’s romanticized vision of childlike innocence. Although she never explicitly states it, Phoebe seems to realize that
Holden’s bitterness toward the rest of the world is really bitterness toward himself. She sees that he is a deeply sad, insecure young man who needs love and support. At the end of the book, when she shows up at the museum and demands to come with him, she seems not so much to need Holden as to understand that he needs her.
Mr. Antolini is the adult who comes closest to reaching Holden. He manages to avoid alienating Holden, and being labeled a “phony,” because he doesn’t behave conventionally. He doesn’t speak to Holden in the persona of a teacher or an authority figure, as Mr. Spencer does. He doesn’t object to Holden’s calling him in the middle of the night or to Holden’s being drunk or smoking. Moreover, by opening his door to Holden on the spur of the moment, he shows no reservations about exposing his private self, with his messy apartment, his older wife with her hair in curlers, and his own heavy drinking.
Mr. Antolini’s advice to Holden about why he should apply himself to his studies is also unconventional. He recognizes that Holden is different from other students, and he validates Holden’s suffering and confusion by suggesting that one day they may be worth writing about. He represents education not as a path of conformity but as a means for Holden to develop his unique voice and to find the ideas that are most appropriate to him.
When Mr. Antolini touches Holden’s forehead as he sleeps, he may overstep a boundary in his display of concern and affection. However, there is little evidence to suggest that he is making a sexual overture, as Holden thinks, and much evidence that Holden misinterprets his action. Holden indicates in Chapter 19 that he is extremely nervous around possible homosexuals and that he worries about suddenly becoming one. We also know that he has been thinking about sex constantly since leaving Pencey. Finally, this is not the only scene in which Holden recoils from a physical approach. He is made very uncomfortable when Sunny pulls off her dress and sits in his lap. Even when his beloved sister puts her arms around him, he remarks that she may be a little too affectionate sometimes.
Holden regrets his hasty judgment of Mr. Antolini, but this mistake is very important to him, because he finally starts to question his own practice of making snap judgments about people. Holden realizes that even if Mr. Antolini is gay, he can’t simply be dismissed as a “flit,” since he has also been kind and generous. Holden begins to acknowledge that Mr. Antolini is complex and that he has feelings.
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