The Catcher in the Rye

by: J. D. Salinger

Inaction

1

I went over to my window and opened it and packed a snowball with my bare hands. . . . I didn’t throw it at anything though. I started to throw it. . . . But I changed my mind.

This passage, which appears in Chapter 5, occurs at Pencey, just after Stradlater has left for his date with Jane Gallagher. The passage shows one of many moments that capture Holden’s inability to act. After carefully preparing the snowball, he hesitates to throw it. Instead, he packs it harder and holds onto it, even trying to bring it with him onto a bus. Holden refuses to let go of the snowball, which results in the snowball getting even denser, just as he holds onto the pain of his brother Allie’s death. This pain becomes stronger as the story progresses, preventing Holden from acting.

2

It probably would’ve hurt him a lot, but I did it with my right hand, and I can’t make a good fist with that hand.

This quotation, which appears in Chapter 6, describes Holden’s attempt to punch Stradlater after he comes home from his date with Jane Gallagher. Even though Holden takes action in this moment, he does so knowing full well that, because of his injured right hand, he won’t be able to do much damage. In expecting that his punch probably won’t hurt Stradlater, Holden’s action is paradoxically bound up with inaction. The fact that Holden throws this failed punch with the hand he injured while breaking windows after Allie’s death once again suggests a link to the pain of his brother’s passing.

3

Only, I wouldn’t have the guts to do it. I’d just stand there, trying to look tough. What I might do, I might say something very cutting and snotty, to rile him up—instead of socking him in the jaw.

In Chapter 13, shortly after leaving Ernie’s piano bar, Holden imagines confronting the Pencey classmate who stole his gloves. And yet, even in his fantasy confrontation, Holden admits that he “wouldn’t have the guts” to punch the “crook.” He “might,” however, talk to him. Even so, Holden doesn’t imagine insulting the thief directly. Instead, he would simply “rile him up,” ensuring that the thief would sock him in the jaw, as both Stradlater and Maurice did. In this passage, Holden’s inability to act takes on a self-destructive edge.

4

I’ve had quite a few opportunities to lose my virginity and all, but I’ve never got around to it yet. Something always happens.

In this quotation, which appears in Chapter 13, Holden considers his virginity as he waits for the prostitute, Sunny, to knock on his hotel room door. Apparently, and despite frequently thinking and talking about sex, Holden has a history of interrupted sexual encounters. Although Holden leaves the reason for the interruption ambiguous, it becomes clear from the scene with Sunny that he remains reluctant about engaging in sex. Holden’s failure to act sexually links his more general inability to act with a resistance to adulthood—adulthood being associated with sexuality, social connection, and the ability to act decisively.

5

I hardly even had the guts to rub it out with my hand, if you want to know the truth. . . . But I rubbed it out anyway, finally.

This passage from Chapter 25 describes Holden’s attempt to rub out the words “fuck you” from a stairwell at Phoebe’s school. In this case, Holden does “finally” manage to complete this action, though only after some deliberation. Yet his act of erasure is rather passive as compared to his violent fantasy of beating up the vandal who scrawled the obscenity. What’s more, Holden’s act of erasing, of rubbing out, is a negative form of action rather than a positive, creative one. Here, Holden is un-doing rather than doing.