Phoniness Was Holden's Downfall

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Phoniness was Holden’s Downfall

Holden Caulfield sees life and the entire world as a struggle between the artificial things and those that are authentic. His main pasttime is to detect phoniness in other people’s lives and to harshly critisize it, as well. And, although he loves the purity and innocence that childhood brings with it, and hates the artificiality of the adult world, he is, troughout the story of “The Catcher in the Rye“, gradually forced into it, due to his surroundings as well as himself. Sanford Pinsker described the book as beinga “mixture of bright talk and brittle manners, religious quest and nervous breakdown, [which] captured not only the perennial confusions of adolescence, but also the spiritual discomforts of an entire age.” His quest for phoniness is successful, yet the realisations it brings with it ultimately lead to his downfall.

To understand the novel’s setting and some of the character’s motifs, one must have an understanding of the time in which it is set, which is the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. After the 1930’s, the economy improved greatly. There came a huge financial influx with World War II, plus the financial programs of the new president Franklin D Roosevelt, helped the US finally get over the Great Depression. In the following years, the 1940’s and 1950’s, politics of the country became more conservative (which is the time-setting of the novel). During the years of America’s involvement in WWII, between 1941 and 1945, the average weekly earnings of an american had almost doubled. During this time, women also contributed to the economy, since they had to take over some of the jobs while the men were fighting overseas. This was an important step towards the emancipation of women. Other women returned to their position as a housewife when the troops came home, enabling enough jobs to be free for the men to return to. In early 1950 there was also the whole McCarthy fiaso for Americans to deal with. He was trying to prove that there were many known communists working in the Department of State and started a quest that was similar to the witch hunts in Salem. Since the communists now became scapegoats for everything, and most US citizens were on the lookout for communists among them, these years were called “the age of suspicion“. Many people were fired and even blacklisted, ruining their careers. Also, the GI Bill of Rights was developed. It was designed to give the men who had now returned how financial and educational backing. Suddenly many thousands of americans could attend college, though normally they wouldn’t have had the money to pay for it. Soon after, however, inflation took over. This could double prices in less than a month, making life for people with a fixed income hard, especially as it also affected rent and food, general necessitites.

Holden’s family, however, seem to have no financial problems: they live in an expensive New York City flat, and Holden’s father works as an attorney, though Holden does not seem to think highly of this position, since he says that all lawyers do is “make a lot of dough and play golf and play bridge and buy cars and drink Martinis and look like a hot-shot.” (pg. 151). One can see that Mr. Caulfields financial situation is quite good. Even in the very first chapter, Holden notices that the Spencer’s don’t have a maid, realizing they open the doors themselves, mentioning that: “They didn’t have too much dough“ (pg. 24). Also, Holden has switched private schools, with no mention of the money that this is costing, plus they have a maid that lives with them in their household. Hence, the reader hears the opinion of an upper-middle class boy.

Holden addresses the reader from a mental institute in California. The story is like one long flashback. He starts out at Pencey Prep, a private school in Pennsylvania. Holden has been expelled, and goes to say goodbye to his history teacher, Mr. Spencer, since he is told...
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