The Catcher in the Rye



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The Catcher in the Rye

  • Themes

4 Main Themes

  • Hatred of Phonies
  • Suspicion Toward Authority Figures
  • Disregard for Conventional Social Roles
  • Romanticizing Nature and Longing for Innocence

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 Thomas Hardy is thus portrayed as an outsider in contrast to this specimen of normal red-blooded youth.
  • Holden speaks explicitly about his dislike of cliques toward the end of his date with Sally Hayes.
  • He sees no use in dividing the world up into Catholics, intellectuals, basketball players, and so on.
  • He cannot truly belong to any of these circles, because he finds the roles too constricting.
  • And he is equally nauseated by the idea of becoming a Manhattan office worker as an adult, acting out the pantomime of social respectability.
  • Holden wants to find a way to retain his own identity.

Romanticizing Nature and Longing for Innocence

  • Confronted with either obnoxious schoolmates or the bustling pace of New York, Holden finds his nerves fraying.
  • He often turns to a romantic image of nature to find solace.
  • For example, when he arrives in the city, he asks the cab driver if he knows where the ducks in Central Park go when the lagoon freezes over.
  • It is something Holden has been wondering about ever since his preparations to leave Pencey.
  • The driver's curt reply is a reminder that not everyone shares Holden's values.
  • When Holden checks into a hotel, he is surrounded by prostitutes, perverts and heavy drinkers, all of which contrast with the serenity of the park.
  • Later, Holden returns to the subject of the ducks with another cab driver.
  • It seems that if he could get an answer to this question, his mind would be at ease, knowing the ducks are safe.
  • It is a childish desire, in a way, but it also offers an important insight into Holden's psyche.
  • Holden also conjures up an image of nature and innocence intertwined when he makes a spur-of-the-moment proposal to run away with Sally Hayes.
  • He talks about living in "cabin camps" and later getting a house near a brook, somewhere in rural Massachusetts or Vermont, away from the corruption of the city.
  • Sally's dismissal of the notion reinforces his outsider status again.
  • It is not surprising that Holden's epiphany of happiness at the end of the novel occurs in Central Park.
  • Watching his sister Phoebe riding a carousel, he states: "I was damn near bawling, I felt so damn happy, if you want to know the truth.“
  • Holden is always trying to get to the truth, even if it is sometimes elusive, so this is an important revelation from him.
  • The park evokes his own fond memories of childhood, before his brother Allie's death, and seeing Phoebe circling around in this natural setting seems to bring him a sense of permanency and wholeness.
  • Even though Holden ends up in a sanitarium, as we are reminded in the brief final chapter, he has a stabilizing force in his life.
  • That can give him hope for the future.


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