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.

Life is a game, boy. Life is a game that one plays according to the rules. / Yes, sir. I know it is. I know it. / Game, my ass. Some game. If you get on the side / where all the hot-shots are, then it's a game, all rightI'll admit that. But if you get on the other side, where there aren't any hot-shots, then what's a game about it? / Nothing. No game.

This quotation is from Chapter 2 in which Holden is saying goodbye to his former history teacher, Mr. Spencer. Mr. Spencer is lecturing him about his expulsion from Pencey. At one point during the lecture, he explains to Holden that the headmaster's comments regarding life being a game are relevant and true. To Spencer and Holden's headmaster, life is a competitive sport in which one vies for the most material goods one he can own or purchase. However, just as Holden observes in his inner response, in order for one to even be a player in the game, he has to join the winning team or there is no reason to be a proactive player.

The quote also speaks to several of Holden's key character traits. The first is his contempt for phony adults as is evidenced by his silent ridiculing and cursing of Spencer which he hides beneath a nodding, compliant veneer. The second is his tremendous feeling of alienation. He identifies with those on the other side of the game, and he that it is pointless to play an active role in his own life because the ones with power will always change the rule to ensure their victory. The third is Holden's empathy for the underprivileged. Despite the fact that he's an intelligent, young man born into privilege, he identifies with those who are not prospering under the new American economy of the fifties.

You ought to go to a boy's school sometimeIt's full of phonies, and all you do is study so that you can learn enough to buy a goddam Cadillac some day, and you have to keep making believe you give a damn if the football team loses, and everybody sticks together in these dirty little goddam cliques.

This quote is from Chapter 17 of the novel when Holden is talking to Sally Hayes about his disillusionment. This relates to the theme of phoniness that is one of the prevalent themes of the book. Throughout the text, Holden makes references to people's behavior that indicates their insincerity. It isn't until this section of the novel that Holden first articulates his feelings to another person.

The first line of the quote hints at the pressures under which young men find themselves and to which Holden is particularly sensitive. To be more specific, young men are pressured to demonstrate their masculinity and virility through income, acquiring goods, and athleticism or an interest in sports. The second line of the quote in which he declares that Pencey is full of phonies speaks to his increased feeling of alienation from the school. Holden does not recognize his classmates as peers beyond their shared socio-economic status. The statement about the Cadillac reflects the consumerism pervading American society. As demonstrated by Ossenburger, it appears as though the sole purpose of education in America is to increase one's income potential. It is clear that this influences Holden's opinion of school and education. One can argue that it also influences his approach to his own education and therefore leads him to refrain from trying to succeed in school.

The last two lines of the quote speak to his disdain for conformity. Football is one of the all-American sports, especially in prestigious private schools. It is also one of the roughest sports. Holden is not an athlete in the traditional sense of the word. He fences, albeit unsuccessfully. It can be considered a thinking man's sport requiring continuous strategizing by the participants. Football, on the other hand, requires brute force from the players while the strategizing is left to the coach. Football players are told the plays they are to run at any given moment of the game. In terms of cliques, they serve to alienate outsiders such as Holden and Ackley as well as to protect their members from the impending self-reflection often induced by loneliness. Clearly, Holden is interested in discovering that which he wants from himself and life.

The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody'd move. . . . Nobody'd be different. The only thing that would be different would be you.

This is located in Chapter 16 where Holden explains his fascination with the Museum of Natural History. Prior to his date with Sally, Holden walks from Central Park to the Museum of Natural History. Along the way, he reminisces about his school trips to the museum when he was Phoebe's age. The museum presents him with a vision of life he can understand: a life without conflict, confusion, and change. Unfortunately, his life is wrought with all three. It troubles him that he has changed each time he returns, while the museum's displays remain completely the same. Although Holden knows the displays are not real, and that the seeming manageability of the scenes in which the exhibits are trapped is contrived, Holden is desperate to obtain that level of simplicity and control in his own life. He wants to be reassured of the continuity the Eskimo fishing and the deer drinking represent. In his mind, there are certain things that one should be permitted to place in a glass case and leave there to help maintain the apparent continuity of the museum exhibits. The first thing he would place in a glass case would be, undoubtedly, childhood innocence or that which is closest to it-his sister Phoebe.

The final sentence is significant because, Holden uses the second-person pronoun you instead of the first-person me. It seems to be an attempt to dissociate himself from the adult world of change. Unfortunately, not having the necessary tools to completely cope with one of life's natural processes forces him to retreat into a contrived world of his own. Therefore, as soon as he arrives at the museum, he decides not to enter.

. . . . I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliffI mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That's all I'd do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all.

This passage in Chapter 22 and marks one of the pivotal moments of the novel in which Holden reveals to Phoebe that he's found one of the things he's been searching for-a meaningful purpose in a chaotic, frivolous world. Holden has slipped quietly back into his apartment, after deciding to run away, and is speaking with Phoebe. They talk and argue about Holden's reluctance to participate in his own life. Tired of his excuses, Phoebe finally asks Holden what he wants to do with his life. Holden responds with this image, which speaks to his obsession with childhood innocence, the fear of losing it by growing up, and his crusade to prevent that loss.

His response makes sense, given what we already know about Holden: he disdains the phoniness of the adult world, he oversimplifies things rather than attempt to understand the complexities of the world around him, and he is afraid to grow up and join the ranks of the superficial and shallow. The fact that he is having this conversation with Phoebe, a child who is anything but simple and innocent, demonstrates that he does not grasp the complex nature life's cycle. His desire to be a catcher in the rye reflects his own loss of innocence and becoming disillusioned; it also represents his disconnection from reality and his naive view of the world.

I have a feeling that you're riding for some kind of terrible, terrible fall. . . . The whole arrangement's designed for men who, at some time or other in their lives, were looking for something their own environment couldn't supply them with. . . . So they gave up looking.

This quote is in Chapter 24 where Holden leaves his parents' apartment to visit a former English instructor. Mr. Antolini. Following his conversation with Phoebe, Holden realizes that he is reaching a point of critical instability. This is demonstrated by his bursting into tears when Phoebe lends him her Christmas money. He goes to Mr. Antolini's because his former teacher is the only adult he believes he can trust. Also, Mr. Antolini is, in some sense, a father figure for Holden. However, Holden's interaction with Mr. Antolini is the event that dramatically shifts Holden from being on the verge of a breakdown to having a breakdown, both mentally and physically. Mr. Antolini's words bring deep consideration and articulation to what Holden has been trying to explain to others, namely Sally Hayes and Phoebe. Holden's quest is of a spiritual nature, and unfortunately, due to the corrupt environment of the time, what he seeks may not come into fruition.

This quote also displays the similarities between Holden's catcher in the rye to Mr. Antolini's catcher. Mr. Antolini's catcher, though, does not save the innocent, rather he saves those who fall dangerously towards complete disillusionment and apathy. He worries that Holden will disengage himself from the world and become consumed by the spiritual void of cynicism and bitterness. Mr. Antolini's falling metaphor offers an alternative reading of Holden's catcher and what actually lies on the other side of the cliff. One can also deduce, after reading Mr. Antolini's words, that, Holden actually wants to save children from going over that cliff and becoming what he has become.

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