The Catcher in the Rye is written in the first person, with Holden acting as both protagonist and narrator, signaling we are getting his limited, biased view of events. Except for the beginning of Chapter 1 and the entirety of Chapter 26, Holden narrates his story in the past tense, recounting the events that led to the present moment, where he is recovering at a medical facility in Los Angeles. Salinger uses dialogue to bring the reader outside Holden’s head and give an alternate perspective on the action. For example, when Holden visits Mr. Spencer, his teacher reads out loud an essay Holden wrote. The reader can make up her own mind about what kind of student Holden is, rather than taking his word for it. Similarly, the dialogue of other characters suggests alternate interpretations of events, such as when Sally tells him to “stop screaming,” even though he claims he “wasn’t even screaming,” or when Phoebe points out that he has misunderstood the Robert Burns poem “Comin’ Thro the Rye.”
Holden frequently interjects references to the second-person “you,” likening the reader to a trusted confidant. The final line of the flashback portion of the novel is “God, I wish you could’ve been there,” suggesting Holden’s loneliness would have been relieved by having a friend like the reader with him during his experiences. The second-person address also draws attention to Holden’s unreliability as a narrator. Throughout the novel, Holden tries to convince the reader to interpret events one way while simultaneously presenting evidence that the opposite interpretation is correct. For example, he frequently insists how well he knows people – “The thing is, you didn’t know Stradlater. I knew him,” or “I know old Jane like a book.” However, his interactions with Stradlater, and his reluctance to contact Jane, suggest he is neither as intimate nor comfortable with them as he’d like the reader to believe. He also makes several references to how much he hates movies, and thinks his brother D.B. is a “prostitute” for writing for them, yet he mentions going to the movies several times. In these ways, Holden’s attempts to control the reader’s impression of him end up revealing who he really is.
Holden’s alienation and desire for connection also inform his point of view, causing him to often misread other characters. He describes his brother Allie watching him from across a golf course, and also watching his sister Phoebe through a window – both distancing effects that suggest he is at a remove from the other characters. He has a tendency to idealize Allie and Phoebe, both of whom he describes as unrealistically smart, sensitive, and gifted children. He also misunderstands his effect on others. He invites Mrs. Morrow to have a drink, not realizing she sees him as a peer of her son, not a potential romantic partner, and joins a table of tourists at the Lavender Bar, not understanding the women see him as a kid, and are more interested in looking for celebrities than making “intelligent conversation.” While Holden misreads other people’s intentions toward him, he is a more acute observer of their emotions when they don’t relate directly to him. For example, while he misjudges Mrs. Morrow’s impressions of him, he accurately senses her anxiety about her son and desire to believe her son is popular and well-liked.
As the novel progresses, Holden’s mental and physical condition become more fragile, and his point of view reflects his increasingly tenuous grip on reality. He often declares that he doesn’t understand why he felt a certain emotion at a particular time, and he frequently bursts out in tears for no apparent reason. For example, after meeting Carl Luce he says, “I was crying and all. I don’t know why, but I was.” Holden’s lack of introspection and self-knowledge leaves the reader to speculate that more is going on beneath the surface than Holden himself realizes. He also emphasizes his physical frailty. Early in the novel he states that he often has trouble catching his breath, and he is constantly shivering. Toward the end of the book, he suffers from a severe headache, has a bout of diarrhea, and even passes out. Just before he decides to sneak into his house to see his sister, Phoebe, Holden sits on a park bench “shivering like a bastard” and worrying to himself: “I thought probably I’d get pneumonia and die.” At the end of the novel, despite his weakened state, he stands in the pouring rain watching Phoebe on the carousel. His lack of concern toward his health indicates he is losing touch with reality, and perhaps unconsciously wants to become very sick or even die.