Although often referred to as a bildungsroman — a coming of age novel — The Catcher in The Rye features a protagonist who actively refuses to join the world of adulthood and disrupts his own path to maturity. Salinger’s narrator glorifies childhood's simplicity and hinders his own development by refusing to connect with his contemporaries, leaving him distraught and alienated from society. The more outcast he feels, the more he rejects the societal demands of adulthood, choosing instead to regress retrospectively back to the safety of childhood.
The driving conflict in The Catcher in the Rye is internal, as the protagonist Holden Caulfield is unable to mediate between the worlds of childhood and adulthood. Holden idolises the innocence of childhood whilst rebuking what he sees as the demands of adulthood; namely sex, social connection, and the ability to act decisively. Holden juxtaposes childlike and adult decisions in the depictions of his brothers. In the opening paragraph of the novel, Holden tells us that his older brother D.B. has “prostituted” his writing abilities by moving to Hollywood to write for the movies (Salinger, 1994, p.1). As Benjamin Priest explains, Holden links D.B.'s writing career with "a sleazy adult world of sex, a world which the adolescent Holden feels drawn towards but also finds disgusting and frightening" (Priest, 2016). Holden’s recurrently mentioned disappointment with D.B. is contrasted with his virtuous depiction of his brother Allie. Allie died at a young age and so in Holden’s eyes he was never blemished by the temptations of adulthood and so Holden commends him for his personality, intelligence, and even appearance. Holden also frequently praises his younger sister Phoebe, who he sees as a symbol for the innocence of all children. When he catches her sleeping, he remarks, “You take adults, they look lousy when they’re asleep and they have their mouths way open, but kids don’t. Kids look all right” (Salinger, 1994, p.144). Holden projects his views regarding the goodness of children onto Phoebe.
This binary conflict of maturity is seen clearly in the central motif of the novel — namely the Catcher in the Rye that Holden aspires to be. This is first alluded to towards the middle of the novel, when Holden hears a young boy singing “If a body catch a body coming through the rye” (Salinger, 1994, p.104). The song and the childish antics of the boy — walking in the street not on the pavement whilst humming the tune- cheer Holden up. The boy conforms to Holden’s preformed notions of childhood being idyllic and tranquil and for the first time since arriving in New York Holden feels at peace; “It made me feel not so depressed anymore” (Salinger, 1994, p.104). Holden brings up the song again later in the novel when he visits Phoebe at home. He substitutes the song for a direct answer about his future and tells Phoebe that he would like to be in a rye-field looking after children who are playing to make sure that they do not fall off of this cliff. To Holden the rye-field represents the innocence of childhood whilst the cliff is the leap to adulthood. Holden knows though that implicitly he does not belong in the rye-field — everyone there is a young child besides himself. Holden is poised between two worlds in a state of arrested development — one world he cannot go back to and the other he is afraid to enter.
Holden’s aversion to adulthood is seen in his self-confessed immaturity; “I’m seventeen now, and sometimes I act like I’m about thirteen” (Salinger, 1994, p.8). Frequently throughout the novel we see this tension between Holden’s fragile innocence and his growing sexuality. His complicated feelings about sexuality are bound up with his feelings regarding Stradlater and Jane. As James Bryan writes in The Psychological Structure of The Catcher in the Rye, Holden’s sexuality is “swaying precariously between reversion and maturation” (Bryan, 1974, p.1069). Holden claims to be “the biggest sex maniac you ever saw” but in reality, sexual experiences frighten him (Salinger, 1994, p.56). In the initial chapters, Holden’s roommate Stradlater at Pencey Prep has a date with Jane Gallagher — a girl Holden befriended as a child. This directly brings Holden’s opposing worlds into conflict- the world of sex embodied by Stradlater versus the world of childhood purity embodied by Jane — and the situation makes Holden distraught; “It made me so nervous I nearly went crazy. I already told you what a sexy bastard Stradlater was “(Salinger, 1994, p.29).
Holden’s most vivid memory of Jane is the fact that she used to keep her kings in the back row whilst they were playing checkers when they were younger. Holden asks Stradlater after their date if she still does, but Stradlater mocks him for his childish impression of what they got up to on their date. Holden fixates on this image of Jane’s kings in the back row — symbolic in his mind of defence against sexual attack. Holden conjectures that Stradlater and Jane had sex and the complex feelings stirred up in him by the growing pressure of adolescent sexual encounters cause him to punch Stradlater.
After this episode Holden reveals to the readers that he is still a virgin and alludes to his inconsistent feelings towards sex in general. In the same paragraph that he claims to be a “sex maniac”, he also confesses that the concept of sex confuses him; “Sex is something I just don’t understand” (Salinger, 199, p.56). This discrepancy of emotion is put into action when he calls up Faith Cavendish, a former burlesque stripper, on his first night in New York and tries to make a date with her. She is unable to meet that evening but when she tries to rearrange for the following day, Holden rebukes her offer. This struggle manifests itself again later on during the same night when Holden agrees to pay for a prostitute but then cannot go through having sex with her. The thought of having sex with her upsets him; “I felt more depressed than sexy, if you want to know the truth. She was depressing” (Salinger, 1994, p.87). Holden’s failure to act sexually links to his general resistance to adulthood and what is expected of him. As Bryan asserts; “More than anything else Holden fears the biological imperatives of adulthood” (Bryan, 1974, p.1065).
Another aspect of adulthood that Holden struggles with is social connection. He dismisses it, but his loneliness shapes the novel into his quest for connection. However, Holden sabotages each interaction either due to his immaturity or his misreading of signals, as exemplified by his meetings with Sally Hayes and Luce. With each failed attempt Holden adopts a self-protective veneer of disgust with the world. Holden maintains a distance from people by dismissing them with scorn and he labels people he finds too conventional as phonies. Thus, he is able to protect his vision of an ideal world and instead of dealing with real people, he daydreams about Phoebe’s innocence and Jane’s warmth. Holden’s conflicting desire and aversion to social connection is seen in his encounter with Sally and his conflicting feelings towards her; “I felt like marrying her the minute I saw her. I’m crazy. I didn’t even like her much” (Salinger, 1994, p.112). Sally reproving his plan for the pair of them to move to new England sets Holden down a path of mania. Holden then calls up his old school friend Carl Luce to meet up for a drink. Despite labelling Luce a phony, Holden clearly wants to connect with him but his immature questioning about Luce’s private life causes Luce to depart and leaves Holden feeling more depressed; “Please, I’m lonesome as hell. No kidding” (Salinger, 1994, p.134). With each successive interaction Holden withdraws deeper into his cynicism whilst feeling more desperate to break out of his loneliness.
The climax of Holden’s self-incurred alienation from society is his plan to move west and pretend to be a deaf-mute. As explained by Carl F. Strauch in his paper Kings in the Back Row: Meaning through Structure, whereas Holden earlier felt that society was rejecting him, he now chooses to reject society. “If there is to be no communication it is of his own free, rational choice and not a piece of neurotic withdrawal” (Strauch, 1961, p.21).
Holden longs for the connection he had with Jane, but he is too frightened to call her. This is one of the many examples in the novel of Holden’s inability to take action. His incapacity to go through with sexual encounters is another. Strauch posits that “His rapidly worsening neurotic condition has frozen him in this posture of feebleness” (Strauch, 1961, p.14). We come to realise that Holden is traumatised by Allie’s death and is thus terrified of change. He visits the Museum of Natural History because according to him, “The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move” (Salinger, 1994, p.109). Holden’s inability to act relates not only to his past pain, but also to his fears regarding the future and he sees making active decisions as one of the markers of adulthood which he so dreads. His association of childhood with exhibits in the museum further exemplifies that "the innocence and ingenuous honesty of childhood are idealised and cherished in Holden’s inner world where he attempts to preserve them like exhibits in the museum" (Priest, 2016).
The stark division Holden sets up between childhood and adulthood is complicated by Phoebe, who rejects his binary vision of the world and challenges him on his views; “You don’t like anything that’s happening” (Salinger, 1994, p.152). Holden sees her as the pinnacle of childhood innocence, but she shows that children can be cruel when she relates how she poured ink all over one boy’s windbreaker for pushing her. She is also the one to point out that Holden has misquoted the Burns’ poem; “It’s ‘If a body meet a body coming through the rye’!” (Salinger, 1994, p.155). Holden’s substitution of meet for catch is notable because the intended use of the word ‘meet’ in the poem was alluding to a sexual encounter.
One of the final images in the novel is Phoebe riding the carousel, she is secure in her childhood innocence and not menaced by the future. Holden is engrossed in her riding around and at the end of the chapter, and it seems that he has fully retreated into the childhood world via Phoebe. He does not belong in the childhood world and so this complete retreat into childhood facilitates the regressive mental collapse that ultimately sends Holden to a psychiatric hospital. According to Priest, Holden sees "adolescent growth and development as a betrayal of childhood" and his behaviour in the novel serves as a "warning" (Priest, 2016).
The Catcher in the Rye depicts Holden’s feeble efforts to cling onto the remnants of his childhood. His brother’s death has left him terrified of change and causes him to vilify the world of adulthood and the social connections it entails. Holden isolates himself from the people around him when in reality he longs to connect with someone. Ironically, it is his intense struggle to come to terms with the world of adult connections that leads him to the social exile he fears. The more manic about making a connection Holden becomes, the worse his social interactions play out and the more he ultimately regresses back into the safety of childhood. This finally culminates in his total retreat into the world of childhood and the inevitable psychotic break he suffers.
Bryan, J. (1974). "The Psychological Structure of The Catcher in the Rye". Modern Language Association, 89(5).
Priest, B. (2016). "'The Catcher in The Rye' and the Ill Member of the Group: Holden Caulfield and Adolescent Development". Psychodynamic Practice, 22(3). 209-222
Salinger, J.D. (1994). The Catcher in The Rye. London: Penguin Books
Strauch, C. (1964). "Kings in the Back Row: Meaning Through Structure". Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, 2(1).
Figure 1: Holden Caulfield [Artwork] Retrieved from: https://www.vox.com/2016/7/16/12198828/catcher-in-the-rye-65th-anniversary-j-d-salinger
Figure 2: Cover of The Catcher in The Rye [Artwork] Retrieved from: https://www.killyourdarlings.com.au/2016/07/dont-let-me-disappear-trauma-narrative-in-the-catcher-in-the-rye/
Figure 3: J.D. Salinger [Photograph] Retrieved from: https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/who-was-j-d-salinger
Figure 4: Holden and Phoebe [Illustration] Retrieved from: https://earlybirdbooks.com/the-re-read-j-d-salingers-the-catcher-in-the-rye