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Essays on Holden Caulfield

Holden Caulfield essays support the assumption that Holden Caulfield’s world in Catcher in the Rye consists of constantly avoiding the inevitable approach of adulthood, responsibility, phoniness and ultimately death.  According to Sanford and Pinsker, Holden Caulfield, who acts more like a boy of thirteen as he is challenged by what he sees as the world’s problems, nevertheless strives to keep them from influencing others.  Caulfield himself concedes:

I’m seventeen now, and sometimes I act like I’m thirteen. Sometimes I act a lot older than I am – I really do – but nobody ever notices.

More severely, essays call Holden Caulfield a “world-class worrier” and a first-rate neurotic”.  Although these are harsh words, they are applicable only in that this is how Salinger has chosen to initially characterize Holden Caulfield and while he ultimately seeks the help of psychiatric counsel, it can be assumed that he will always have many of the same worries.  More surprisingly, for a character that is given so much credit for his concerns for the innocent, essays argue that Holden Caulfield is really as passive as he is aggressive and as self-righteous as he is compassionate, which suggests that he will ultimately be capable of coming to terms with his adulthood. 

It is fair to suggest that Holden Caulfield’s fractured personality is primarily the result of the fact that, as much as he would like to avoid it and like everyone else, he cannot prevent the journey into adulthood. 

Holden CaulfieldHolden Caulfield is a protagonist unlike any other. 

  1. He is the most hypersensitive individual in American fiction.
  2. Holden is alienated from everything and anything. 
  3. The only people he has any real connection to are two of his siblings, one of whom is dead (his brother Allie), while the other is in awe of him (Phoebe). 
  4. Holden is caught in a pathetic Catch-22.  He makes no effort to be anything other than disconnected, isolated and strange, which keeps people away.  Yet he blames others for being unaccepted, making him angry and isolated.

And so his trip to New York City becomes a metaphor for his attempt at transformation.  Every incident in his quest becomes a failure.  Perhaps the most telling incident in the journey is his inability to sexually perform with a prostitute.

Holden’s main search in life is one of human connection.  For Holden, this is primarily sexual.  He phones a woman whose number he has been given, but gets no response when he tells her he is “horny.”  He desperately seeks it in several bars in New York, becoming increasingly frustrated.  When he is solicited by the elevator boy and agrees to have a prostitute come to his room, he immediately regrets it.  “Anyway…I sort of figured this was my big chance, in a way.  I figured if she was a prostitute and all, I could get in some practice on her” (92).  But when she gets there, his emotions are sad and depressed, and he invents lies about an operation on his clavichord to get her to leave.

The ultimate end result is that Maurice, the elevator boy/pimp, beats up Holden.  The whole time he has attempted to act mature, suave and nonchalant.  When push comes to shove, he breaks down into tears.  Holden Caulfield is not a man of the world, not a tough character in a movie that he imagines himself to be, but instead is a scared boy whose self-induced fantasy world leads him to believe he is something he is not.  Even after Maurice and Sunny leave, Holden fantasizes “I had a bullet in my guts,” like a character in a movie.  Holden’s reliance on fantasy proves that he is unable to make the transition into adulthood.

Holden Caulfield’s self-inflicted ennui leads him into a ridiculous version of the Hero Quest.  His journey becomes a series of failures because he refuse to see reality; he only sees his version of the world, one in which he is a Humphrey Bogart character in a film noir.  His inability to actually grow into adulthood is what lands him in the sanitarium, and his final reflections give no indication that he will ever change.

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