Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye

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J. D. Salinger’s 1951 novel, The Catcher in the Rye, is a first-person narrative featuring the protagonist, Holden Caulfield. He is much like a typical high school student and the book is written from his point of view as if he is talking to the reader casually. He is cynical, yet immature, stuck in the awkward not-yet-adult but not-yet-child stage and reflects this in his actions. He writes off most of the world as artificial and resents many people that are more successful or different from him. Instead of admitting this, he tells himself that they are “phony” in order to feel better.

Officially, the word phony is defined as “intended to deceive or mislead” (“phony” 931). This leads one to believe that Holden thinks these people are fake and that they are acting like someone they are not in order to seem better and more impressive. He seems to prefer the company of children over people his own age and older, implying that he may be more childish at heart. Throughout the book, Holden refers to people as phony if he does not like them or feel the need to take them seriously, as a means to deflect his own shortcomings, and to cement his black-and-white idea that children are pure and adults are fake.

Holden does not think very highly of the other students at school. In fact, he thinks his entire school is just a big joke. Holden scorns the school itself as phony, bringing up the advertisements such as the picture of the boy on the horse and remarking that he’s never seen anyone play polo there. He is a bit of a loner, represented by him standing on the hill overlooking the game at the beginning of the book. He almost seems to think that people are inherently selfish and cruel, and that they are out to get him. His mindset of distancing himself and being rude to others that he deems “phony” often gets him into trouble – an obvious example is getting himself kicked out of multiple fancy prep-schools.

For example, he considered his roommate Stradlater a phony, and ultimately gets into a fight with him. This mindset unintentionally drives others away as well. At one point, he meets three girls at the hotel nightclub. When they do not seem to like him, he writes them off as phonies. He later lies to one, saying he saw Gary Cooper, and she goes along with it and tells her friends she saw him too. This just cements his view of them. He feels as though he is always the “good guy” and needs to find some sort of superiority over others who he believes treated him unfairly. He uses it as an excuse as to why he is not in the wrong, as seen when he talks to his former teacher Mr. Spencer and calls the students and teachers at Elkton Hills phonies.

Holden is also hypocritical, doing the very things he despises. He does quite a few things that could be considered “phony” himself. He even says so – “I’m the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life” (Salinger 16). For example, he lies to the mother of one of his classmates, using a fake name and saying her son is one of the most popular kids at the school, then says he has a brain tumor and is on his way to get surgery. He also mentions being an actor, when not long before he spoke about how he believed actors were, of course, phony and simply selling themselves out.

Deep down, like the typical high-schooler, he is rather self-conscious and insecure; scared of being the very thing he despises. His childish tendencies are shown when he thinks about having a house where people couldn’t do things he considered phony. In reality, he is fantasizing of a place where no one can do things he doesn’t like, and everything has to be done his way. On the other hand, he doesn’t seem to care much of what he does to others as evident when he left all his fencing equipment on the subway on the way to a fencing meet, then said it was funny when the rest of the team was angry.

Holden also has a strict dichotomy between children and adults. He gets along the best with younger kids such as his sister Phoebe. He does not see them as self-centered and fake in the way he sees adults and fellow teenagers. Holden states that “God, I love it when a kid’s nice and polite when you tighten their skate for them or something. Most kids are. They really are” (Salinger 119). He wants to protect them, as seen when he mentions being the “catcher in the rye”, protecting the children from falling.

This is a metaphor for preserving their innocence and trying to save the purity that he believes only children have, keeping them from falling into the artificiality and corruption of adulthood. Multiple times he discovers vulgar language scratched into the wall in both Phoebe’s school and at the museum, and tries to remove it. He even imagines a grown up delinquent sneaking into the school at night to scratch it in, unable to face the fact that it was likely a student who put it there. He never once refers to a child as phony. He relates to children more than people his age and older, displaying his immaturity and reluctance to fully be an “adult”.

Holden’s use of the word phony is just part of his more deep-rooted problems. He does not trust others, and draws away from them. He is self-conscious and insults others rather than admitting to his own problems. He wants to protect the innocence of children so they do not become selfish, “phony” adults who try to act like what they are not. The author of The Catcher in the Rye was very successful at conveying Holden’s issues through his actions and use of the word “phony”.

Cite this paper

Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye. (2021, Aug 24). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/holden-caulfield-in-the-catcher-in-the-rye/

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