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Studying The Catcher in the Rye novel
Summary: As told through the voice of a young man named Holden Caulfield, The Catcher in the Rye follows his weekend. His story starts on Saturday, when he is informed that he will be expelled from Pencey High School because of his poor grades. Pencey High School would be his fourth failed school, but he was not to be sent home to Manhattan until Wednesday. He talks to his history teacher to say goodbye, and back in his dormitory he reunites with his roommates, Ackley and Stradlater. The people he meets he all reprimands, calling them all “phonies” and fakes. He takes the train back to New York, and quickly tries to acquaint himself with his surroundings. First he enters a bar named the Lavender Room and tries to get some alcohol. Afterwards, he returns to his hotel and strikes up conversation with the elevator operator, Maurice. Maurice says he can send a prostitute over, and Holden takes up his offer. Instead of having sex, Holden ends up getting beaten up because he did not pay the full price Maurice asked for. He then visits a museum and wishes everything didn’t change. Shortly after, Holden meets up with another friend, Carl, and gets drunk. He finally returns home in the middle of the night and talks to his little sister, Phoebe. After his reunion, he meets up with his former English teacher, Mr. Antolini, but ends up getting scared because Holden thinks he’s a homosexual. Holden then meets Phoebe outside of school, wanting to go with him. Instead, he takes her to the park on the carousel. His narrative invokes heavy thoughts of loneliness, innocence, and a person’s change from being merely a child to becoming an adult, either for better or worse.
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Holden Caulfield: A seventeen year old that reminisces about one significant weekend in his life, Holden Caulfield is a young man that struggles with loneliness, innocence, and the inevitability of adulthood. Since Holden is the narrator of The Catcher in the Rye, the reader experiences his thoughts and his thoughts only. His thoughts are wrought with convictions of others’ phoniness and subtle hints at his own childish nature. Ironically, he tries to be sophisticated, but deep down he wants to recover a lost innocence in his life and in others. His nature not only makes him likable but also very relatable, as his troubles are so resonant throughout young adults.
Phoebe Caulfield: She is a pivotal character in The Catcher in the Rye, who unlocks Holden’s very innocent and lonely nature. Unlike her brother, she is concerned for his future and is very understanding. Phoebe does not seem like the usual child; her unexpected wisdom allows her to help Holden. What Holden does not realize is that he is one that needs Phoebe, not the other way around.
Mr. Antolini: As Holden alienates other adults, regarding them as “phonies”; Mr. Antolini is the closest friend that Holden has that is an adult. While Holden seems to be in the bottom of his worries regarding his future and career, Antolini is able to reach him as a friend and share his wisdom as an educator. He tells Holden that scholarly men are humble and creative, and that one does not need to be “educated” to be one. He says that Holden has this potential; he just needs to harness it with education. Antolini is another guide in Holden’s life, and helps him realize the importance of life and maturity.
Setting and Time: A weekend in the 1950s. Holden begins his weekend in Pencey High School in Pennsylvania. He then takes the train and relocates to where his home is, New York City.
Loneliness: Holden is ostracized by many of his roommates and older friends because of his personality. During many conversations, he tries to sound really mature, always asking about sex and how others’ relationships are. However, his attempts are futile, because at heart he is innocent and curious. His curiosity also gets him rebuked by adults as well. For example, in the taxi cab, he insistently asks about the ducks in the park, and the taxi driver gets annoyed. His inability to connect with others shows the significance of his red hunting hat, which allows him to be unique, but also seeking attention and comfort from others.
Maturity and Innocence: A central theme of The Catcher in the Rye is innocence and how Holden deals with his inevitable fall from innocence into adulthood and maturity. Holden speaks of a poem he misinterprets, Robert Burns’ “Comin’ Thro the Rye”, and he sees himself catching children falling off a cliff. The way he interprets the poem is that the kids are falling to some sort of demise, which we can see through Holden is a fall from innocence, very much reminiscent to the fall from purity in the book of Genesis. Holden sees himself as the catcher who saves the children from their fall, but little does he understand that he himself is one of those children that he wants to save. Phoebe helps the reader realize this, because she is very straightforward, while Holden struggles with loss of innocence and adulthood. The times he’s in the taxi cabs show his innocence when he asks about the ducks, but when he’s with his distant friends, he tries to put on a façade of maturity, which fails because he is more immature than mature.
Love and Friendship: When Holden is around his “mature” friends, he always tries to bring up the topic of sex and relationships. By doing this, he seems mature. This very act, however, shows his immaturity with love. When Holden is dancing with the girl in the Lavender Room, he thinks he’s “half in love”, showing his complete inexperience with love and misunderstanding of what love truly is. Holden’s real attitude with love is revealed in the room with Maurice’s prostitute. Holden does not actually want to have sex; he wants to just have a conversation because he’s lonely and innocent. His lack of friends and family love make him out to seem like an outcast, but deep inside Holden is just confused between what’s accepted from others, adulthood or innocence.
Identity: Holden is seen struggling many. He is always complaining about the superficiality of the world and people around him: Pencey, reputation, and girls. Ironically, his attitude toward these people and how he is portrayed by other characters is superficial. Holden is extremely quixotic, trying to realize an ideal world. However, he is conflicted with what he is given, the real world. By trying to figure out the world and belong, he sacrifices what he truly believes, innocence, to seem mature. However, his innocence eventually takes over, and his immaturity shines through. Holden struggles with being true to himself, as a dreamer and a young adult. He tries and fails to be an adult with maturity, sex, and relationships. Phoebe and Mr. Antolini help Holden realize himself. Phoebe uses her innocence and accompanying maturity to focus Holden and see that he actually finds innocence more significant to him. Antolini accepts Holden for who he is and does not expect a superficial figure, which Holden tries to be around others. Antolini shares his wisdom with Holden, thus further straightening his perception of the world, which is not one of “phonies”, but of people struggling just like him. This helps Holden find himself even more.
Even though Holden complains about adulthood and phoniness in his mind so much, why does he always try to fit in whenever he meets someone else that is more “mature” than him? What does his loneliness and supposed contempt for the adult world show about his divided self? Why is Holden such a resonating character not only throughout literature but during one’s transition from childhood to adulthood?
Often it takes other characters for the protagonist to have a deeper disposition and help them discover themselves. Phoebe is one of those characters. Even though she is a child, she has both innocent and mature actions. What is it about her personality that makes her almost a crutch for Holden? How does the dichotomy of these actions contribute to Holden’s growth as a character and allow him to be a much deeper character than if Phoebe was not around for him to talk to? What is eventually unlocked about Holden’s true feelings towards the people around him and the world through Phoebe?
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Whenever Holden is feeling depressed, he puts on his red hunting hat. Even though he puts on a façade of individualism, he wants to feel loved. What is Holden’s true intention of this unique hat, and why would Holden want to wear it? How does wearing that hat reflect Holden’s true feelings of individualism and conformity; conformity not in the sense of reputation, but the sense of comfort and love with others? Consider the color of the hat as well.
3 Quotes and Analysis:
“How would you know you weren’t being a phony? The trouble is, you wouldn’t” (224).
Throughout the book, Holden labels almost all adults he meets as “phon[ies]”. Ironically, if Holden says that one “would’t” know if one was “being a phony”, then Holden himself does not realize if he’s a phony or not, even though he condemns many others as phonies. One of the themes of The Catcher in the Rye is Holden’s discovery of himself and who he really is. When he is with his distant friends, he puts on a façade of maturity, but when he’s with strangers and close friends, he is incredibly innocent. The central struggle Holden faces is his struggle from his transition from ignorance in childhood to maturity. The obstacles with self he faces resonate throughout mankind, just as all people have to go through a time of transition to adulthood. Ultimately, he does not want to be a “phony”, yet he tries to conform to fit in and belong.
“What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliffâ€¦I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all” (224-225).
Holden’s true feelings of innocence are revealed through Phoebe. As they talk about Robert Burns’ poem “Comin’ Thro the Rye”, Holden misreads one of the lines, interpreting it as “if a body catch a body”. He sees himself as the “catcher in the rye”, saving the children from a fatal fall “over [a] cliff”. Throughout the book, Holden labels adults as phonies, but when he is with his old friends, he tries to act mature, thus being a phony himself. What he does not discover, though, is that he is one of those children going “over the cliff”. He’s so caught up in other people’s innocence and maturity that he fails to realize his own struggles. His underlying innocence during the taxi cab scenes and his encounter with Phoebe show his true childlike nature. Ironically, the poem actually reads “if a body meet a body”, with the word “meet” connoting casual intercourse. He does not want the children to realize the new and strange, such as “meeting”; Holden wants to do the opposite: save the children from knowledge of evil and a fall from innocence.
“Nobody’d be different. The only thing that would be different would be you” (158).
Holden’s thoughts during his visit to the Museum show his fear of a changing world. The symbolism of the Museum invokes the thought of an ideal world, unchanging and predictable. Having gone through many changes such as Allie’s death and the transition of four schools, he fears further change. His quixotic mind fabricates worlds and ideas where he can live happily. However, these worlds don’t exist, and they just give him comfort in a world where things are rapidly changing. These fears of the changing world ultimately translate to his struggle with himself. Holden realizes he is changing, given that he says “the only thing that would be different would be you”. These thoughts complement his desire for a “catcher in the rye” world: a world of innocence and simplicity. As the protagonist, the Holden is very easy to connect to as change and the fear of the unknown has always been a struggle for mankind.
Style: Salinger’s style in The Catcher in the Rye is very unique in the aspect that it gives the true tone and thoughts of a seemingly shallow but incredibly struggling young man. Multiple times Caulfield is caught narrating, “I really am” and “I don’t know” when he is trying to explain his feelings. These brief thoughts are significant in realizing that Caulfield is struggling with himself. By narrating those lines mentioned, Salinger makes it obvious to the reader that Caulfield not only is trying to convince the people he’s narrating to, but it even seems as if he’s trying to convince himself. His pessimistic attitude is clearly articulated by Salinger, who uses “phony” as a description for almost every other character. Even though Caulfield’s story is completely one-sided, Salinger takes advantage of first person narration to really understand Caulfield’s struggles and revelations.
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