Catcher In The Rye Essay

Length: 14 pages Sources: 1 Type: Essay Paper: #290265 Related Topics: Love, Life, School, Status Quo
Excerpt from Essay :


One of the great American novels, J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye is a spot-on depiction of disaffected, disillusioned youth attempting to come to grips with the sad reality that growing up means selling out.  Holden doesn’t want to sell out; on the contrary, he wants to be the “catcher in the rye”—the one who allows children to live forever in their innocence and maintain their state of grace in a world determined to destroy it.  In this article, we’ll discuss a dozen topics that relate to the novel, give a brief summary and analysis, describe the characters, and identify a few quotes and themes that will help you in your writing.

catcher in the rye essay



Holden is the anti-Romantic hero.  His blunt honesty could easily be confused with cynicism, but the fact is that Holden just wants to be honest—which is ironic considering how often he tells lies to others in order to amuse himself.  In the novel, Salinger presents a realistic depiction of what it’s like to be 16 in America in the 1940s.  The realism with which the story is told allows Holden to leap from the page into the reader’s heart and mind.  Holden’s stream-of-consciousness narration adds to the realistic nature of the narrative.


The novel resembles a coming-of-age tale in some ways:  Holden is on the verge of adulthood.  He is at a crossroads, so to speak, in his life’s journey.  He is over his adolescence and yet lacks the perspective and experience to really be an adult.  He is fearful of losing his innocence—his spirit—his essence.  He finds life at the prep school stifling and does not want to become a phony.  Yet, the novel does not conclude with Holden making any major decisions.  He is narrating the story from a kind of limbo-state, which means the reader never actually sees him come of age.

The Contemplative Life

Holden is deeply interested in the mystery of life.  He keeps asking about the ducks in Central Park and where they go for the winter.  He is only interested in English and in composition because it gives him the chance to be introspective and to put his thoughts into words.  He is above all a thinker, which enables him to spot a phony from a mile away.  In the medieval ages, Holden might have become a monk.  In the modern age, he is left to meander out in the world, discontent with his surroundings, hoping for some way to hold on to the good.


Holden hates phonies more than anything else.  Today, they might be called cucks—but in the 1940s, “phony” was a term that served a purpose.  For Holden, phoniness is a major character flaw.  It means that a person no longer cares about honesty, about purity, about the meaning and mystery of life.  Rather, a phony is willing to say and do whatever is necessary to advance in the world.  Holden does not want to advance if what he is advancing towards is dishonest or hateful.  Holden is looking for meaning, for beauty, for truth and goodness.  He would have made an ancient philosopher like Socrates proud, no doubt.


The title of the novel refers to Holden’s desire to be a “catcher in the rye”—a line based on the poem by Robert Burns—i.e., he wants to be a preserver of innocence before it is lost to a world of phoniness, in which everyone is merely out for oneself and willing to sell out at any minute.  Holden’s little sister Phoebe is still in possession of her innocence and seeing her ride the carousel brings him happiness at the end of the novel.  His love for his brother Allie, who is dead but to whom Holden often talks, is evidence of Holden’s abiding love of innocence.  Holden communes with the dead and is of a spiritual caliber for above most mortals.  In spite of his own personal flaws and weaknesses, Holden is an innocent with his own code of honor.


Holden wants to be happy but lacks the means to be so.  Part of the challenge for Holden is that it is so difficult for him to find a kindred spirit—someone he can really confide in and get along well with.  Many characters throughout the novel imagine they know the way to happiness—whether it is through sex, education, marriage, or money—yet Holden perceives a difficulty with each one, as though no matter which way one attempted to be happy, pitfalls abounded and one had to proceed warily.


Few people think about life from the standpoint of death—yet it is the major stumbling block.  No matter what one aims for in this life, the great equalizer that is death can come at any moment to make all one’s plans for naught.  Holden is sensitive to the fact of death as he has lost a brother to death.  Holden senses the fleetingness of life, the insubstantial nature of it all, the fact that people don’t seem to care about anything.  In such a world, he finds it hard to be real himself.  Were it not for death, Holden might actually find life to be completely insufferable.  In fact, when Holden meets the nuns, the one topic he cares to talk about—Romeo and Juliet—is a play filled with death.  Holden having a Catholic father, the nuns being Catholic religious, and Shakespeare having “died...

B.  He is very fond of his younger sister Phoebe.  Holden’s familial connections show that Holden is more than just a caustic youth.  If home is where the heart is, Holden’s heart is full.


Holden thinks little of mandatory education.  He sees everything as stifling or as a distraction from the realities of life—indeed, from the mysteries of life.  No one, for example, wants to talk about what happens to the ducks in Central Park in the winter.  No one cares about what occurs in the natural world.  No one has any wonder left in them.  Even his elderly advisor at the prep school seems confused by Holden’s ambivalence to his studies.  From Holden’s perspective, he might as well be locked up in Dickens’ Hard Times, where all that matters are “fact, facts, facts.”  Ironically, the second chapter in Dickens’ Hard Times is titled “Murdering the Innocents”—and this is precisely what Holden dreams of preventing.  Unfortunately, Holden is a casualty of the insanity of the 20th century.

The Status Quo

Holden despises the status quo because it mostly consists of people who would prefer to sell out their real selves for a little bit of security.  Holden is not afraid of rocking the boat.  In fact, he feels it is his duty to rock the boat from time to time just to wake people up.

Teenage Angst

Holden has been held up as an emblem of teenage angst since he first reported to the world in the 1950s.  What is the source of Holden’s angst?  Why is he upset with everything around him?  From whence springeth his animosity towards all things phony?  Answer that and you may also be able to answer the riddle of the sphinx


Holden may not be consciously looking for salvation, but he is intent on saving others.  Indeed, his dream is to catch the innocents before they rush of the cliff into phoniness—into the abyss of modernity wherein everything special and significant about them is drowned out and stifled, shut up and crushed.  Holden is a spiritual guy, in spite of his several flaws.  He is also young and demonstrates reluctance to be part of the adult world and its rat race.


16-year-old Holden Caulfield is sick in a hospital, recounting the events that led him there.  He tells the reader that he flunked out of his prep school, went home early, wandered somewhat aimlessly for three days in New York City in the winter and got sick.  The novel proceeds in an episodic manner.  First, Holden describes what life was like for him at the prep school.  He describes his interactions with his roommate and a few of his peers.  Holden reveals his character through these descriptions:  he antagonizes his roommate because he feels threatened by his advances towards a female childhood friend of Holden’s.

After ditching the school before the term is up, Holden takes a train to the city.  He meets the mother of a classmate on the train and lies about how much everyone likes her son.  In reality, Holden can’t stand him.  In the city, Holden stays up all night, dances, talks to a prostitute, and gets beaten up—all of which fills him with depression.  The next day he arranges to meet Sally, an old friend who is quite lovely to look at.  They go to a play, which Holden hates, and then they go ice skating because Sally wants to see how she looks in the short skating skirt.  Holden asks Sally to marry him and run away with him to the woods.  She does not understand this desire of his and makes him feel ridiculous.  He retaliates by calling her a pain, which upsets her.

Holden goes home to see his younger sister.  They have a special bond that is rooted in their mutual affection for one another.  After leaving his sister, he goes to see his old English teacher, who begins talking about psychoanalysis.  Holden equates psychoanalysis with homosexuality.  The teacher ends up giving Holden a panic and the boy leaves in a mad dash.  Holden sleeps in the train station then devises the plan of hitchhiking out west to see his brother D. B. in Hollywood.  He sends a note to his sister to meet him at the museum so he can say goodbye.  She packs her bags because she wants to go with him.  He is moved by this gesture.  Holden takes her to the zoo and she rides the carousel.  Holden sits in the rain and watches her and feels very happy.


Holden wants to be a “catcher in the rye”—i.e., his dream is be a kind of life guard in a big field of rye where all the children play.  His dream job is to save them if they get too close to the cliff’s edge.  In reality, Holden has an eye for beauty and for authenticity.  He would make a good theater director because he is interested in art—but in art that is true to life.  He would not allow works to be staged that are phony.  He is also very talkative and would not have any trouble relating to people or giving them the directions they would need on the stage.

Holden is in love with innocence.  This is reflected in his love for Jane and his desire to reconnect with her.  It is reflected in his anger towards Stradlater whom he suspects will try to seduce Jane.  It is reflected in his fear of actually talking to Jane because he does not know if she will still be the same girl.  It is reflected in his desire to talk to his little sister Phoebe and in the way he communes with his dead brother Allie.  It is reflected in his appreciation of the nuns in the train station and in his memory of poor James Castle who threw himself out a window. 

Holden hates sentimentality and rightly guesses that those who weep the most at sentimental movies likely have the meanest hearts in real life.  Holden is…

Sources Used in Documents:


Salinger, J. D. The Catcher in the Rye. Boston: Little, Brown, 1951. Print.

Cite this Document:

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