The Characterization Of Holden Caulfield

There are only so many things that can be done without prejudice or sin. While children may be naive and adults mature, there is a nature to childhood that is not as pure in other stages of life: innocence. In J. D Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield takes the responsibility of the odd protagonist stuck between being an adult and a child. While he often tries to protect children, it showcases his inherent want for purity and innocence. At the same time, he’s trying to grow up and be mature within a matter of days. Holden Caulfield’s character is a reflection of the limitations of innocence as adolescents transition into adulthood in J. D Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye.

Holden Caulfield is observed as someone who wants to preserve innocence, so he haphazardly critiques and judges everyone around him; whether justifiable or ridiculous. This is a result of his insecurity that he himself is losing innocence in his journey from his youth to adulthood. Nevertheless, Holden holds a superiority complex on the surface- never taking time to reflect on himself. Salinger develops Holden’s character with hypocritical irony layered throughout the protagonist’s character. Irony and is a well-worked horse in Catcher in the Rye, protagonist Holden Caulfield often paralleling his words and actions. While the irony exponentially decreases in shock value through the novel due to Holden repeatedly going against his sayings, the device never ceases to do its work. Holden Caulfield is often unreliable in his observations, a statement applicable to the stability of his rhetoric and morals. He often calls out phoniness, a constant in the novel, while doing unhonest things just as often.

The ideals of Holden and his physical actions are even usually coupled back to back to reinforce the hypocrisy. While at discussing his recent expulsion at (his teacher) Mr Spencer’s home, Holden describes a scene where his principal, Mr. Haas, would only speak with rich families rather than their poor counterparts (Salinger, 17). Holden clearly states here that he dislikes phony actions / people, explaining that he can’t stand the fakeness. This is a fair and justified opinion, yet he still doesn’t practice his preachings. While this quotation is mainly a presentation of irony, it also reveals Holden’s discomfort with being judged. Holden is distracting himself from Mr. Spencer’s life lecture by thinking about Elkton Hills’ principal, of all things. This is also exemplary irony because Holden sits there and pretends to listen whilst daydreaming; a spurious type of action that he claims to detest. Referring to how irony is hammered into Holden’s character, it festers and grows in situations involving the protagonist as J. D. Salinger starts to typify just how hypocritical and dishonest holden has become. Especially in this example, where he’s talking as a former student to a teacher, Holden is in the weird middle ground between childhood and maturity. “. . . His story is clearly a journey by an adolescent, alienated from a post-World War II society who seeks truth and, above all, love in a world in which the arts lack freshness; religion lacks God; and sex lacks love (Unrue). These absences in his desires contrast from innocence and maturity and perfectly describe the limitations of innocence in Holden’s situation. There’s one scene when Holden is being ignored by his roomate, Ackley, so he assumes a character and pretends to be the forlorn ‘governor’s son’(Salinger, 34). He’s using this odd character of his own to annoy Ackley out of boredom.

The action itself shows a less than subliminal want for Ackley to pay attention to him, despite holden saying a few times prior that he was annoyed by him. Holden claims to hate phonies, but again is proved a hypocrite. Here, he’s literally pretending to be another person- the most fraudulent personality one could assume - and going against his own hatred for bogus things yet again. On his way to New York, Holden ran into a classmate’s mother. When she saw his prep bag and inquired his name, Holden promptly responded with ‘Rudolf Shmidt’, the name of the dorm janitor at Pencey Prep. He also continuously lied to her about her son’s activities and social life, and topped it all off by saying he had a tumor and was going to South America next summer. ( Salinger, 64 ). Here, Holden is addressing a classmate’s ( whom he barely knows ) mother, whom he has never met. Using the justification of not wanting to tell her his whole life story, he pathologically lies to her not only about his identity but his relationship and knowing of her son. Holden comes back with yet another fraudulent persona, but it was tragically extended this time.

Holden not only claims to know this woman’s son very well, but lies to her about his identity solely because he says he does not want to reveal too much to her. While this may be indicative of an issue opening up to people, the main sin of this is how Holden wants to have his cake and eat it too: he does not want to tell the woman his life story, yet he makes up a story about a fake tumor and a trip with his grandmother to South America. This is perhaps one of the best examples of irony in the whole novel because it has a pure, unbridled unexpectancy to it. The audience really didn’t expect this event to occur, especially this early in the novel. The shock value that Holden tries to add to this conversation is very revealing of a childish part of his personality that he wants to protect. However, the lies that give the shock value are Holden trying to seem grown up.

Again, Holden is conflicted between two worlds where his innocence is limited- he feels he can’t feasibly and innocently entertain this woman without lying to her. J. D. Salinger used this extensive fabrication to show that Holden can’t be both young and old. Holden is also traveling in this scene, a symbolism showing he has to voyage into majority. When Holden’s former teacher, Mr. Spencer, goes the lecture him, Holden goes on to criticise the older man’s physical appearance ( Salinger 13 ). Here, Holden decides he does not need to be lectured and blames his discomfort on the atmosphere. Yet again, Holden’s insecurity strikes hypocrisy in him. Holden is scared of the the direct confrontation with his failure, so he decidedly daydreams the whole time, only returning to ‘reality’ to criticise Mr. Spencer. Holden Caulfield’s stream of consciousness is very revealing of his character and growth throughout the novel. He often thinks in fragments, with never-ending sentences and lots of filler words/phrases. The longevity of the particular thought is usually determined by Holden’s immediate comfort in a situation, his thoughts being a way for him to deflect his attention. While this childish redirection is very juvenile, he uses the method well into his ‘journey into adulthood,’ a subliminal pull for him to hold onto his own innocence. Salinger candidly exploits the use of polysyndetons to push these fragments to the longest they will go, shortening Holden’s attention span with every conjunction.

“On this day, he says goodbye to his history teacher, Mr. Spencer, who is home with the grippe. He views the sick man with both sympathy and disgust and escapes hastily after the teacher begins to lecture him about flunking out of three prep schools” (The Catcher in the Rye 120). “That’s all i could think of, though. Those two nuns I saw at breakfast and this boy James Castle I knew at Elkton Hills” (Salinger, 188). Holden is yet again diverting his attention from grief here- this time by focusing on another tragedy. He’s thinking not only about an interaction he had had earlier that day but also the suicide of a classmate he barely knew. Holden always looks to other people to criticize in moments of sheer desperation, but Salinger gives Holden slight development here. The use of the additional conjunctions clearly shows his attempts to stall his thoughts, but he also has a moment where he does not criticize corruption of innocence. Holden shows his people skills by not judging James Castle for his actions. This development is both a hugh and a low for Holden. When he doesn’t judge Castle, it shows some empathy for him, but it also suggests Holden may relate to his mental state. This is troublesome because Holden has mentioned some vaguely suicidal thoughts throughout the novel. During an odd and uncomfortable conversation with her older brother, Phoebe Caulfield becomes skeptical about Holden being able to like anything, so she prods him more about his interests. Holden responds that he simply likes phoebe and being around her (Salinger, 189). Here, Holden is trying to be a figure of stability and a role model to Phoebe- his younger sister- to preserve her innocence.

Despite the uncomfortable conversation they’re having, he desperately tries to patch it up using small talk about how he enjoys her- when she cuts him off and calls him on his phoniness. This shows another moment of realization for Holden. Here, he realizes that Phoebe may be younger, but she is much more mature than him. This realization hurts Holden because he feels as though he can’t keep her contained in her childhood forever. At this realization, it domino effects him realizing he can no longer be a child. Holden is proven to be an unreliable narrator from page one, his delusion clear. It is suggested that he knows he’s unstable somehow, although reluctantly admitted. Holden tries to hold onto simple logic for complex issues ( such as Allie’s death ) as children do, repeating elementary logic to himself over and over again to reaffirm himself somehow. Sometimes this denial and ignorance of issues is his coping mechanism, but most often it is to protect his pride and fragile confidence. The use of anaphoras in Catcher in the Rye shows how Holden’s childish ego and adult self-esteem are both wavering. Holden’s fluctuating mental health is displayed by his internal conflict where he repeatedly uses methodic phrases and judgement to convince himself that he is simultaneously as naievely innocent as a child whilst trying to be an awaredly experienced adult. This tear between his emotional state of minority and seniority is a painfully obvious embodiment of his fear of corruption of innocence. When Holden walks down a New York City street, every time he comes to a curb he speaks out loud to his dead brother, Allie, asking him to not let (Holden) disappear (Salinger, 218).

In this quotation, Holden is speaking with his deceased brother, Allie, in his weakest moment. He does say his dialogue with Allie is ‘make believe’ but the emotion and distress in the passage suggests otherwise. Holden’s repeating of phrases evokes feelings of pure desperation and neediness. This shows a breaking point in his ability to view himself as something as innocent as a child in an adult world- Holden is in his last fleeting moments of helplessness before his hope for innocence is swept away. Here, Salinger uses tone to weigh the phrase with a certain gravity and finalization. The anaphora used here seems like a last call. This shows a new, underdeveloped side of Holden- where he appeals to divine or supernatural forces ( something he has ‘debunked’ before ) to help him.

This desolation of Holden’s Character was crucial in his final self-awareness of his sickness. Another example of Salinger’s use of anaphoras is how Holden fails to tell the reader about what happens in the end. He says; “ That’s all I’m going to about. I could probably tell you what I did after I went back home, and how i got sick and all, and what school I’m supposed to go to next fall after I get out of here, but I don’t feel like it” ( Salinger, 234 ). In this passage, Holden’s dialogue is left vague as in regards to who the speaker is, but it is presumed that he is speaking to a psychiatrist. The sickness he is referring to is generally thought of to be psychological. The repeating phrase used here is a one consistent throughout the book ( see: Holden refusing to listen to Mr. Spencer lecture him on his failure ). This anaphora is a tie in to how Holden is not completely healthy yet, as he exhibits the same ignorant coping mechanics as before.

However, the reader may notice a development in Holden as the last chapter is paramount to his development. It’s short and to the point, without rambling on about his life story. He’s still got a ways to go, but it shows hope that he’s bettering himself. Another sign that his mental health may have been bettered is that he referred to his sickness in the past tense. While this could be classic Holden, choosing to ignore his issues, it may show that he has proceeded some of his issues and grown. “Holden stops his story, maintaining control over his narrative and the parameters of his existence, choosing not to dwell in the past or look to the future, but to live in the comfort of a continuous present” (Unrue). These literal propositions that Holden has emerged from his past problems shows the most positive development of Holden’s character in the entire novel. With the proposal of Holden’s peaceful end comes a fantastic reflection on his culmination across J. D Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye.

Though Holden was hypocritical and repetitive until the end, the novel’s protagonist met visible highs and lows throughout the story. Holden found himself being hypocritical, violating his own ethics, and being mentally insecure. Holden may have been static most of the novel, but his societal awareness, or lack thereof, presented social protests that were not delusions and that presented sanity in Holden’s character. Holden’s difficulty in growing up was a reflection of his justifiable wants to have good in the world, and while certain innocence isn’t feasible as adolescents venture into adulthood, his heart is in the right place. Holden’s pure intentions were not always innocently executed, however, and these actions made him come to the realization that he can’t protect everything. Holden Caulfield’s character is developed and characterized by the limitations of innocence as adolescents transition into adulthood in J. D Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye.

Works Cited

  1. Salinger, J. D. The Catcher in the Rye. Royal N. S. W. Institute for Deaf and Blind Children, 1980.
  2. Unrue, John. 'The Catcher in the Rye. ' Encyclopedia of the American Novel, by Abby H. P. Werlock, 2nd ed. , Facts on File, 2013.
  3. Companion to Literature. Gale Virtual Reference Library, http://link. galegroup. com/apps/doc/CX6256500178/GVRL?u=chat65949&sid=GVRL&xid=9e214892. Accessed 19 Jan. 2018.
  4. 'The Catcher in the Rye. ' Novels for Students, edited by Diane Telgen, vol. 1, Gale, 1997, pp. 116-137.
  5. Gale Virtual Reference Library, http://link. galegroup. com/apps/doc/CX2591400016/GVRL?u=chat65949&sid=GVRL&xid=ed63a9fc. Accessed 20 Jan. 2018.
  6. Unrue, John. 'The Catcher in the Rye. ' Encyclopedia of the American Novel, by Abby H. P. Werlock, 2nd ed. , Facts on File, 2013.
  7. Companion to Literature. Gale Virtual Reference Library, http://link. galegroup. com/apps/doc/CX6256500178/GVRL?u=chat65949&sid=GVRL&xid=9e214892. Accessed 20 Jan. 2018.
31 October 2020
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