Is Holden Caulfield a toxic character, or is he misunderstood?

It’s easy to read Holden as an unlikeable person who has created his own isolation. He often self-sabotages the chances he’s been given. Despite having the privilege of attending multiple expensive boarding schools, he keeps getting expelled because he refuses to try to do his work. Although Holden complains about how others treat him, they are often merely reacting to how he treats them first. For example, on his date with Sally, Holden grows furious at her for not enjoying his angry, one-sided rambles and accuses her of not wanting to have a real conversation. He makes misogynistic comments frequently throughout the book, even saying that girls aren’t often very smart and judging women solely by their looks. He’s extremely judgmental about other people’s lives, such as when he calls the people he can see from his hotel window “perverts,” a cruel description of adults who are consensually enjoying their sex lives. Hypocritically, Holden is the one spying on them and thus intruding. All these behaviors suggest that Holden can be an entitled, rude, and judgmental person who refuses to take responsibility for his own actions.

However, at least some of Holden’s terrible behavior seems to come from a deep loneliness. Despite decrying the adult world as full of phonies, he strikes up conversations with multiple adult strangers, suggesting a desire for connection. In the case of the three nuns and Mrs. Morrow, Holden decides that they are nice people because they engage with his conversations, easing his loneliness. However, in the case of the taxi drivers who shrug off his unexpected question about the ducks in Central Park and refuse to get a drink with him, Holden decides that they are bad conversationalists or rude. His quick, black-and-white judgements of other people seem entirely based on whether he leaves an encounter feeling like he made a connection or depressed by his social failure. He disguises his loneliness and sorrow as anger and cruelty. Even Holden’s hatred of the movies seems partially motivated by loneliness. His brother D.B. has moved to Hollywood to work as a screenwriter, which means that the movies have, in essence, stolen Holden’s brother away from him.

Finally, we can read Holden’s behavior through the lens of trauma. While we may not know the exact cause of Holden’s breakdown, we do have some insight into his difficult past. Allie’s death leaves Holden in such rage and grief that he breaks his hand while smashing the windows of his family’s car. Holden also witnesses James Castle’s death after horrific bullying and the unfairness that the bullies only face mild punishment. Having seen so much death and cruelty at such a young age may explain Holden’s unwillingness to engage with his future and disillusionment with the adult world. It is also possible to read Holden as a survivor of sexual assault. After running away from Mr. Antolini, Holden says he’s experienced “something perverty” multiple times. While Holden does lie, there aren’t enough clues from the context to completely dismiss this statement. Reading Holden as a survivor of sexual assault offers insight into his sexual anxiety and his desire to protect childhood innocence. If we read Holden as traumatized, then we might read his desire to become a “catcher in the rye” as a desire to protect other children from the struggles he has faced.