The tone of The Catcher in the Rye is often sarcastic and judgmental, yet reveals Holden’s longing for connection and frustration in achieving it. Holden often uses sarcasm to hold himself above other characters and prove his superiority to people he finds less intelligent. In the first chapter, for example, Holden watches a football game from afar and thinks, “you were supposed to commit suicide or something if old Pencey didn’t win.” In making this darkly comic remark about suicide, Holden expresses contempt for his classmates who care about the game. Similarly, when he tries to chat up a female out-of-towner in the hotel bar, she is not particularly forthcoming, and he responds, “You’re a very good conversationalist.” Yet despite his judgment of most people (children being the notable exception), Holden also often expresses compassion toward others, saying that he feels sorry for them. He feels disgusted by Mr. Spencer’s “ratty bathrobe” and his use of “phony” words like “grand,” and yet he tells the reader, “I felt sorry as hell for him.” Holden wields sarcasm and judgment to keep others and his feelings for them at a distance. However, moments of compassion reveal that he also desires connection.
The tone of Holden’s narration also contains nostalgia for his own childhood, a time he romantically associates with innocence and purity. Holden’s happiest memories come from his youth when he took school trips to the Museum of Natural History, which felt like “the only nice, dry, cosy place in the world.” For Holden, childhood itself seems to be “the only nice, dry, cosy place in the world,” a time when innocence has yet to be infected by the phoniness of the world. Holden’s nostalgia is ironic, however, as he is not much older than a child himself. He insists his height and streak of gray hair make him appear older than he is, but none of the adults in the novel are fooled – for example, the waiter in the Lavender Bar, who refuses to serve him alcohol. Holden’s nostalgic belief that childhood is a static time of warmth and security is also naively immature – in fact, childhood is a time of a drastic change, and is not necessarily safe or innocent, as evidenced by the fact that Allie died when he was still a child.
The overall tone of the novel mirrors Holden’s cynicism more than it refutes it. Though he meets some adults who treat him with compassion, like the nuns he talks to at the coffeeshop or the woman running the coat check at the Wicker Bar, most of the adult characters are presented fairly unsympathetically. For example, the dialogue of the women he meets in the Lavender Bar encourages the reader to think Holden is accurate in describing them as “real morons.” Carl Luce does seem as pretentious as Holden believes him to be, using affected phrases like “must we pursue this horrible trend of thought,” and “I simply happen to find Eastern philosophy more satisfactory than Western.” Other adults take advantage of Holden, most notably Maurice and Sunny, who rob him and beat him up. Even the characters who are nice to Holden, such as Mr. Spencer and Mr. Antolini, appear more pathetic than admirable. Mrs. Morrow is depicted as kind but deluded about her son’s true nature. By portraying many of the adults as pretentious, self-deluded, and unsavory, Salinger presents a pessimistic, cynical tone that suggests Holden has little to look forward to in the adult world, and is right to resist growing up.