J. D. Salinger’s novel about alienated youth fighting against a sea of phony troubles and middle class ostentation captures the strong and memorable voice of Holden Caufield and his adolescent angst–a stunning example of how a first-person narrative ought to read. Holden’s voice is simultaneously irritating and powerful. It is not hard to see why many would be turned off by the narrative voice, which is dominated and siphoned through Holden’s distorted vision of the world.
In high school, I remember a lot of my peers identifying with Holden’s rebellious streak, but re-reading the work as an adult it is difficult to identify with Holden. Holden tells us about himself at the beginning of chapter 3, “I’m the most terrific liar you ever saw.” Holden manipulates the narrative and epitomizes the phrase “unreliable narrator.”
The novel also lack of traditional plot arc. The central conflict that holds the tension revolves around Holden Caulfield maneuvering through New York without his parents discovering him. He has left home early after being kicked out of Pencey Prep school for failing all his classes. This is the fourth school that has expelled Holden. The rest of the novel is structured around Holden’s mental disintegration as he travels in secret to New York. He spends most of this time reflecting on the past, especially about his brother Allie’s death, and searching for companionship in a world full of phonies. In New York he meets up with hookers, tourists, and old girlfriends in a futile attempt to emotionally connect with other people. With each page Holden falls deeper and deeper into madness and depression. However, there isn’t really so much a traditional plot as there is a strong internal struggle and conflict with the outside world.
Salinger’s novel lends itself to a Freudian reading. The pages are filled with Holden exploring adolescent sexuality and his own frustrated impotency. It is no coincidence that the entire narrative is framed with Holden telling the story to psychoanalyst in what is presumably a mental hospital. Holden’s mother has a minor role in the narrative, but Holden addresses his father even less, and unlike the mother, he never appears directly in the narrative. The first image Holden gives of his father occurs in the first page of the book:
“[M]y parents would have two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them. They’re quite touchy about anything like that, especially my father.”
I would suggest that although Holden talks about his father infrequently, the absent character is one of the keys to understanding the text. We find out later on from Phoebe, Holden’s little sister, that their father is a corporate lawyer. This is the exact kind of life that Holden disdains as phony; he reveals these clandestine feelings in a powerful scene where he loses his self-control on a date with an old girlfriend, Sally Hayes, and shares his true feelings about the lives they stand to inherit as part of their social class:
“You ought to go to a boys’ school sometime. Try it sometime . . . It’s full of phonies,and all you do is study so that you can learn enough to be smart enough to be able to buy a goddam Cadillac some day, and you have to keep making believe you give a damn if the football team loses, and all you do is talk about girls and liquor and sex all day, and everybody sticks together in these dirty little goddamn cliques.”
As the conversation progresses he continues to rave against such a life:
“And I’d be working in some office, making a lot of dough, and riding to work in cabs and Madison Avenue buses, and reading newspapers, and playing bridge all the time, and going to the movies and seeing a lot of stupid shorts and coming attractions and newsreels. Newsreels. Christ almighty.”
His father might not be mentioned in his words, but his presence is everywhere in the lifestyle described; Holden is rebelling against the corporate lawyer lifestyle of his father. This rebellion against materialism, conformity, and adult figures is what attracts so many young adults and countercultural types to Holden Caulfield as a character. But as I already hinted earlier this relies on the superficial understanding of Holden; there is more to his father’s character that eludes his point-of-view.
Mr. Antolini, the one teacher that Holden trusts tells us about a lunch he had with Holden’s father. He mentions that Holden’s father is extremely worried about Holden. In these few words, we see a deeper dimension to the father’s character that transcends the portrait of bourgeois money-loving lawyer; Holden’s image is replaced with a caring father worried about his son. The problem in identifying with Holden is not only that he is a terrific liar, but all the people he interprets as phonies have deeper dimensions to their characters that he himself fails to see. His point-of-view provides a distorted picture of them.
Through Holden’s eyes many of the characters take on allegorical dimensions. We have all met the arrogant handsome athletic Stradlaters. We have all the met the pimply graceless and unlikeable Ackleys. We have all met the artistic snobs like Sally Hayes dripping with affectation. Yet the mistake readers who identify with Holden make is not realizing that all of these characters have deeper personalities. Although they fit their respective types in superficial ways, each of these characters have more depth to their personality that the narrative hints, which Holden fails to notice.
For all his arrogance Stratlater clearly has an inferiority complex about his intelligence, which is why he freaks out when Holden calls him a moron. When Holden punches him Stratlater only pins Holden down as a defensive measure; Stratlater has no reason to react with violence. Holden cannot match him physically and that is where Stratlater as a star athlete possesses confidence, but Stratlater loses his temper the minute Holden mocks his intelligence. It is only when Holden verbally assaults him that Stratlater responds with violence. Even then, Stratlater shows what appears to be genuine remorse for hurting Holden, immediately abandoning his anger and trying to wipe up the blood he caused. There is a much deeper dimension than the stereotypical jock athlete. Sally, too, demonstrates she has deeper feelings in a scene where Holden insults her; she is more than just the girl who talks snobbishly about plays and about boys who flirt with her from Ivy League colleges. The mistake many readers make is to trust Holden’s own superficial judgements, which renders these characters as hypocritical phonies because Holden fails to recognize their deeper dimensions, their genuine flaws (rather than the flaw of their phoniness), and their humanity. Yet the biggest distortion of character comes not with people he dislikes, but with one he loves: Phoebe.
His little sister Phoebe represents for him the pure innocence of childhood. At least this is the portrait we get of Phoebe early in the novel when all we have is Holden’s interpretation of his sister. However, when we finally meet Phoebe we see that she has problems and concerns of her own, dealing with classmates, which bears certain similarities to Holden’s experiences with his own peers. The reader notices Phoebe handles her conflicts differently and more maturely than Holden. In fact, she has many of the same problems as Holden; after all, they have the same dead brother, the same lifestyle, the same family and social background, but Phoebe responds differently to these experiences. The Phoebe we meet is anything but the paragon of youthful innocence rather she is wise beyond her years and shows maturity for her age, even lying to her own mother at one point to protect Holden’s presence at home. Much of Phoebe’s dialogue makes her sound like an adult rather than a child. She is the counterpart of Holden; where Holden acts immature for his age, Phoebe acts beyond her years.
The distortion of perspective applies to women as well. Throughout the narrative Holden ponders the other sex in stereotypical ways, almost always defining women by their appearance and as sex objects. His curiosity about sex is punctuated by his fear of it. He hires a hooker to lose his virginity, but grows uncomfortable when she comes up to his room and strips naked. The loss of virginity is a common social symbol of maturity and transition into adulthood. In other words, his fear of sex is really his fear of growing up and change.
This brings us to the crux of the story. Holden’s central problem is his inability to mature, his obsession with the past, his fear of growing up. He demonstrates a dislike for change throughout the novel. When he returns to New York, he travels to a museum he often visited during his childhood. For a couple of paragraphs he recalls his old memories, but when he finally arrives at the museum he decides not to go in after all, preferring nostalgia to new experiences. He informs us that what he loves most about the museum is its predictability, the way the models are stuck forever static in time. He knows that when he goes back it will look exactly the same as the last time he visited. This theme of Holden’s ultimate fear of change is also expressed at the end with the symbolic imagery of his sister Phoebe riding around on the carousel in the park, a ride Holden mentions that he enjoyed during his own childhood. The image feeds Holden’s delusions about his sister’s childhood innocence, representing the frustration he feels at his own lost childhood and the brother who died during it. The ride expresses the way he would like life to be riding round and round in a circle going nowhere–static existence like the figures in the museum. The real reason Holden is trapped in the past is because of his brother Allie’s death. To move into the future is to accept his brother’s death, to stay static prevents it from ever reaching a true finality; he stays forever static in his childhood when the death occurred, but also when Allie was alive. In other words, Holden’s fear of adulthood is really his fear of moving on and getting over his brother’s death.
The only question that remains is does Holden mature and grow up by the end of the novel? This is an interesting point to consider and I suspect many readers will have different answers. The ending hints that Holden might grow up and join the adult world, but is noncommittal. Some suggest the fact that he is telling the story to a shrink implies a catharsis and maturity of character, a coming to terms with the events and reconnecting with the world, but at the same time he informs the reader that he doesn’t know what to make of all the events. It would seem he hasn’t learned anything. A reader could argue that Holden reconnects with people when he claims he misses Stratlater, Ackley, and even Maurice (the pimp) at the end, but we might also view this as him engaging in his favorite pastime of nostalgia where he endlessly relives the past, which is his problem in the first place.