J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye

J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye

Most of us have made mistakes in life that we were able to recognize, but what is important is that we redeem those mistakes, and try to avoid making them again.   However, Holden Caulfield, the main character in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, continues to make the same mistakes over and over again even though he fully acknowledges them.  Written in 1951, The Catcher in the Rye is the story of a young man who has been given many privileges of life, but throws away opportunities for no justifiable reason.  He lacks direction and ambition despite all he has been given. He spends the entire story telling his audience about all the “phonies” in his life; from the faculty and students at all the boarding schools he has attended, to those in his personal life. But it is Holden himself who is perhaps the biggest “phony” of the book.

This post World War II novel starts on Pencey Prep school in Pennsylvania in which Holden is about to fail out and be sent back to his parents in New York City.  Holden has not only failed every subject except English, he has also been a poor manager of the school’s fencing team, having lost all of their equipment, resulting in them forfeiting a match.  Later, Holden gets in a fist fight with his roommate, and decides to leave the school in the middle of the night yelling “Sleep tight, ya morons!” to his entire dorm before he leaves Pencey for the last time.

Alone, in the cold of night, Holden takes a bus to New York to hang out in the city before going home to face his parents.  He gets in as much trouble in the city as he did at school, and just as every time before in his life, he doesn’t do much to fight back.  Many times in this story we see Holden starting trouble only to get beat up, but he seems to fail to stand up for himself too much.  He often fantasizes that he has been shot when he is beat up, but in reality, he usually just takes the beating.  Here again, we see that while Holden is aware of a mess he has gotten himself into, he does little to change his situation.  In fact, he seems to keep doing the same things to get himself into trouble.  In an attempt to avoid going home to a safe environment, Holden chooses to walk the streets of New York in winter, finding trouble and loneliness in many places. His loneliness and depression lead him to call acquaintances that he considers “phonies” asking them to spend time with him.  It is obvious that it is really Holden that is the phony, as his lack of truth to himself keeps him from going home to redeem himself, and face his parents.

Holden’s attitude does little to help him out.  He sometimes calls himself “the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life” or a “madman” but he not only shows no remorse for acting in these ways, he also doesn’t do anything to change his behavior.  He seems to almost accept his behavior as one that he cannot change, but since he continues to do the same things, his behavior never changes.  As an audience, we feel some sympathy for Holden for some of the tragedies in his past, such as the death of his brother and a former classmate, as well as his constant depression and loneliness, but that sympathy is overshadowed by frustration and disappointment because we see that a young man with so much privilege is doing little to improve his situation or his attitude.  Holden, like many of us, fails to realize that he is the solution to his own problems.

We are all redeemable.  But redemption is a choice, and it is a choice we must each make individually each time we get the opportunity.  Holden Caulfield is no exception to this.  Despite all his failures and troubles, he had many opportunities to redeem himself, but continued to deny himself redemption throughout the story.  While he acknowledges that he may have messed up, he does nothing to fix things.  In this story of teenage angst, depression, loneliness, and misguidance, we see that it is really home and family that we all seek to help us redeem ourselves, and that it is only in the truth to ourselves that we can see that clearly.

By Teresa Boyer/Adjunct Instructor, Lourdes University

Toledo Reads Contributor