THE CATCHER IN THE RYE z J. D.

SALINGER
Setting:

The Catcher in the Rye begins in 1950 in California, where the main character, Holden Caulfield, is undergoing psychiatric therapy. It then flashes back to a day in December 1949, when Holden Caulfield leaves Pencey Prep in the fictional town of Agerstown in southeastern Pennsy lvania after flunking out. Pencey Prep is a boarding school for boys of well-to-do parents. Caulfield leaves Pencey Prep late at night on a train bound for New York City, via Trenton, N.J. In New York, Caulfield checks into a hotel and spends several days going to nightclubs and roaming the streets before going home (an apartment in a Manhattan building). Salinger may have based Pencey Prep on Valley Forge Military Academy in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, from which he graduated in 1936.
Characters:

Protagonist: Holden Caulfield - Intelligent but insecure high-school junior who is expelled from Pencey Prep the fourth boarding school he has attended for failing four out of five subjects. Although Holden seems likable and has a good sense of humor, he has difficulty facing his shortcomings, in particular his inability to adjust to his peers and society in general. In short, his emotional growth is stunted; he has trouble growing up and maturing. But instead of accepting blame for his shortcomings, he projects them onto others, calling them phonies. Caulfied is 6 feet, 2½ inches tall. He has a patch of gray hair on the right side of his head. Antagonist: Holden's Internal Conflicts
Themes:

Growing Up Is Hard to Do In terms of psychological and emotional development, Holden Caulfield seems stuck in adolescence, unable to advance. He envies other teenagers and young adults who have less trouble adjusting than he does. But to protect his ego and preserve his self-esteem (which is already low), he refuses to acknowledge his shortcomings and face himself. Rather, he continually harps on the shortcomings of others. He thinks the outer world is at fault for his problems, not his own inner world. Holden's refusal to confront his weaknesses makes it difficult for him to mature and grow emotionally. Loneliness and Alienation as a Form of Self-Protection Holden has been unable to make any real friends or confidants, save for his little sister, Phoebe, and Jane Gallagher, whom he befriended in childhood. Consequently, he feels lonely and depressed. It is his isolation and depression along with his failure to face his shortcomings (Theme 1) that bring about his emotional breakdown. Escape Unable to solve his problems, Holden continually escapes from them. He escapes school by flunking out. He escapes the company of others by arguing with them or insulting them. He even leaves school four days ahead of schedule to have a few days on his own in New York City. There, he asks Sally Hayes to escape with him to Vermont or Massachusetts. He wants her to camp out with him and leave the world behind. When she refuses, he insults her and she walks out on him.

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Lack of Commitment Holden aimlessly drifts from school to school and refuses to commit himself to definite goals for the future. His father was a Roman Catholic but fell away from his religion. D.B. was a writer of promise but abandoned serious writing to produce schlock for big bucks in Hollywood. The Search for Identity In his effort to "find himself," Holden buys a red hunting hat. Wearing it makes him unique. No one else around him has such a hat. Therefore, by wearing the hat, he becomes an individual, sui generis. Abandonment Holden may feel abandoned for the following reasons: (1) Time and again, his parents send him to a boarding school. (2) His brother D.B. lives on the West Coast, nearly 3,000 miles away. (3) His brother Allie died. (4) His childhood crush, Jane Gallagher, has decided to date Ward Stadlater, a Pencey Prep ladies' man. (5) His peers continually reject him because of his abrasive manner. Rebellion Holden has perfected the art of rebellion against his school, his peers, his parents, and society in general. Deception Holden sees others as phonies because he thinks they pretend to be what they are not. However, Holden himself sometimes pretends to be what he is not. He also lies frequently about his age and his identity in order to overcome adverse circumstances. He also tells Mrs. Morrow, a train passenger with whom he converses, that he has a brain tumor. Hope There seems to be a glimmer of hope for Holden. He reads good literature, including works by Ring Lardner, Thomas Hardy, and W. Somerset Maugham. He also loves his parents, in spite of any faults they may have, noting on the first page of the novel that "They're nice and all." In addition, although he too often generalizes about people calling many of them phonies even though he knows little about them he does seem to recognize the importance of sincerity, candor, and modesty. Love and Sex At his core, Holden is a deep, sensitive soul, at bottom unable to sublimate his feelings into numbness. He envies someone like Stradlater, who can simply pick up girls whenever he likes, and who treats sex as a casual pleasure. To Holden, however, sex is deeply discomforting. He cannot have it with girls he likes, and he cannot manage to numb himself enough to treat girls casually. Numbing himself to love, it seems, is Holden's greatest challenge. He feels too deeply about the world, about people, to truly shut down. When he finally does fall in love with Jane Gallagher, he soon discovers that Stradlater has a date with her, which confirms his suspicion that everything he loves eventually deteriorates. He leaves Pencey with some hope of inventing a new identity, but he cannot break out of his being. Even in the presence of a prostitute, he cannot think of having sex, only of having a conversation in the hope of feeling some glimmer of human affection with her. All Holden wants to do is talk, but he cannot find someone who will listen. 2

Symbols:

The Catcher in the Rye As the source of the book s title, this symbol merits close inspection. It first appears in Chapter 16, when a kid Holden admires for walking in the street rather than on the sidewalk is singing the Robert Burns song Comin Thro the Rye. In Chapter 22, when Phoebe asks Holden what he wants to do with his life, he replies with his image, from the song, of a catcher in the rye. Holden imagines a field of rye perched high on a cliff, full of children romping and playing. He says he would like to protect the children from falling off the edge of the cliff by catching them if they were on the verge of tumbling over. As Phoebe points out, Holden has misheard the lyric. He thinks the line is If a body catch a body comin through the rye, but the actual lyric is If a body meet a body, coming through the rye. The song Comin Thro the Rye asks if it is wrong for two people to have a romantic encounter out in the fields, away from the public eye, even if they don t plan to have a commitment to one another. It is highly ironic that the word meet refers to an encounter that leads to recreational sex, because the word that Holden substitutes catch takes on the exact opposite meaning in his mind. Holden wants to catch children before they fall out of innocence into knowledge of the adult world, including knowledge of sex. Holden s Red Hunting Hat The red hunting hat is one of the most recognizable symbols from twentieth-century American literature. It is inseparable from our image of Holden, with good reason: it is a symbol of his uniqueness and individuality. The hat is outlandish, and it shows that Holden desires to be different from everyone around him. At the same time, he is very self-conscious about the hat he always mentions when he is wearing it, and he often doesn t wear it if he is going to be around people he knows. The presence of the hat, therefore, mirrors the central conflict in the book: Holden s need for isolation versus his need for companionship. It is worth noting that the hat s color, red, is the same as that of Allie s and Phoebe s hair. Perhaps Holden associates it with the innocence and purity he believes these characters represent and wears it as a way to connect to them. He never explicitly comments on the hat s significance other than to mention its unusual appearance. The Museum of Natural History Holden tells us the symbolic meaning of the museum s displays: they appeal to him because they are frozen and unchanging. He also mentions that he is troubled by the fact that he has changed every time he returns to them. The museum represents the world Holden wishes he could live in: it s the world of his catcher in the rye fantasy, a world where nothing ever changes, where everything is simple, understandable, and infinite. Holden is terrified by the unpredictable challenges of the world he hates conflict, he is confused by Allie s senseless death, and he fears interaction with other people. The Ducks in the Central Park Lagoon Holden s curiosity about where the ducks go during the winter reveals a genuine, more youthful side to his character. For most of the book, he sounds like a grumpy old man who is angry at the world, but his search for the ducks represents the curiosity of youth and a joyful willingness to encounter 3

the mysteries of the world. It is a memorable moment, because Holden clearly lacks such willingness in other aspects of his life. The ducks and their pond are symbolic in several ways. Their mysterious perseverance in the face of an inhospitable environment resonates with Holden s understanding of his own situation. In addition, the ducks prove that some vanishings are only temporary. Traumatized and made acutely aware of the fragility of life by his brother Allie s death, Holden is terrified by the idea of change and disappearance. The ducks vanish every winter, but they return every spring, thus symbolizing change that isn t permanent, but cyclical. Finally, the pond itself becomes a minor metaphor for the world as Holden sees it, because it is partly frozen and partly not frozen. The pond is in transition between two states, just as Holden is in transition between childhood and adulthood.

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