Analysis of the Use of Language by Holden Caulfield from the Catcher in the Rye

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Analysis of the Use of Language by Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in The Rye

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Holden Caufield’s unique use of language established the prominent theme of teenage angst, as well as his overall character, throughout the course of the novel. As many teenagers do, Holden often wove unnecessary curing into his speech as a way of expressing his frustration that he found so difficult to explain. He often used the terms “sunuvbitch” and “bastard” to describe people that irritated him, such as when he referred to Stradlater – his roommate – as a bastard when he had asked him to do his homework for him. His overuse of cursing and slang also contributes to shaping the reader’s view of Holden as a whole, as the constant use of such language reveals his hostility from the very beginning of the novel. This hostility often leaked into his constant expression of his dislike for “phonies.” He used the term very often, and it was often a rather obscure, minute detail that set him off someone. He called numerous characters phonies for simply enjoying films or applauding or showing any sort of emotion after a show or performance.

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For example, when Holden walked into the night club one night to watch the pianist play, he observed the crowds applauding after his performance and immediately disliked every single one of them, stating, “If you sat around there long enough and heard all the phonies applauding and all, you got to hate everybody in the world, I swear you did”. This hatred for supposed phonies may be a plausible reason as to why Holden often doubles back and repeats himself. The very end of his sentence, when he says, “I swear you did,” aids in the solidification of the idea that Holden constantly tries to verify his claims. He often adds some form of “He really did,” or “I swear it did,” when he says something in attempt to emphasize his sincerity. He also repeats the same line again in attempt to achieve the same thing. For example, near the end of the novel, Holden described how his sister walked around the carrousel by stating, “She walked all the way around it. I mean she walked once all the way around it”.

The second sentence provided little new information to the reader, yet he felt it was necessary to emphasize his sentence by saying it over again, leading the reader to interpret this speech pattern as his way of confirming the factuality of his statement.

Due to Holden’s unique speech patterns, his character is very well established and clear. He is a very stubborn, deep person who struggles with finding the genuineness in his society, and therefore seems to be slightly socially awkward and careless. For example, Holden is constantly asking people to go out for drinks with him. He asks numerous people that he’d only met minutes prior, and the answer is almost always “no.” When one of his attempts succeeded and he got an old “friend” from his Whooton school to meet him at a bar, Holden asked incredibly personal questions, despite not being very close with him. In fact, before he called him, he had claimed that he didn’t like him very much, contradicting his desire to get together with him. This contradiction also introduces the possibility, however, that this social awkwardness could be due to his intense desire for someone to talk to. He constantly expressed his loneliness and depression throughout the course of the novel, eventually reaching the point that he claims he would join the army to be put in front of the firing squad. Such suicidal thoughts and depression most likely made him feel desperate for casual social interaction and conversation, no matter who it was with.

Holden also struggles with accepting the society around him and constantly claims that it’s full of “phonies.” This is a true teenage issue, as he is struggling to find the truth and sincerity in others, while simultaneously trying to understand how he fits in among them. His social ineptness also exhibits himself in his lack of care or concern for what others think of him; he does not think of the repercussions of his actions or how it may affect others. One of the biggest, most frequent examples of this is when he lies simply for the sake of lying. Near the beginning of the novel, for instance, Holden finds himself on the train taking him into the city after abandoning Pencey and holds a conversation with a classmate’s mother, who’s also on board. As soon as the conversation began, Holden compulsively gives her the wrong name and lies to her about how her son acts at school. While one might make the argument that he did it for the mother’s sake, so that she could continue to think of her son as the lovely, perfect boy she imagines he is, Holden shares no evidence of that being his motive with the initial lies. Instead, he simply says, “I… started chucking the old crap around”.

Only after he sold the mother the false image of a modest, shy, popular class president did he even consider the possibility of how her perspective of him would be influenced; he initially told the lie simply because he felt like it. Another aspect of Holden’s character that was revealed through his speech and actions was how he held incredibly high, specific standards for people. For example, he goes into great depth to explain why all actors are “lousy” or “crumby,” and that they are only good if they don’t act like they know they are good. He constantly created new random standards for people or certain groups of people that nearly everyone apparently fails to meet. Not only this, but Holden also tended to classify and overgeneralize people too quickly to know whether or not his assumptions were accurate. For example, he claimed that “Catholics are always trying to find out if you’re a Catholic”, despite having met only one person that has ever proven his claim.

Works cited

  1. Salinger, J. D. (1951). The Catcher in the Rye. Little, Brown and Company.
  2. Bloom, H. (Ed.). (2010). J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. Infobase Publishing.
  3. Hamilton, I. (2007). A Reader's Guide to J. D. Salinger: The Catcher in the Rye. University of Chicago Press.
  4. Roemer, S. (Ed.). (2002). Critical Essays on Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. G. K. Hall & Co.
  5. Steiner, W. (2007). The Phoniness of the World: Meaning in J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. Modern Language Studies, 37(1), 32-47.
  6. Lane, L. (2005). The Language of Catcher in the Rye. In Understanding J.D. Salinger (pp. 123-148). University of South Carolina Press.
  7. Ginsberg, M. H. (2004). Teaching J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye: A Different Perspective. National Council of Teachers of English.
  8. Dietz, L. (2002). Life in the Shadows: Characterization in J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. Journal of Narrative Theory, 32(1), 45-66.
  9. Kallen, S. A. (2006). J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. Greenhaven Press.
  10. Schorer, M. (1958). The World of Innocence: An Examination of J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye. The Kenyon Review, 20(1), 42-58.

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