The style of The Catcher in the Rye is highly self-conscious and vernacular, defining the main character while keeping the reader aware that the story is a creation of its narrator. The voice is characterized by Holden’s colloquial and frank use of language. As the reader notices from the very first sentence, Holden makes liberal use of 1950s-era slang (like “lousy” and “swell”) and drops curse words (like “hell” and “damn”) frequently. Much as Holden is a self-described “exhibitionist” who shows off to impress other people, his use of slang and profanity draws attention to itself, suggesting he is trying to create an impression of himself as tough and rebellious. In addition to marking his desire to be seen as rebellious, Holden’s language also indicates his immaturity. Rather than using profanity for emphasis, or to express extreme emotion, Holden uses words like “goddamn” as verbal placeholders, examples of the intellectual laziness Mr. Spencer points out in their meeting. Like Holden, the other boys at Pency swear and use slang frequently, suggesting that Holden also may be “dumbing down” his speech to fit in with his peers. The more emotionally mature, independent characters in the book—such as Mr. Spencer, Mr. Antolini, Sally, Carl Luce, and even Phoebe—rarely rely on slang and frequently ask Holden to stop swearing.
Holden also tends to engage in hyperbole and generalization, both of which undermine his authority as a narrator and signify that he himself is unsure how to make sense of his life. Hyperbole is a form of overstatement that is not meant to be taken literally. An example of hyperbole appears on the novel’s first page, when Holden claims that his parents “would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them.” Holden also has a propensity for generalization. Throughout the novel, he makes an observation, then immediately generalizes from it. For example: “[Ackley] could hear me all right through the shower curtains, but he didn’t answer me right away. He was the kind of guy that hates to answer you right away.” Like his use of slang and profanity, Holden’s use of hyperbole and generalization make him seem immature. They suggest he doesn’t trust the reader to believe the simple facts of his story, and thinks he needs to exaggerate and embroider statements to make them more convincing.
Yet another characteristic of Holden’s voice is the pervasive use of filler phrases and qualifiers, which mimic the rhythms of speech, and also call attention to his trustworthiness as a narrator. Holden has many unique verbal tics, such as “sort of,” “I mean it,” “really,” “all that,” and “boy.” For instance, when Holden approaches his history teacher’s study, he says “His door was open, but I sort of knocked on it anyway, just to be polite and all.” The sentence has a spoken quality that feels true to the way a teenager might tell the story, and also conveys Holden’s ambivalence about seeing his teacher. The ambivalent, second-guessing style enforces the sense of Holden as an uncertain character who doesn’t know himself or his own desires. Later, he says, “All of a sudden, I decided what I’d really do, I’d get the hell out of Pencey—right that same night and all.” He is simultaneously ambivalent and impulsive, acting on his whims before thinking them through. His extreme self-consciousness and need to over-explain his thought processes underscore how troubled and confused Holden is. It also keeps us aware that he is crafting his story for a certain effect, with limited success.
Holden is not the only character in the novel with his own unique voice. All of the characters—from the pimp, Maurice, to Holden’s former classmate, Carl Luce—have particular ways of speaking. Characters from lower-class backgrounds, like Maurice and the cab driver, Horwitz, speak with heavy regional accents and have poor grammar. For example, Maurice says, “I awreddy got it, Sunny,” and Horwitz says, “The fish don’t go no place.” By contrast, characters with upper-class backgrounds similar to Holden typically speak in complete, sophisticated sentences and use few curse words or filler phrases. Holden considers these characters “phony.” Take, for example, when Mr. Antolini says, “So you and Pencey are no longer one.” Holden internally criticizes his former teacher for his speech: “He always said things that way. . . He sort of did it a little bit too much.” Holden’s narrative speech more closely resembles that of the uneducated characters than that of the more educated, “phony” ones. But when he is in a situation where he wants to appear sophisticated, he switches to a more elevated style, revealing his upper class background. Even though Holden associates phoniness with education and wealth, he actually has more in common with the “phonies” than the lower class characters.