In the novel, The Catcher in The Rye, the protagonist Holden Caufield seems to be excluded from and victimized by the world around him. As he says to his professor Mr. Spencer, he feels trapped on the other side of life, and he continually attempts to find his way in a world in which he feels he doesnt belong. This alienation is both the source of Holdens strength and the source of his problems.
Part of Holdens alienation is a result of his inability, or perhaps unwillingness, to grow up. Like a child, Holden fears change and is overwhelmed by complexity, but he is too out of touch with his feelings to admit it. Instead, he spends much of his time criticizing others. Ironically, he is often guilty of the sins he criticizes in others.
Holden is clearly fearful of adulthood, but instead of acknowledging that it scares and mystifies him, he condemns it, claiming that adulthood is a world of superficiality, hypocrisy, and phoniness. Whereas, childhood, on the other hand, is a world of innocence, curiosity, and honesty. He explains that adults are inevitably phonies, and, whats worse, they cant see their own phoniness. Phoniness, for Holden, stands as an emblem of everything thats wrong in the world around him and provides an excuse for him to withdraw into his cynical isolation, a defense mechanism to help him deal with his loneliness.
Holden expends much of his energy searching for phoniness in others, yet at the same time, while he is a self-admitted compulsive liar, he never acknowledges his own phoniness. This is not only ironic, but hypocritical, since phoniness is what Holden claims to detest more than anything else in the world.
Holden is further hypocritical because while decrying the abhorrent nature of adulthood, he spends much of his energy trying to behave like an adult, as evidenced by his actions such as hiring a prostitute, spending money recklessly, or drinking alcohol.
Holdens fantasy of the catcher in the rye exemplifies his feelings about adulthood versus childhood, and offers him a protective shield of cynicism. In his fantasy, he describes childhood as an idyllic field of rye in which children romp and play; whereas adulthood is equivalent to deatha fatal fall over the edge of a cliff. This perception of childhood and adulthood allows Holden to retain his childishness, thereby cutting himself off from the world by covering himself with an armor of cynicism.
Holden uses his isolation as proof that he is better than everyone else around him and therefore above interacting with them. The truth is that interactions with other people usually confuse and overwhelm him, and his cynical sense of superiority serves as a type of self-protection. Strangely, Holdens alienation is the source of what little stability he has in his life.
To the reader, it is obvious that Holdens alienation and loneliness is the cause of most of his pain. He desperately needs human contact and love, but his protective wall of bitterness prevents him from looking for deep interaction. Ironically, alienation is both the source of Holdens strength and the source of his problems. For example, his loneliness propels him into his date with Sally Hayes, but his need for isolation causes him to insult her and drive her away. Similarly, he longs for the meaningful connection he once had with Jane Gallagher, but he is too frightened to make any real effort to contact her. He depends upon his alienation, but as the novel concludes, it is clear that it ultimately destroys him.