The Catcher in the Rye

by: J. D. Salinger

Themes

Though oversimplified, Holden’s observations are not entirely inaccurate. He can be a highly insightful narrator, and he is very aware of superficial behavior in those around him. Throughout the novel he encounters many characters who do seem affected, pretentious, or superficial—Sally Hayes, Carl Luce, Maurice and Sunny, and even Mr. Spencer stand out as examples. Some characters, like Maurice and Sunny, are genuinely harmful. But although Holden expends so much energy searching for phoniness in others, he never directly observes his own phoniness. His deceptions are generally pointless and cruel and he notes that he is a compulsive liar. For example, on the train to New York, he perpetrates a mean-spirited and needless prank on Mrs. Morrow. He’d like us to believe that he is a paragon of virtue in a world of phoniness, but that simply isn’t the case. Although he’d like to believe that the world is a simple place, and that virtue and innocence rest on one side of the fence while superficiality and phoniness rest on the other, Holden is his own counterevidence. The world is not as simple as he’d like—and needs—it to be; even he cannot adhere to the same black-and-white standards with which he judges other people.

Religion

As with most other things in his life, Holden has ambivalent feelings about religion. Religion entices him because he thinks it may offer a spiritual anchor in an otherwise confusing and depressing world. Holden yearns for such an anchor throughout the novel. He frequently imagines that a relationship with a young woman may cure his loneliness, but female companionship never works out for him. As an alternative, Holden occasionally thinks about Jesus. Jesus appeals to Holden for a couple of reasons. First, Jesus is not a phony. Holden asserts as much when he exclaims that Jesus “would’ve puked” had he witnessed the commercialization of Christmas. Second, Jesus privileges social outcasts. Holden makes note of this when he recalls the story of Jesus curing a lunatic’s madness. Holden, who frequently calls himself a “madman,” imagines that Jesus could also cure him. However, despite Holden’s desire for spiritual grounding, organized religion repulses him. In Holden’s view, rituals, theology, and dogma are imposed from outside and therefore turn people into phonies. So even though Holden respects Jesus as a spiritual figure, he rejects the religion founded on his name.

Inaction

One of the biggest issues holding Holden back is his persistent inability to take action. Holden’s inaction indicates a failure both to let go of past trauma and to move toward a more resilient future. With regard to the past, Holden cannot relinquish the memory of his dead brother. Holden’s refusal to let go of Allie’s memory finds an echo in Chapter 5, when he can’t bring himself to let go of a snowball he’s made. Instead of throwing the snowball, he holds on to it and packs in more snow, making it hard and dense. The dense snowball may mirror Holden’s tight knot of emotional anguish, and his inability to let the snowball go echoes his inability to make peace with his brother’s death. The pain associated with Allie’s passing interferes with Holden’s ability to take action in other ways as well. Take, for example, the scene where Holden attempts to punch Stradlater with his right fist. Holden knows this fist is weak, because he injured it when he broke the windows in the garage after Allie died. Using this fist to throw a punch is therefore self-defeating and leads to Stradlater punching him.

Just as it relates to the pain of his past, Holden’s inaction also relates to his fear of the future. Frequently in the book Holden describes the world of adults as being full of rules and conventions that make people into phonies. But his constant criticism of adults covers up a deeper resistance to growing up. This resistance becomes clear in Holden’s failed attempts at sexual connection. Even though he frequently thinks and talks about sex, all of Holden’s encounters with women in the book are disastrous. Perhaps most telling is the scene with the prostitute Sunny. Holden cannot bring himself to have sex with her, just one of several failed sexual encounters he’s experienced. In a narrow sense, this episode shows Holden’s hang-ups about sexuality. More generally, it also shows how Holden’s inability to act links to his broader resistance to growing up. His refusal to grow up endangers his future ability to become more resilient and take action despite the world’s many shortcomings.

Appearances

Holden categorizes people in two groups: those who care about appearances and those who don’t. Those who belong to the first category strike Holden as “hotshots” and “phonies,” who privilege looks over personality. Holden feels surrounded by such people. He notes, for instance, that his mother works hard to cultivate her “terrific taste,” and his aunt has a penchant for pomp in her charity work. He also encounters a number of other wealthy and good-looking people over the course of the book, including Stradlater, Carl Luce, and Mr. Antolini. For Holden, Stradlater exemplifies the hollowness of appearances. Holden explains that even though Stradlater always looks good on the outside, he’s actually a “secret slob” whose stuff is dirty and in disarray. By contrast, Holden sees himself as someone who privileges substance over style. He insists, for instance, that he doesn’t care about his own appearance. At one point he exclaims, “I didn’t give a damn how I looked.” However, his self-consciousness about putting the flaps down on his hunting cap, for example, reveal that he, too, is secretly concerned with appearances.

Performance

Just as Holden sets up an opposition between style and substance, he also sets up an opposition between performance and authenticity. For Holden, performance is closely linked to notions of appearance and phoniness, and no one epitomizes the artificiality of performance better than professional actors. Holden dislikes actors mainly because they pretend to be other people. But he also takes issue with actors because their success is based on how well they show off their talent. Holden seems to believe that the more they show off their talent, the phonier they get. Acting therefore has a corrupting power. Holden seems to think that most people are actors of sorts, exaggerating who they are in order to please an imaginary audience. Such exaggeration leads to artificiality and the failure to be a “real” person. But if everything is a performance and hence inauthentic, then what does authenticity actually look like? Even though Holden privileges an idea of authenticity, he never explicitly defines it, which indicates he’s chasing after something that may not actually exist.