Who is Holden Caulfield?
Many adolescents struggle with finding who they are and how they fit into this world.
According to Lewis Judd's “The Normal Psychological Development of the American Adolescent,”
adolescents develop a sense of self-concept through the means of experimentation, daydreams, and in
actual or physical activities. Holden Caulfield, in The Catcher in the Rye, is one such example.
Troubled by the early death of his brother, Allie, and with no one to guide him through adolescence, he
finds himself lost. Holden struggles the most with his sense of identity, which is displayed through his
interactions with peers and strangers, his thoughts about himself, and his contradictions.
Holden often plays around with his identity while around other people. The article states that,
“Young people cannot be expected to know automatically what kind of person they want to be as
adults, without being able to experimentally function in a number of personality and vocational roles”
(Judd, 467). Holden expresses his experimentations verbally, switching in and out of different
personalities. He does not like to give his real name to strangers, but instead makes one up. He goes by
the alias Rudolph Schmidt when he speaks to a classmate's mother on the train and then becomes Jim
Steele in the Lavender Room and when he is with Sunny, a prostitute Holden hires to keep him
company. He also likes to change his identity around peers. While he and Ackley are in the room, and
everyone else is down at the football game, Holden does an act. “What I did was, I pulled the old peak
of my hunting hat around to the front, then pulled it way down over my eyes. That way, I couldn't see a
goddam thing. 'I think I'm going blind,' I said in this very hoarse voice. 'Mother darling, everything's
getting so dark in here.' … 'Mother darling, why won't you give me your hand?' I was only horsing
around, naturally” (Salinger, 21-22). Although Holden says that he only does these things because
he is bored, or “just for the hell of it,” but his actions give insight to his thoughts and feelings. When
Allie dies, Holden reacts violently and breaks all the windows in the garage. This is the darkness that enters his life. His parents want to get him psychoanalyzed, which shows that they care, yet Holden
feels as if his parents do not notice him and do not care about him. Pretending to be blind and helpless
and calling out for help symbolizes Holden's need to be shown affection from his parents, which he
felt he has never received. Because of this, Holden does not have an adult figure to help him get
How Holden views himself and what he wants to be changes with the situation. The article
states that, “Day-dreaming is a pleasant, popular pastime and during adolescence it is purposeful in
that it brings relief from outside pressures and allows for the mental rehearsal of the present and future
roles the adolescent may play” (Judd, 468). In one instance, Holden recalls losing his gloves and
imagines himself not being such a yellow, or cowardly, guy. In his fantasy, he would call out the
person who stole them and sock the guy, but in reality, he doesn't have the guts, the strength, or care to
do it. Many of his daydreams are unrealistic. When Phoebe asks him wants to do as a job, Holden
responds by saying, “Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field
of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody's around-nobody big, I mean-except me. And I'm
standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to
go over the cliff ... I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That's all I'd do all day. I'd just
be the catcher in the rye. I know it's crazy, but that's the only thing I'd really like to be” (Salinger, 173).
Although daydreaming is normal, Holden gets caught up in it and does not realize how implausible
they are. This shows that his mind is in a dream world because the reality is that being the catcher in
the rye is not a real job; it is only a metaphor. Additionally, if the top of the cliff represents childhood
and the fall represents the journey into and through adolescence, he would not be able to stop it, no
matter how much he would like to. Children must grow up, yet that is something that Holden
stubbornly refuses to accept. His desire to be the catcher in the rye inhibits the reality of having to go
to school and having to get an actual job, which causes conflict when Holden does not try and
constantly gets kicked out of school.
In many parts of the novel, Holden contradicts himself. The article views this, too, as a normal
thing, stating that, “It [experimentation] is this process that accounts for such behavioral
inconsistencies ... changing from mature actions to frustratingly childish ones ... much of this behavior
is carried on with bewildering speed and without the adolescent's being aware of any contradiction, for
it is being done with feeling, passion, and purpose” (Judd, 468). He constantly says he hates liars and
phonies, yet he calls himself a terrific liar and feels no remorse when he lies. He calls himself a
pacifist, yet just prior to that he had tried to sock Stradlater, his roommate, for going out with Jane, a
childhood friend of Holden. In many ways, Holden is a hypocrite and a phony, yet he is also just a
confused teenager that doesn't know how he should act. He claims to be an atheist, yet he seems to be
very interested in religion. After his fight with Stradlater, he asks Ackley about his religion. “'Listen.
What's the routine on joining a monastery?' I asked him. I was sort of toying with the idea of joining
one. 'Do you have to be Catholic and all?' … 'I'm not gonna join one anyway. The kind of luck I have,
I'd probably join one with all the wrong kind of monks in it. All stupid bastards. Or just bastards'”
(Salinger, 50). Then, after Sunny leaves, he starts thinking about religion again. “I felt like praying or
something, when I was in bed, but I couldn't do it. I can't always pray when I feel like it. In the first
place, I'm sort of an atheist” (Salinger, 99). He is especially conflicted with religion, which is deeply
tied to the identity of a person, according to Erin Wilson's article, “Religion and Identity - As much
bad as good?.” The article states that, “It is this search that gives religion its ability to deeply impact
our identity: religion offers answers to our most difficult questions. It has the power to give us a sense
of purpose that extends beyond ourselves” (Wilson). Religion is something that is an important part of
an individual, but Holden's uncertainty on the subject only creates more confusion while he is on his
journey to find his identity. Holden seems to want to belong to a religion, to feel a sense of belonging
and for someone to understand him. However, he is also reluctant, shown when he decides to forget
about joining a monastery for fear of getting the “wrong” one. This demonstrates how scared he is,
because he is afraid to try and believes that something will go wrong. However, if he is not not willing to put himself out there, he will not get anywhere.
Holden's struggles with identity are a normal part of the process of getting through adolescence,
and his changes in personalities, names, and thoughts reflect his constant building of identity. In order
to find his identity, Holden should continue experimentation in a way that dos not harm anyone.
However, he needs to realize that he must work harder in school, as he nears the end of adolescence he
will need to find a job that actually pays so that he can support himself financially. Readers can learn
from Holden that experimentation with identity is a normal part of maturing into an adult, and that
there may be many problems along the way.
Judd, Lewis. “The Normal Psychological Development of the American Adolescent.” California Medicine. (1967): 465-470. Print.
Salinger, J.D. The Catcher in the Rye. New York: Bantam Books, 1951. Print.
Wilson , Erin. "Religion and Identity - As much bad as good?." Pulse-Berlin. N.p.. Web. 15 Oct 2012. <http://www.pulse-berlin.com/index.php?id=28>.