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Holden Caulfield Character Analysis

Powerful Essays
Christian Wilson
Mrs. Cooper
Pre-AP English 2
2/1/15
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 comin through the rye” (pg. 173, Salinger). Holden wants to save children’s innocence and keep them children, because adulthood is phony and bad, but Holden also realizes that this too is an impossible and childish goal when he walks into the school and finds the F-bomb scratched into the wall there. After finding this and being unable to wash it off, Holden realizes that “if you had a million years to do it in, you couldn’t rub out even half the ‘F you’ signs in the world.” (pg. 202, Salinger). This moment in the book is very significant in terms of analyzing Holden. First, it shows that he finally has realized that there is no way to stop children from entering adulthood and thus losing their innocence. Phoebe tells him to shut up later, on page 208, which further convinces him that not even his own sister can be completely safe from the world, because Holden has an effect on her. This shows that Holden finally realizes that he himself has to grow up. After 207 pages of being a child in an adult body, he discovers that not even he can stay pure and childlike forever, no matter how hard he tries. He has already smoked too many cigarettes, cussed too many times, necked with too many girls, and finally, pretended to be an adult so often that he himself has become one. Stephen Baldwin writes an interesting remark about Holden. “He wants time itself to stop. He wants beautiful moments to last forever, using as his model the displays in glass at the Museum of Natural History, in which the same people are shown doing the same things year after year.” (Baldwin). Although stopping time is impossible, Holden wants to keep everything the same and act like everything will stay the way it has. Museums change, children change, society changes, school changes, but most importantly, Holden realizes that he also changes, and has changed for a long time. In the end of the book, Holden tells us that he plans to apply himself in school, at least he thinks he does. “I mean how do you know what you’re going to do till you do it? The answer is, you don’t. I think I am, but how do I know?” (pg. 213, Salinger). Although Holden believes he will apply himself, he isn’t going to tell us that he is planning on it. Just that when the time comes to be an adult, he thinks he’ll be ready to be successful, which is all he can really know at this point, because maybe by the fall he’ll have changed again, and he’ll think application is “phony”. Holden’s story isn’t a story about childhood lasting forever, or about a boy’s dream to keep children innocent forever, but it’s a tale of the angst inspired transformation of a boy who becomes a man, a boy obsessed with his past who overcomes his history to finally realize that he needs to be the man he was meant to be, focused not in the past, not in the future, but focused entirely in the present, because that’s all he can control.

Works Cited
Salinger, J.D. The Catcher in the Rye. New York: Little, Brown, 1951. Print.
Baldwin, Stephen P. CliffsNotes on The Catcher in the Rye. 02 Feb 2015
</literature/c/the-catcher-in-the-rye/the-catcher-in-the-rye-at-a-glance>.

Cited: Salinger, J.D. The Catcher in the Rye. New York: Little, Brown, 1951. Print. Baldwin, Stephen P. CliffsNotes on The Catcher in the Rye. 02 Feb 2015 </literature/c/the-catcher-in-the-rye/the-catcher-in-the-rye-at-a-glance>.

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