The Catcher in the Rye

by: J. D. Salinger


Two main antagonists stand between Holden and his goal of connection: society, and Holden himself. Holden feels antagonized by much of society, which to him is filled with inauthentic people following arbitrary rules. Nearly every adult Holden meets either disappoints him or thwarts him in his attempts to make connections. To the adults, Holden is just a teenager, and they treat him accordingly. But Holden thinks he’s as smart or smarter than the adults, and doesn’t understand why they don’t treat him as a peer. For example, Holden tries to convince his classmate’s mother to have a drink with him, but she refuses, since Holden is too young to be drinking. Throughout the book, Holden tries to insinuate himself into adult society by going to bars, trying to pick up women, staying in a hotel, and taking taxis. However, he feels constantly antagonized by what he sees as the phoniness of the adults he encounters during these activities, as well as their refusal to accept him as one of their own.

Significantly, even though Holden understands most other people as antagonists, no one actually “has it out” for him. In fact, it could be argued that by holding everyone at a suspicious distance, Holden acts as his own greatest antagonist. That Holden is antagonizing himself becomes apparent in the way Holden still relies on his peers despite his criticisms of them. For example, after his tiff with Stradlater, Holden goes to Ackley for solace. But in the brief scene that follows, it is Holden, not Ackley, who stirs up trouble and huffs off. This scene indicates that Ackley could be a good friend if Holden didn’t alienate so many people with his constant hostility. Most of the adults Holden meets act kindly towards him, at least initially. Holden repeatedly either refuses or misinterprets their kindness, unwilling or unable to accept help. It would seem, then, that one of the major lessons Holden needs to learn is how to stop being his own antagonist. This is the lesson that both Mr. Spencer and Mr. Antolini attempt to give him, each in their own way. Carl Luce also offers this lesson when he suggests that Holden seek out psychiatric help. Even young Phoebe points out that Holden gets in his own way by refusing to like anything. In the end, then, Holden may turn out to have just one antagonist, not many.