The Catcher in the Rye Study Guide

The Catcher in the Rye

The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger

The Catcher in the Rye is a novel written by J.D. Salinger in 1951. It is told from the first person perspective of a young boy named Holden Caulfield, who is in a psychiatric facility after the events of the novel. Holden dislikes the world around him and his story reflects that. It explores themes such as growing up, the phoniness that comes with growing up, and alienation from peers as a means of protecting oneself.

Holden Caulfield

Holden's cynicism and bitterness are the first traits to strike the reader. Though not always this way, Holden has become increasingly disillusioned with the hypocrisy he witness around him everyday. From Pencey Prep that is full of phonies (131) to his neighborhood in New York City's Upper East Side, Holden is beset on all sides by the spiritual bankruptcy of his fellow man. He is also plagued by what he feels is a lost of childhood innocence as a result of his younger brother's death from leukemia and his witnessing the suicide of an Elkton Hills classmate. These issues have culminated into Holden's apathetic and rather belligerent attitude towards himself and the outside world.

This apathy and belligerence manifest themselves in his judgmental attitude towards virtually everyone in his life. Throughout the text, Holden goes on long diatribes about other people's shortcomings and theorizes about them. For example, when he introduces Ackley to the reader, one of the first things he mentions is Ackley's unattractive physical appearance: He was one of those very, very tall, round-shouldered guyswith lousy teeth (19). Holden speaks of Ackley's appearance as though it affects his value as a person. It's important to note that most of Holden's observations of others are based on that which is surface. Rarely does he probe deeper into others' psyches to learn who they are or why they have certain habits.

Ironically, Holden is as judgmental of himself as he is of others. He continuously ponders the reasoning behind his choices and behavior. There are two perfect examples of this. The first is the incident with Lillian at Ernie's nightclub. Instead of telling Lillian that he is not interested in sitting with her or her date, he tells her that he must leave to meet a friend. Then, feeling badly for having lied to her, he leaves the club. Initially, he acknowledges that he is a coward; however, he blames Lillian for his decision to leave, claiming that she is responsible for ruining his night. The second incident is his meeting with Carl Luce. When Carl arrives at the Wicker Bar, Holden bombards him with personal questions about his sex life. Carl must ask Holden several times to refrain, but Holden does not. Finally after a few minutes, Carl leaves Holden who is pleading with him to stay. During the entire conversation, Holden believes Carl's reserve is a result of his arrogance rather than his maturity.

His meeting with Carl segues nicely into a second noteworthy trait exhibited by Holden which is his sexual awkwardness. Throughout the text, Holden makes innumerable references to sex and intimacy. In fact, several chapters deal with this specifically. Holden admits, before his first encounter with a real prostitute, that he is a virgin. As a result he is extremely interested in losing his status as such. However, his attitude towards sex is similar to that of a highly moralized child. That is to say that he believes sex can and should only happen between two people who love or care deeply for one another. As he says to Carl, I can never get really sexy- I mean really sexy- with a girl I don't like a lot (148). However, during his weekend fiasco, he spends a majority of the time seeking out women he doesn't care for deeply or barely knows; among them are a promiscuous woman named Faith Cavendish, a blond woman from Seattle, a prostitute named Sunny, and Sally Hayes. With the exception of Sally, Holden makes failed attempts to seduce them. In Sally's case, Holden does make-out with her in the back of a taxi and goes so far as to tell her he loves her, but she is not his ideal companion. The only female he knows that is worthy of this title is Jane Gallagher, a warm, sincere girl who Holden has not seen since he lived in Maine. It is fair to say that Holden's sexual anxiety is not only due to his traditional beliefs about sex and relationships, but also to his obsession with Jane as the ideal. Unfortunately, he learns that Jane may not entirely fit his definition of the perfect young woman because she goes on a date with Stradlater, a virile, young man for whom sex is a casual act. Holden cannot fathom the idea that Jane may be as sexually permissive as his roommate and therefore desperately holds on to the memories of Jane as the innocent child he once knew- a persona to which he compares the other women he encounters.

Phoebe Caulfield

Salinger establishes an interesting dichotomy between Phoebe and Holden. Holden is a disillusioned, young adult who refuses to understand that the nature of life is to grow and change. Phoebe, on the other hand, is a ten years old child who possesses an acute awareness of this fact. She understands that growing up is a natural and necessary aspect of life. Although the reader may expect Phoebe, as one of the innocents her brother is intent on saving from the hypocrisy of the adult world, to support Holden's views, she confronts them with conviction. It is apparent to her that Holden's stunted maturity is more of a reflection of his internal struggle than it is of the outside world. It is precisely because of her role as the child that the reader must rely more on her perceptions than they do on Holden's. This is especially so after realizing that Holden is a completely unreliable narrator.

Unlike the other characters who attempt to help Holden by asking him what the problem is , for which he can supply numerous answers, Phoebe asks him to define that in his life which isn't a problem. She tells him to Name one thing that he enjoys immensely (169). In doing this, she is trying to help Holden redirect his negative energy to identifying the positive aspects of his young adulthood. It is important to take note of her seemingly cruel response to his answers. He tells her that he likes Allie and talking with her. She reminds him that Allie is dead and that speaking with her doesn't mean anything. Although, initially, it seems like she is dismissing his sincere attempts at proactive self-determination, Phoebe is actually trying to force him to identify things that he can do and/or be successfully. She is motivated by the fact that her brother has achieved nothing but failure up to this point in his life. This is due, in large part, to a sever lack in guidance. Both parents are noticeably absent from the story, except for the occasional comments about his mother's psychological fragility and his father's tendency to commit long hours to his legal profession. His older brother, who in a typical familial setting would act as a mentor to the younger brother, is also conspicuously absent though his is a physical rather than emotional distance. Recognizing the impact this has had on Holden, Phoebe becomes, to a certain extent, a surrogate parent. She gives him the unconditional love and support that he needs and desperately seeks.

Mr. Antolini

Mr. Antolini is the only adult in the novel that who manages to garner respect from Holden. Not only is he relatively young in comparison to most of the adults Holden meets, but he also does not live a conventional lifestyle. He is neither superficial nor boring. He entertains and allows friends in need to find refuge in his apartment at any hour of the night, and he cares little about his appearance or the appearance of his upscale apartment when he does have guests. Mr. Antolini is completely exposed in a way that is unfamiliar to Holden.

He treats Holden like an equal and a friend as demonstrated by his acceptance of Holden's late night phone call. He clearly moved by Holden's plight and offers him a safe space where he can be heard rather than lectured. Also interesting is Mr. Antolini's calm reaction to Holden's expulsion. Rather than yell at Holden in exasperation, Mr. Antolini simply states, So. You and Pencey are no longer one (182). Like Phoebe, Mr. Antolini wants to save Holden from succumbing to his apathy, something that he qualifies as a special kind of fall, a horrible kind (187) that usually results from people giving up on their search for spiritual fulfillment. Mr. Antolini is also similar to Phoebe in his approach to showing Holden how to identify his gifts in life. He does this by explaining to Holden the higher purpose to education. While others tell Holden he needs an education in order to fulfill societal expectations, Mr. Antolini tells Holden that education is necessary for fulfilling the spiritual and intellectual void he's experiencing: But I do say that educated and scholarly men, if they're brilliant and creative to begin withtend to leave infinitely more valuable records behind them than men do who are merely brilliant and creative (189). Not only does Mr. Antolini's perspective on illustrate the importance of an education, but it also tells Holden that Mr. Antolini believes in his ingenuity and intelligence.

Parallels can be drawn between Mr. Antolini and Holden through the concept of being a catcher in the rye though with one important distinction: Mr. Antolini as catcher functions to rescue those who are lost and have not and cannot define the type of life for which they desperately seek, whereas Holden as catcher functions to prevent children from ever having to face the self-determination that all must confront in the maturation process. Unfortunately, Holden sexual insecurities prevent him from reaching out to grab hold of Mr. Antolini's hand and being guided into the adult world. This is why he abruptly leaves when he awakens to Mr. Antolini stroking his forehead. While Mr. Antolini's behavior is peculiar, it is far from a sexual advance. He is simply doing that which most parents and parental figures do to their children when they are concerned for their welfare. Clearly, Mr. Antolini is a father figure to Holden.

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