What does Holden mean when he calls people around him “phonies”?
Answer: By “phony,” Holden means someone who is inauthentic and living on the surface as opposed to actually seeing the world clearly and living authentically, not selling out to artifice. Holden is deeply disappointed in those who cannot see beyond life's mundane duties and trivialities.
What is the significance of the novel’s title?
Answer: Holden holds onto a song about a catcher in the rye who catches all the children in his path just before they run off a cliff, rescuing them from doom. Holden himself either wants to be such a catcher, who rescues children, since he believes they are the only people who are genuine in the world, or he wants to be rescued by the catcher.
Why does Holden slug Stradlater at Pencey?
Answer: Holden is in love with Jane Gallagher, one of the few girls he has allowed himself to get close to. When he finds out that Stradlater had a date with her and treats the whole affair so casually, he cannot hold in his rage.
What is the significance of the red hunter's hat that Holden wears?
Answer: Both Phoebe and Allie had red hair, so Holden's red hunter's cap, with its childish echoes, is his way of bonding with both of them and retaining his innocence.
Why does Holden ultimately leave Pencey?
Answer: Holden is kicked out for failing too many classes, but he ultimately chooses to leave early to get away from all the phonies who are making him miserable. Specifically, he is fleeing Stradlater, who has co-opted the one and only girl he truly loves, Jane Gallagher.
What are some of the things that “kill” Holden, in his words?
Answer: In general, the things that make Holden feel emotional (“killing” him) involve children. When he reads Phoebe's notebook, or when he remembers Allie's foibles, he can't block the surging emotions that overflow his defenses.
Why does Holden cling to the innocence of children so deeply?
Answer: Holden has yet to recover from the stark cruelties of adulthood that so quickly stripped him of childhood innocence. Allie was taken from him cruelly, and then Holden immediately had to venture to school, where he was taunted by classmates. Holden can't see a way to regain his childhood innocence.
Why can't Holden force himself to sleep with the prostitute who comes to his motel room?
Answer: Holden simply wants the comfort of someone he can talk to. He cannot bring himself to numb the loneliness and pain long enough to sleep with someone. On top of this, he is a virgin, so it is quite evident he wants his first time to be special.
Why does Holden finally lash out at Sally Hawkins?
Answer: Though Sally is quite pretty and Holden enjoys having her on his arm, ultimately he cannot put up with her “phoniness.” Sally cares about appearances and the superficial trappings of status, but Holden cares only about having someone he can relate to. He would rather be lonely than have to engage with a phony.
Why does Holden ultimately capitulate and come back home with Phoebe at the end?
Answer: Holden wants to distance himself from people as far as possible so that he never has to experience the pain of loving someone and then losing them again. After Allie, he cannot take another heartbreak. He wants to spare himself the pain of possibly losing Phoebe or seeing her grow up by getting as far away from her as possible. But when she insists on accompanying him, Holden cannot bear to ruin her life, either by letting her come with him or by leaving without her.
Explain the idea “Holden is a great rescuer, but fails to rescue himself.” How does Holden’s character change during the course of the novel?
In The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger perfectly captures a teenage boy’s struggle with adolescence. The story is told from the perspective of Holden Caulfield, who is widely regarded as “…the original sullen teenager” (National Public Radio, 2008). Throughout the novel, Holden takes the reader through a few days of his life, in which he flaunts his hostile attitude to the reader. Over the course of his journey, there is a subtle, yet important, pattern. The Catcher in the Rye includes the constant motif of Holden Caulfield rescuing others, while failing to rescue himself.
In the novel, Holden finds opportunities to rescue others, but he never focuses on bettering himself. For example, he highly respects women when it comes to sex. He explains that, when girls tell him he is going too far with them, he always stops because he “…get[s] to feeling sorry for them…they tell [him] to stop, so [he] stop[s]” (Salinger, 1951, p. 50). Later on, when Holden has his encounter with the prostitute, he pities her and does not desire to do anything sexual with her. He treats women as though he is trying to save their sexual purity. However, this does not help Holden at all. He saves these girls, but, as a result, he never has the opportunity to lose his virginity.
Another, less superficial, example of Holden’s rescuing others instead of himself is the way he acts toward his little sister, Phoebe. Specifically, when Phoebe claims she is not going back to school, he insists, “You have to go back to school” (Salinger, 1951, p. 112). Although he sets himself up to ruin his life by quitting school, he cannot allow Phoebe to follow his same destructive path. He saves her academic opportunities, but fails to save his own.
Holden’s desire to rescue Phoebe supports the ultimate example of him being a great rescuer, but failing to rescue himself. Toward the end, when Phoebe asks him what he would like to do with his life, he explains his desire to be a “catcher in the rye” (Salinger, 1951, p. 93). His aspiration to save children from falling off a cliff greatly represents his desire to save innocence. He wants to rescue Phoebe, as well as these children, so he can rescue the purity he believes can only be found within an innocent child. However, he has given up on saving his own purity, as he believes it has been lost. As a result of this, “Holden channels his grief into altruistic fantasies of protecting those whose existence remains unmarred by graffiti, phoniness, certainty, and death” (Tolchin, 2007, p. 37). He fantasizes about saving the children in the rye field because saving them means preserving the purity left in the world.
Consequential to Holden’s desire to rescue others, specifically their purity, he loses sight of the importance in rescuing himself. He does not believe himself to be pure, so he gives up on himself. Because of this, it seems that Holden’s character does not change throughout the novel. He remains static, his “…voice is the same at the end of his retelling as it is at the start,” and “He seems to have learned very little…” (Brooks, 2004, p. 357). By the end of the novel, it seems as though Holden will continue to rescue others and fail to recognize that it is he who needs rescuing.
Brooks, B. (2004). Holden at Sixteen. Contemporary Literary Criticism, 80(3), 353-357.
National Public Radio (2008, Jan. 20). Holden Caulfield: Giving voice to generations. National
Public Radio Books. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=18225406
Salinger, J.D. (1951). The Catcher in the Rye. Retrieved from
Tolchin, K.R. (2007). Optimism, Innocence, and Angst in the Catcher in the Rye. Children’s
Literature Review, 181, 33-45.
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