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.


Throughout the text, Holden is shown to be emotionally and, at times, physically divorced from the external world. Salinger illustrates this through carefully crafted scenes in which Holden plays the observer who makes silent commentary on that which he witnesses. There are several examples that speak to this point. The first example can be found in Chapter 1 when Holden is watching the annual football game between his school and Saxon Hall. Rather than joining the rest of his classmates in the celebrating school spirit, he stands atop of Thomsen Hill, looking down, at the fans. He notices the headmaster's daughter and makes several judgmental comments about her physical appearance that speak to her unattractiveness- a large nose, unkempt nails, and obviously false breasts.

The second example is from Chapter 4, when Stradlater returns from the game to prepare for a date. Holden accompanies him to the bathroom where he watches him shave. In comparison to Stradlater, Holden is an awkward looking young man. He is unusually tall for his age as well as experiencing premature graying. Stradlater is handsome and virile. Holden sits on the wash basin with his back to the mirror while Stradlater is facing the mirror and even using it to communicate. Holden notices not only Stradlater's strikingly good looks and, consequently, his vanity, but he also notices his tendency towards poor hygiene habits.

The third example is from Chapter 9 when Holden first checks into the Edmont Hotel. From his room, he witnesses two strange acts, both sexual in nature. Although these moments are private, he pulls a chair up to the window and watches for several minutes. He comments on their peculiarity as well as their fascinating nature. Part of this fascination is the sexual anxiety from which he suffers. He feels alienated not only as someone who hasn't comprehensively explored his personal sexual identity, but also as a virgin.

The fourth and probably most illustrative example is in Chapter 17. He is waiting in the lobby of the Biltmore for his date, Sally Hayes, to arrive. While sitting there, he notices a swarm of young women who are also waiting for dates. He comments on their varying appearances, from attractive to unattractive, before wondering about their futures. He contemplates the type of future that lies ahead of them. Holden believes that these young women will find themselves married to young men, fresh from the best colleges who are also boring and preoccupies by typical macho things, such as golf and the mileage-to-gas ratios of their cars.

All of these examples, and the many more the reader is shown through Holden's street wandering scenes, speak to a very specific type of alienation: that of the subject. The football fans, Stradlater, and the young women in the Biltmore are all subjects of Holden's world. Yet, in his observing them as subject, he objectifies them by focusing solely on their outer appearance and using that as a basis on which he bases his assessment of their characters and worth as human beings. Through this objectification, he alienates them from himself while simultaneously alienating himself from them. They are outside him and do not play, as Holden sees it, significant roles in his life.


Catcher in the Rye is an unusual novel in that the theme of maturity is explored using a virtually reverse strategy. It is not so much about demonstrating the protagonist's maturation process so much as it is about the protagonist's resistance to it. Holden's story is about his refusal to grow into a man and accept the responsibilities that accompany manhood. Salinger validates this through a series of juxtapositions between Holden and several other elements in the story; including Stradlater, Carl Luce, and the Museum of Natural History. He also uses the ease with which Holden relates to children in comparison to the difficulty he has with relating to adults. This latter device is located throughout the book and is so transparent that it does not require further discussion.

Returning to Chapter 4, the reader is faced with a subtle comparison between Holden and Stradlater. Stradlater is shaving in preparation for a date, while Holden sits on the washbasin and watches him. This is reminiscent of the quintessential father-son moment when dad is teaching junior how to shave or even a big brother-little brother moment were the younger brother is watching his older sibling prepare for a date on which very adult things may occur. At one point, when he has the razor to his face, Stradlater is playfully assaulted by Holden. Stradlater quickly reprimands him by demanding Now, cut out the crap (30). Again, this reminds the reader of childhood moments where parents curtly discipline their children for acting out.

In Chapter 19, Holden is faced with a similar situation between himself and Carl Luce. Carl Luce is known for sexual expertise. At Whooton, he often gave impromptu lectures on various sexual practices and lifestyles. When they meet at the Wicker Bar, Holden immediately and aggressively questions him about sex and his sex life in particular. Luce responds dryly, Same old Caulfield. When are you going to grow up? (144), a comment that is made frequently during the course of their one drink together. It's clear that Luce is reticent to discuss sex as frankly as he once did. This is, in large part, due to his having matured by undergoing a profound, introspective process that resulted in a personally defined manhood. He attempts to explain this Holden, but it is beyond his comprehension as he is unwillingly to perform the necessary self-reflective exercises to help him mature. Holden's inappropriate questions are demonstrative of the fact that he has yet to mature mentally and intellectually, despite his apparent physical maturity.

Finally, Holden's fixation on the Museum of Natural History reveals the level on which he is analyzing the outside world. Holden prefers the unambiguous and static nature of the museum's exhibits to the obscure, complex, and ever evolving nature of life. It's easier for him to believe in the truth that is presented by the museum because it is not impacted by the uncontrollable events and people that permeate his life. To be more specific, that contrived truth does not experience the loss and despair that typically defines or, at least, facilitates one's growth as a living being with consciousness.


Phoniness is the token description Holden uses for anything or any person he thinks is superficial, hypocritical, and pretentious. He typically uses this word to describe people who allow societal expectations to determine their course in life, something that he is loath to do. His disdain for phoniness permits him to see only that which he considers to be problematic in the outside world; including work, school, money, and marriage. Subsequently, he is given reason to retreat further into his self-induced alienation. Throughout the text, he encounters numerous people who he categorizes as phony. The reader is already aware of Ackley and Stradlater, but added to this list is D.B., Sally Hayes and a few miscellaneous people that he encounters while in the city.

Unfortunately, Holden perceives his older brother, D.B. as a phony because of the professional choices he's made. When Holden was younger, D.B. wrote quirky short stories. He then decided to move to Hollywood to write for the movie industry, and, as Holden claims, to obtain fame and fortune. As soon as he became established, D.B. purchased a Jaguar to celebrate his new moneyed status. Holden considers this to be a form of prostitution that shames him when he thinks about D.B.

Holden discusses Sally in Chapter 16-17. She can be characterized as a socialite in the making for several reasons. First, she arrives extremely late for her date with Holden despite his warning that they needed to make a show. Judging by Holden's reaction to her appearance, it is obvious that her primping made her late. At one point during the date, she runs into an old friend from Andover, a prestigious private school. They engage in a rather pretentious conversation about the play and their shared past which upsets Holden. Although he does not want to continue the date, he accepts her invitation to go ice skating. Her main motivation for going ice skating is the opportunity to rent a small, blue skating skirt that her friend told her about. Clearly, Sally is extremely self-interested as well as overly concerned with others' perceptions of her. Herein lays her superficiality. She also believes in the validity of the social expectations mentioned above. When Holden confides in her about his alienation and his desire to escape the pressures of the outside world with her, she responds with We'll have oodles of time to do those things (133) as soon as he finishes college and they get married.

One of the miscellaneous people that Holden gives mention to is Ernie, a piano player and nightclub owner. Although Holden does not personally know Ernie, he gets the impression from his performance that he is terrifically self-important and elitist. Holden validates this for himself by the manner in which Ernie plays; he has a mirror set in front of him as well as has a spotlight directly on him. He also adds several improvisational nuances onto the songs he plays, behavior that Holden considers to be self-aggrandizing. By associating Ernie's playing with the crowd gathered at the club, mostly young college and prep school students, Holden feels trapped in a room overflowing with phonies.

Although Holden is highly perceptive of phoniness in others, he fails to recognize that which is phony in him. He freely and often deceives people for no apparent reason other than mere amusement. His proclivity for compulsively lying is something for which he often congratulates himself. An example of this is in Chapter 8 when he meets Mrs. Morrow, the mother of one of his classmates. Not only does he tell her that her son, who he considers to be one of the biggest bastards he's met at Pencey, is a well respected and popular student. He then tells her that his name is Rudolph Schmidt, the name of the janitor at Pencey. Again, there is no clear motivation for Holden's lying, however, he excuses by claiming he is testing Mrs. Morrow on how well she knows her son. His ruse works, only, to serve his own ends-the essential function of a phony.

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