The Catcher in the Rye: Holden Caulfield Character

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As an actual reader, I think that in J.D. Salinger’s, in “The Catcher in the Rye”, Holden Caulfield character constantly encounters people and situations that strike him as “phony” a word he applies to anything hypocritical, shallow or fake. The prism of an innocent child confronting the adult world, and finding out about adults being so superficial that they can’t even recognize it is a main topic and the thin red line throughout this work. Holden’s protagonist represents this skepticism most prominently toward the characters embodying authority in his life, he’s often horrified to find that even his teenaged peers embody the same lack of authenticity as his teachers and other influential figures. His protagonist doesn’t seem to be very different himself from the surrounding though, since he frequently “fails” in the role of a liar or being a cause for abusive outbursts towards his mates or colleagues. The adolescent’s attitude of escaping societal framework, not being scared of failure or emotional pain, makes the main character apathetic about schoolwork and his relationships so that he doesn’t have to apply himself to the overall patterns the socium offers people. In this way, he uses his hatred of phoniness as a crutch, allowing him to reject anything that presents itself to him as a challenge. In the end, this attitude leads him to little more than lonely hopelessness, hinting that his expectations for the world are unrealistic and self-destructive.

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Of course Holden is right about people’s and society’s hypocrisy. For instance, his sensitivity to “phoniness” enables him to recognize that the headmaster of Elkton Hills one of the schools he attended before his current school, Pencey Prep only pays attention to the parents of rich students. At a certain point Holden explains Mr. Haas shakes hands and speaks with visiting parents, but Holden notices that he all but ignores families who aren’t wealthy. After giving poorer families a “phony smile,” he talks to rich parents for as long as half an hour. Despite this discrepancy, Mr. Haas presents himself as a kind, welcoming, and polite man. In reality, though, Holden sees that he’s nothing but a social climber who only cares about people if they have money. This, Holden claims, is one of the primary reasons he left Elkton Hills, insisting that he was “surrounded by phonies” at the institution. In turn, readers sense just how much Holden cares about whether or not the people around him are genuine in the way they present themselves.

Although Holden is correct that many people aren’t as kind or earnest as they’d like others to think, it’s worth noting that he himself is often quite hypocritical. In fact, he admits early in the novel that he’s very good at “shooting the bull” by tricking people to think of him as a successful while investing in something, while he actually isn’t. When he goes to his history teacher’s house to say farewell before he leaves Pencey, for example, he tells Mr Spencer that he appreciates how hard it must be to be a teacher. In contrast to this sentiment, though, what he really believes is that “you don’t have to think too hard when you talk to a teacher,” since it’s so easy to trick them. In turn, it becomes clear that Holden is more than willing to be dishonest and inauthentic, and that he thinks it’s easy to trick other people because they themselves are so full of themselves. However, he is perhaps less persuasive than he might think, considering that Mr. Spencer quickly cuts him off and asks him certain challenging and confronting questions, which, reveal his own character being just as phony as anyone else. At the end of the story Holden’s English teacher, Mr Antolini tries to help him see how unproductive it is to fixate on the many ways in which people are “phony”. Although Holden might be right that the world is full of superficial people, the protagonist has an excuse to not apply himself in school. His apparent cynicism puts a strain on his relationships, as evidenced by the fact that he once called his friend Luce a “fat-assed phony,” which unsurprisingly drove them apart. He also ruins his connection with Sally Hayes by calling her a “royal pain in the ass” because she doesn’t agree that the world is made up of shallow people who set useless expectations for young people. Trying to help him see that this pessimistic view of the world is unhelpful, Mr. Antolini advices Holden on people and what “their environment supply them with” - finding happiness.

If we talk about an implicit reader, we conclude that Holden is not a character for whom Salinger feels a special affection. Holden is immature and insensitive and he is certainly not an admirable character. When I mentioned in the previous question the scene of the ducks, David Salinger, positions himself and throws the character to the psychiatric center where we find Holden in the last scene. His transition to maturity fails and he is not able to understand his surroundings. 

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