Holden narrates the story of The Catcher in the Rye while he is recovering from his breakdown. Do you think the promise of recovery that Holden experiences as he watches the carousel at the end of the novel has been fulfilled? Specifically, has Holden gained a more mature perspective on the events that he narrates?
It is possible that Holden is simply trying to recapture his original emotions and thoughts in his narration, and thus masking the fact that he has a more enlightened view regarding his behavior than he had during his escapades. But nothing he says seems to point to such irony on Holden’s part. Although Holden narrates his story after it has already happened, he seems to have gained little perspective. He alludes to his present situation only twice—once at the beginning and once at the end of the novel—and he refuses to tell us much about it. Additionally, many of the personal characteristics that have been damaging to him—for example, his cynicism and his lack of introspection—are in fact more pervasive in his narration of his story than in the story itself. As a result, the story he tells is only partial; he often glides over moments of particular trauma or treats painful moments by pretending not to care.
Because Holden is an unreliable narrator, in order to understand his character it is necessary to look beyond his words at his behavior and his interactions with others, using the knowledge of his personality acquired from his narration and applying it to his actions in the story. For instance, when Holden tells about being beaten and robbed by Maurice, the elevator operator, he admits that he thought he was dying and fantasizes about being a movie hero and seeking his revenge. But he never describes how any of this makes him feel; his sole comment is that the “goddam movies” can ruin a person. Since we have learned from previous moments in the book that Holden is a deeply sensitive boy, we can look beneath the surface of his narrative to see the suffering it covers up. In this scene, we also see how self-conflicted Holden is: he claims to hate movies, but he turns to them in a moment of crisis. Because the relationship between the events that Holden narrates and his explanations of those events is so complex and contradictory, and because he is unwilling to discuss any part of his “recovery,” nothing that Holden says suggests that he has really matured from his experiences.
What is the significance of the carousel in Chapter 25?
Holden’s release at the end of his story comes as he watches Phoebe ride the carousel. There is an element of magic to the moment, as the carousel is operating even though it is wintertime. Holden mentions that Phoebe protests, arguing that she is too big to ride the carousel, but Holden knows that she wants to do it and he buys her a ticket. Holden, on the other hand, declines to ride, which shows him recognizing, if not accepting, his status as an adult.
In a way, the carousel is reminiscent of the statues in the Museum of Natural History, because, like them, it never changes. It continues to move in circles and always stays in the same pace; it stays the same while the children who ride it continue to grow older. It would seem, then, that the pleasure Holden takes in watching Phoebe ride is, like his moments at the museum and watching Phoebe sleep, self-deceptive.
But Holden does show some signs of growth. He comments: “All the kids kept trying to grab for the gold ring, and so was old Phoebe . . . but I didn’t say anything . . . if they want to grab the gold ring, you have to let them do it . . . If they fall off, they fall off.” Holden’s pronouncement references his emendation of his “catcher in the rye” fantasy. Now he has come to terms with the idea that every child will eventually “fall”—out of innocence and into adulthood. Holden cannot prevent them from doing it or save them, just as he cannot prevent or save himself from becoming an adult. This recognition brings about a huge emotional release for him, and he begins to cry; the sky emulates him with a thunderstorm. Most of the other adults take refuge under the carousel’s canopy, but Holden stays out in the rain. Whether we are meant to take this action as one of defiance or acceptance is, like the remainder of the novel’s ending, unclear.
Though Holden never describes his psychological breakdown directly, it becomes clear as the novel progresses that he is growing increasingly unstable. How does Salinger indicate this instability to the reader while protecting his narrator’s reticence?
Salinger uses two main techniques with great efficiency. The first is to emphasize a contrast between Holden’s relatively casual description of his actions and the apparent desperation of the actions themselves. When Holden describes walking to the Central Park duck pond late at night, for instance, he casually mentions that he had icicles in his hair and worried about catching pneumonia, but he does not seem to consider it strange to walk outdoors with wet hair in freezing weather. It does seem strange to the reader, however, and Salinger uses that sense of strangeness, as well as Holden’s apparent obliviousness to it, to emphasize his mental imbalance. His other technique is to provide alternative viewpoints in the other characters’ responses to Holden’s behavior as guidelines. For instance, when Holden has his meltdown with Sally and tries to persuade her to flee society and live with him in a cabin, she repeatedly asks him to stop shouting. In his account of the scene, Holden claims he wasn’t shouting, but we believe Sally. Salinger uses her angry, fearful response to signal to the reader that Holden’s mental state is worse than he admits or acknowledges.