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.


Salinger utilizes setting as a device to demonstrate contention, anxiety, loneliness, and depression. For example, in Chapter 2, Holden is anxious to return to his dorm room, which he considers to be a place of sanctuary. However, when Ackley enters, the room becomes a place of contention and anxiety. Similarly, when Holden leaves Pencey to return to Manhattan, he believes that it is to get away, as it were, from the stress of Pencey's ambiguity and support of the phony world. Unfortunately, his arrival in Manhattan brings him dark and desolate streets where only the faint echo of a lone laugh can be heard. Finally, each time Holden enters a night club, it is packed, virtually, from wall to wall, like in Ernie's, with the very people from whom Holden is trying to escape.

Looming in the background is the west, the typical Oz for beat literature. It acts as a symbol for freedom and new life. Holden considers the possibility of running away to Colorado where he can work on a ranch. He has created this idealistic vision of the great wide territory and performing idealized work as part of this environment. Salinger is drawing attention to one of the major problems inherent to pursuing and living a nomadic, anti-autochthony lifestyle and his message is two fold: 1) Being rooted to a place does not guarantee happiness 2) In order for one to find happiness in a place, he must first establish that happiness within himself. To be more specific, Salinger is emphasizing through setting, hat settling one's inner-conflict will facilitate discovering satisfaction in the outer-world.


The two major conflicts in the novel are Holden against the world and Holden against himself. As expressed throughout the text, Holden is entrenched in a social battle with the phonies of the world and the impact their superficiality has on the world. Yet, this battle mainly manifests itself internally through silent observations of those he believes are phonies. Occasionally, when his internal struggle overwhelms him, it erupts into the outside world either through physical or verbal assaults. Two prime examples include 1)Holden's failed attempt to hit Stradlater after his date with Jane 2) Holden's verbal attack on Maurice after Sunny and he took the money they came to his hotel room to collect. In the case of Stradlater, Holden could not contain his anger at Stradlater for taking Jane on a date. He also could not contain his personal frustration with his sexual awkwardness. Although he wants to be the one dating Jane, he knows that his anxieties over intimacy will prevent him from taking the initiative. The incident with Maurice and Sunny is similar except that Holden's externalized, humiliated, angry reaction is a result of the confidence game the pair played on him. In both incidents resulted in Holden being injured.

Point of View

Salinger uses point of view in this novel in order to encapsulate the reader in the world of Holden Caulfield. From the beginning, the reader knows that Holden is not only the narrator and protagonist, but he is also unreliable as is hinted at by his references to the madman stuff (1) that he endured the previous Christmas. His tone of voice is both bitter and cynical, yet underlying it are subtle hints of hope and desperation. As he tells his story, he oscillates between anger, confusion, sadness, elation, sympathy, etc. The intent behind continuous, rapid changes in tone is to immerse the reader not only in the world of a disillusioned, lost teenager but also in his world view.

Occasionally, the reader is exposed to Phoebe's point of view. Although it is through Holden's lens, it does well enough so that Phoebe's distinctive character comes through. This is most present in Chapter 24 of the text when Holden and Phoebe are discussing his current academic situation.


Foreshadowing is used several times in the novel; however, it resonates mostly in the opening of the novel. When Holden begins his story, he is extremely aloof about that weekend fiasco which he refers to as it in the first chapter. Then he goes on to refer to it as this madman stuff that happened to him during the previous Christmas that resulted in his succumbing to exhaustion and having to come out here for rest. The choice of words is precise enough to force the reader to conclude that the narrator is ill, suffering from a nervous condition, and is in a rest home or psychiatric facility for treatment. It isn't until the end of the novel that the reader's initial conclusions are confirmed by the narrator.

Although Holden is not explicit about where he is receiving treatment, it's clear that he is in a psychiatric ward. Twice, Holden alludes to his degenerating mental condition in Chapter 17. The first time happens when he is telling the reader about he and Sally Hayes making-out in the back of the taxi. Holden tells Sally that he loves, though it's a meaningful lie. After saying it, Holden declares, I'm crazy. I swear to God I am(125). The second time he alludes to the onset of his nervous breakdown is at the end of the date when he reflects on his outburst. He claims that he was sincere in asking her to run away with him, though he doesn't believe they are suitable companions. He concludes his reflection with I swear to God I'm a madman(134).


Salinger utilizes Holden as a vehicle for exploring the irony of his predicament. To be more specific, Salinger exposes the discrepancies of American society through the incongruence of Holden's words, convictions, and actions. For example, in Chapters 1-2 Holden reveals that not only did he attend the prestigious Pencey Prep, but that he had attended at least three other private academies during his high school years. This alerts the reader to his moneyed status, or at least his parents. Despite his disdain for such institutions, he continues to allow his parents to enroll him in them. Even at the end of the novel, he tells the reader that he will enroll in yet another prep school in the fall. In speaking to the ironic elements specific to American society, Salinger makes a statement about the presumed caliber of prep school students. Not only is Holden's school filled with crooks (4), but it is also filled with students who maltreat each other. Stradlater insults Ackley for his poor hygiene and Ackley insults Stradlater for his arrogance.

Another example of Salinger's use of irony is Holden's label consciousness. He is acutely aware of the brand name, or lack there of, of anyone's items. He recounts several instances in which he not only vividly remembers the label, but he also admits to feeling uncomfortable with and even hating the fact that someone would have cheap goods. In Chapter 15, when he's eating breakfast with the nuns, the first thing he notices are their suitcases. They were made of cheap, imitation leather; a fact that disturbed Holden. He instantly recalled a former roommate that also owned a set of cheap, imitation leather suitcases while Holden owned a set of calfskin, Mark Cross luggage. Holden blamed the cheap luggage for his contention between him and his roommate, rather than on a simple personality conflict. He also calls attention to the meager breakfast the nuns are eating while he eats bacon and eggs. Rather than assuming the nuns do not have a large appetite, he assumes that they do not have enough money for a more substantial meal; an assumption inspired by the cheap suitcases.

In Chapter 16, he calls attention the appearance of the family he sees walking in the street. He claims that they look poor, but doesn't state what it is specifically about them that makes them look poor. He does, however, call attention to the father's hat that he assumes is a cheap imitation, of a high-end style, made for poor men. It is important to note that he does not speak to the family to obtain verification for his observations. This is the irony of his character and his role as a hero. The text is riddled with examples of his judgmental attitude towards virtually everyone encounters. Holden often goes on long diatribes about other people's shortcomings and theorizes about them; many of these diatribes revolve around the socio-economic status of the subject as seen in the examples above. Holden is so entrenched in the upper-class value system, that his questioning of the world around him is done so from this limited frame of reference.


The structure of the novel reflects that of a memoir. Salinger uses this form in order to enhance the impact the novel would have on its audience. By writing in the vernacular and mimicking the disjointed thought process of the protagonist, Salinger draws the reader deeply into the dark cynicism, loneliness, and bitterness of a confused teenaged boy. The language is harsh as is the content, specifically in sections where Holden is discussing an acquaintance. For example, in Chapter 3-4 when Stradlater prepares for his date, Holden beholds him with an air of awe and disgust. He is in awe of Stradlater because of his Year Book kind of good looks (27), but he is disgusted by his secret slob (27) tendencies. Holden is most harsh when discussing Ackley. Due to Ackley's lack of personal hygiene, Holden claims that he damn near made you sick (19) by looking at him. This likeness to a memoir or previously locked journal intensifies the affect of the story. The reader is almost made to feel shame, pity, and fear from being told of the darkest side of a young man's psyche.

This is Salinger's intention with The Catcher in the Rye . Disgusted by what the fifties brought to America in the form of mass-consumerism and materialism, he set out to write a novel that would not only speak to the spiritual death caused by this new culture, but also speak to the dire affects it was having on America's youth. Left to their own devices in this Age of Anxiety, an inevitable feeling of alienation developed among many teenagers. This is due in part to the extensive amount of leisure time available to them, the inundation of mediated, incessant consumption, and the impending doom and destruction by the atom bomb. However, everywhere they turned, life imitated Disneyland. The discrepancy was irreconcilable for many. Holden Caulfield, through The Catcher in the Rye speaks for the disillusioned, disaffected sector of fifties youth.

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