“Catcher in the Rye:” A Study of Themes Present

The controversial fictional novel Catcher in the Rye by J.D Salinger is a timeless classic whose themes of teenage angst and growing up seem to surpass barriers of generations and win its way into the hearts of many a literate student. While a cult classic for many, there are a great deal of people who despise it. Ignorant or not, these people hold their opinions firm and this only adds to the legend Salinger has created. Like many of Salinger’s other characters Holden is young, defiant, and filled with the utmost contempt for his surroundings. Whilst at first Holden may appear like a whiney brat throughout the story ( told in first person through Holden’s own unique perspective) layers are peeled back revealing an individual who has been hurt deeply, and while he may not be perfect, he holds a wonderfully naive yet battered sensitivity for the very same world he openly despises. The entire basis of the story is Holden repeating the tale of his misfortunes to a psychoanalyst, creating a delightful platform for the reader himself to act as the psychoanalyst and ponder on Holden’s many grievances. These grievances include but are not limited to, his eye for hypocrisy and how he handles it, using anger as a coping mechanism to relieve himself of emotional pain, and how low standards he puts on himself so that he never may fail, but also never see the glory of achievement.

At the ripe young age of 16 our main character has already developed an unforgiving eye for the extraordinary amount of hypocrisy present in the adult world that most of us fail to see or choose to ignore. Is this hypocrisy extraordinary or do we fail to see how ordinary it really is? Being scarred by the tragic death of his beloved brother Allie, Holden was set apart from the immature crowd who had not yet discovered the cruel heartless backside of life’s hand. When one is away from the crowd left to his own devices and time to think he may realize things that those without hardships would never pick up on, hence his distaste for the world. Everyone must go through this stage of miserable self discovery eventually, but that is generally when people have aged and lost their creativity along with the will to question the world around them. This is what makes Holden so unique; he uses his brain to question the world around him. A perfect example of Holden’s cynical mindset is when he enlightens us with his thoughts on the school administrations dishonesty. Holden says “We always had the same meal on Saturday nights at Pencey. It was supposed to be a big deal, because they gave you steak. I’ll bet a thousand bucks the reason they did that was because a lot of guys’ parents came up to the school on Sunday, and old Thurmer probably figured everybody’s mother would ask their darling boy what he had for dinner last night, and he’d say, “Steak.” What a racket. You should’ve seen the steaks. They were these little hard, dry jobs that you could hardly even cut.” A portion of people may think Holden is merely whining because he receives hard, dry steaks but their missing the point. Holden is actually expressing his disgust for how the institution meant to instruct proper morals and education instead hides behind vague mistruths in order to keep their reputation clean and continue to acquire their main prospect, the almighty dollar. Though Salinger eventually illustrates how Holden’s pessimistic views in time plague him, turning his world into his own self made hell.

Living in this hell Holden had inevitably made for himself due to the previously discussed tendency some method of coping would be necessary. This device came to him in the form of another fatal character defect; anger. In order to avoid his own hypocrisies and flaws he was overzealous in his hatred towards the rest of humanity, nature, and anything else not related to his deceased brother. After Allies death and the death of his own childhood mourning consumed his life. Instead of coming to terms with loss as every man must do eventually, he projects his misery on the rest of the world in the form of unrelenting anger. Every time Holden is hurt throughout the novel he is first stuck by sorrow, then immediately filled with inexorable malice. This transformation of feelings is present when he has a run in with Maurice the hotel pimp claiming Holden hadn’t paid for the hooker he hired. “I was still sort of crying. I was so damn mad and nervous and all. “You’re a dirty moron.” I said. “You’re a stupid chiseling moron, and in about two years you’ll be one of those scraggy guys that come up to you on the street and ask for a dime for coffee. You’ll have snot all over you’re dirty filthy overcoat.” Then he smacked me.” While certainly not the only quote expressing Holden’s anger issues I found this one the most potent. When confronted Holden immediately turns to tears, then as a defense from Maurice, almost as if to rectify his reputation of a crybaby he spews venomous words as an alternative to tears. He takes no accountability on the matter; even though he was right he failed to see his own mistake of hiring the hooker in the first place. This seems to be a template for every mournful issue Holden encounters and it always comes back to bite him helping him remain constantly despondent and in a rut.

So here we find Holden, even with his strong convictions, knowledge of literature, and kindly sentiments, trudging endlessly day by day, jaded walking in the rut he has dug himself. Through exerting no real effort into anything he has created a world where he can never truly fail. He never experiences the immediate low of failure; instead he receives failure in small constantly administered doses. The dull blade of failure is constantly sawing at him even though it doesn’t immediately make cuts. Through not trying he may also never know the thrill of success, and never having that wonderful feeling we all get once in a while is a failure in itself. He walks forever alone and reaches out for help from time to time but never opens himself up and puts truths about himself out on the line. He won’t risk letting down his walls of anger and accepting people into his life for fear they may stab him in the back. Or worse, someday they may cease to be there, like his brother Allie. Also Holden reveals discreetly that he had been betrayed in other ways. After Holden found his trusted teacher Mr.Antolini standing beside him patting his head in the middle of the night he panicked and ran out of the apartment in a desperate escape. When he was on the elevator he disclosed this about his past “when something perverty like that happens, I start sweating like a bastard. That kind of stuff’s happened to me about twenty times since I was a kid. I can’t stand it.” This one quote ties together so much of the story. Holden reveals he may have been abused sexually multiple times throughout his youth. This explains so much about why Holden is so cynical and mistrustful of the world. The death of his closest and most loved family member coupled with a history of being sexually abused is bound to have traumatic effects psychologically. As far as Holden is concerned if he really opens up to anyone and actually tries to have an honest relationship (he began to be honest for the first time with Mr.Antolini) will either die and leave him or sexually assault him.

Through these three flaws Holden had captured the hearts of millions on a deeper level than any other character in the history of literature. Being a beautifully constructed multi-dimensional character, he portrays the good the bad and the ugly in all of his fans and has helped people find their place with tragedy in the world. By examining Holden’s flaws we can always self reflect and see how the things we find to be horrible about our world need to be taken in stride and not fretted over to the point of depression, how we should watch our angers and frustrations always attempting to find the true root of the problem in ourselves, and also how in order to heal these defects we must open up and let in those who care about us. Or maybe you don’t relate, and that’s okay too, but Catcher in the Rye will always have its place in the hearts of those misfits whose sentiments are strong and unorthodox thoughts prove troublesome.