Pre-AP English 2
Character Analysis: Holden Caulfield
Holden Caulfield, the main character in the famous novel “The Catcher in the Rye”, by J.D Salinger, is a strange character. Holden is a teenager, 16 years old to be exact, who is conflicted about moving on to adulthood, or growing up. Although in many ways physically mature enough to pass for an adult, Holden enjoys the innocent childlike pleasures he enjoys, and fights to hold on to his childhood for as long as possible. Holden Caulfield changes throughout this story from a child trying to stay young, to a young man ready to take on the challenges and trials that will inherently transform him into an adult who is ready and prepared to fulfill his duty in society.
Early in the book, Holden tells us he likes to lie. Sometimes it is for no reason, but other times I think he is trying to avoid conflict, or avoid a real good adult conversation. For example, early on in the book, Holden is having a conversation with his teacher, Mr. Spencer. “’Life is a game boy.’ … ‘Yes, sir. I know it is. I know it.’ Game my ass. Some game. If you get on the side where all the hot-shots are, then it’s a game, all right- I’ll admit that.” (pg. 8, Salinger) Mr. Spencer believes that life is a game, and also thinks that this is something Holden should know about, but Holden blows off Mr. Spencer’s statement by basically agreeing with it, even though he clearly does not agree that “life is a game”. The reason Holden is pretending to agree with Mr. Spencer is because he does not wish to have meaningful conversation, an activity some might deem adult.
The reason for this “phobia” of adulthood that Holden seems to have is that he believes that once you become an adult, you are phony and no longer innocent. For example, Holden believes that Ossenburger, a successful alumni of Pency, is phony because he likes to talk about “what a swell guy he was, what a hot shot and all” (pg. 16, Salinger). Although Ossenburger might have been a very successful man, it is his success that makes him unlikeable to Holden. Another example of a successful person who Holden doesn’t like is Ernie, a piano player at a club he manages. He doesn’t like Ernie because “he’s a terrific snob and he won’t hardly even talk to you unless you’re a big shot or a celebrity… I certainly like to hear him play” (pg. 80, Salinger). Once again, Holden believes that although Ernie is good at what he does, he thinks he is too good for anyone except people that are “big shots”. In both of these cases, Holden is jealous of these successful people’s talents or work, jealousy being a characteristic generally associated with being childlike. This is partly the reason he does not wish to fervently pursue anything important. If he feels that success makes people phony or unlikeable, then why would he want to be successful in an adult way? Instead, he believes that children’s successes are of much greater value, i.e. Jane during her childhood “’she wouldn’t move any of her kings… when she’d get a king, she wouldn’t move it. She’d just leave it in the back row.’” (pg. 32, Salinger) Although a very silly and childish accomplishment to admire from an adult point of view, Holden thinks it is worth the time to mention to Stradlater, his roommate, because Holden thinks that childlike accomplishments are much less “phony” and more enjoyable than adult successes.
Near the end of the novel, Holden learns an important lesson. After a long and arduous conversation with Phoebe, his sister, she asks him what he likes and what he would like to be. You see, the trouble with thinking that everything important is phony and stupid is that it motivates you to do absolutely nothing with your life. Holden thinks for a long time about what he likes, and all he can come up with is how much he likes conversation with Phoebe and “catching” people in the rye, a misread of a poem that actually says “if a body meet a body...
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