It is a beautiful thing to be blissfully ignorant rather than painfully aware. The truth is often unpleasant; over-analyzing truth, and meaning, of life, or other simple, trivial things, does little more than create a miserable sense of self-awareness. And when people reach that heightened state of self-awareness, a terrifying understanding of their own mortality, they want nothing more than to hide. In The Catcher in the Rye, novelist J.D. Salinger illustrates such morals through Holden Caulfield, a teenage boy with barely anything to lose even less to live for. Through Salinger’s portrayal of Holden’s life, Salinger implies that people who are unhappy with their lives will try to seek a higher purpose and in doing so, their desires will distort perceptions while their ignorance burns bridges, breaking off ties with both reality and mentality.
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Holden is a hypocrite – he is wise, albeit too shrewdly so, leading to his cynical grasp on life, but he is also close-minded, leading to foolish assumptions of human nature. In the beginning of the novel, Holden explicitly states that he “passed English all right,” because he had little to do except for “writ[ing] compositions once in a while,” thus implying English was his best subject while at Pencey Prep (Salinger 13). While other school subjects, like history which Holden sarcastically admits to failing, focus primarily on blatant fact recall, English is more intellectually stimulating. Writing implies analysis, a further insight into a piece of literature compared to what is already present or easily inferred. For Holden’s best subject to be English, more specifically writing, he would have to have some relationship with wisdom because without some solidity in wisdom, Holden’s writing would have little substance, it would be too bland, poorly-orchestrated, and painful to read. Of course, Holden’s insight comes at a cost, while he acknowledges that the world is not a utopia, he dwells too deeply on the nastiness of life. During his conversation with Mr. Spencer, Holden agrees that “life is a game” where there are rules, but it is only a game if “you get on the side where all the hot-shots are,” thus revealing Holden’s cynicism (Salinger 11). To Holden, whose life has been served to him, life is merely a game of chess, where strategy and wisdom go further than will or strength. However, Holden is still able to recognize that life is unfair; only a select, privileged few will proceed to checkmate while others, socially or economically less-fortunate, play but never win. Those select, privileged few, according to Holden, are all “phonies” who play the game so they can “buy a goddam Cadillac someday” with their winnings, or perhaps so they can spend the rest of their lives “talk[ing] about girls and liquor and sex all day” – either way, these ‘phonies’ are below Holden (Salinger 111). But why? These people who Holden so spitefully calls ‘phonies’ are the same as him, they are all upper-class boys bred for success and groomed towards becoming socially outstanding. Holden is contradicting, he is a hypocrite. Because he is able to reject the social norm of attending school purely as a stepping stone towards success and able to realize that the game is rigged, Holden is so much more special than those other boys. Or at least he thinks so. Holden assumes that his desire to protect innocence makes him the perfect candidate for becoming the “catcher in the rye,” the person who sits at the bottom of a cliff waiting to catch innocent children from falling off into adulthood (Salinger 144). In doing so, Holden again reveals his own hypocrisy, his views on people are all assumptions, people who strive for success are merely phonies but children who know little about the world are all innocent. The reality is that Holden cannot save children from adulthood; his dream to do so reflects his ignorance, there is nothing he can do to stop children from maturing, but the thought is so comforting and idealistic to a society-loathing Holden that he continues holding on to it, treasuring the idea as though it might actually come true.
As the novel progresses, from start to finish, it becomes obvious that Holden’s misunderstandings are not limited to mindset but they also seep into his relationship, causing disagreements and animosity. Holden’s discussion of his brother D.B. is limited to a few sentences about how “he’s out in Hollywood … being a prostitute,” by writing stories for movies (Salinger 5). Holden ignorantly accuses his brother of selling out when in reality, D.B. was only following his dreams, but because Holden so obstinately despises the movies, he refuses to associate D.B. with anything other than phoniness. Holden misunderstanding is intentional, he can only connect things to what he understands, and in this case, he only understands that movies are phony and D.B. is part of that phoniness. When Mr. Spencer interrogates Holden about whether or not he “has any qualms about leaving Pencey” or about his future, Holden casually dismisses him, inducing Mr. Spencer’s semi-rampage about how Holden will regret his actions now if he does not take initiative before “it’s too late” (Salinger 16). Holden views Mr. Spencer’s concerns as insignificant, so much so that Holden almost feels “sorry as hell for him” when admitting to not caring about his future (Salinger 16). Holden has no qualms, he is almost glad to be leaving the phoniness of Pencey Prep and the repetition of Mr. Spencer’s concerns are an annoyance. Holden has already come to terms with his expulsion and there is little Mr. Spencer’s persistent pestering, which is simply interpreted as interference in Holden’s life, can do to change Holden’s mindset. Even Mr. Spencer’s well-intentioned “good luck” as Holden leaves is understood as an ill-fated omen (Salinger 17). When Holden is with Sally Hayes, a girl he lies about loving and uses to alleviate his loneliness, he accidentally calls her “a royal pain in the ass” when she refuses to agree with his rant about phoniness (Salinger 113). Holden is so bigoted in this scene that Sally’s minor defense of ‘phonies’ is an attack on his psyche that triggers his defense mechanisms. Insulting someone, it seems, is the only way Holden can cope. Sally, like D.B. and Mr. Spencer, is not ill-intentioned but Holden refuses to accept it as well-meaning, illustrating his refusal to adapt his beliefs, he would rather let his relationships crumble than to reshape himself.
In the end, Holden always runs away, either mentally or physically, unable to accept the world as it is. Holden constantly thinks about “where [do] the ducks go” when winter envelops the landscape (Salinger 15). Rather than dwelling on the subject of winter, Holden is ultimately intrigued by the ducks disappearance and how easily they can escape the stark winters of New York. His obsession with the disappearing ducks introduces his own desire to escape, he too wants to run away from the overbearingly cold thoughts associated with home. Holden is so weary of the cold that the iciness leads him to think about how if he continued to stay in New York, in the wintery sadness, he would “get pneumonia and die” (Salinger 128). Holden’s thoughts about death, and consequently how preventable death from pneumonia is, are representative of his increasing desire to escape New York and his life there. If he could escape, Holden would not suffocate under the metaphorically oppressive nature of winter and his painful memories. Holden is so desperate, even death is a reasonable solace, a reasonable end to the pain he feels. There is nothing beautiful about the cold, it has forced all the ducks away and perhaps even him to run away. After making amends with Phoebe, his sister, Holden plans to begin “hitchhiking [his] way out west,” in order to finally follow through with his need to escape. He views the west as a healthier place, less corrupt, and it reasonably is. The west is warmer, it is a new start – it is not New York. Holden needs a fresh start, his life in New York is effectively over. He has no place to return to, for fear of his parents discovering his expulsion, and he has no one to turn to, apart from Phoebe who will soon grow up and away from Holden’s ideology of innocence.
As much as Holden tries to find his own path in life, he inevitably fails. His attempts at finding himself are inhibited by his own prejudices and disposition towards the world. Holden is, in other words, a failure. But no one really succeeds in their journey for self-discovery, the most that people can hope for is a vague idea of who they are. In order to understand themselves, people must be prepared to face the darkest parts of their mind. Trying to dig too deeply, feebly unearthing the depths of the mind, is dangerous because in the end, no one really likes who they truly are. And because we cannot live up to our ideologies, we must protect ourselves through false perceptions or come to terms with the fact that we are not perfect beings, and not all of us are destined for some greater, higher purpose in life.
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