The protagonist of J.D. Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye", Holden Caulfield, has become one of the most iconic characters in American Literature. Part of Holden Caulfield's appeal is the way in which he has come to encapsulate and represent the fears, frustrations and thwarted ideals that mark the transition from childhood, through adolescence to adulthood.
Holden narrates the story as a seventeen year old looking back upon events which occurred when he was sixteen. It is apparent that Holden is currently in a psychiatric hospital however he does not seem to have any recognisable condition as opposed to more generally had a breakdown.
Holden begins his story from the day he left the elite private school, Pencey, having been expelled for achieving poor grades and failing to apply himself. He has bought a distinctive red hunting hat in New York. This hat acquires a symbolism throughout the story particularly at the end where the hat passes between Holden and his sister. Pencey is the third school we know of that Holden has left. Holden tells his teacher, Mr. Spencer, that he left the school Elkton Hills by choice because the shallowness he saw there depressed him.
Holden later tells his ten year old sister, Phoebe, about a classmate at Elkton Hills called James Castle who was set upon by a group of older boys who tried to bully him into retracting an offensive remark he had made about one of them. Rather than take the remark back James jumped out of a window and was killed, he was wearing a sweater borrowed from Holden at the time. It is more likely that this traumatic event prompted Holden to choose to leave the school rather than anything more trivial and this is one of the main indications that Holden is an unreliable narrator. Mr. Spencer, attempts to make Holden aware of the seriousness of his situation but he only succeeds in making Holden feel uncomfortable and melancholy. After talking to Mr. Spencer Holden goes to his dormitory room which he shares with a boy called Ward Stradlater and is next door to a room occupied by Robert Ackley. Holden's interactions with these two boys demonstrate how Holden criticises others for things which he does himself.
As the story progresses Holden occasionally acknowledges his own irritating or "phony" behaviour. Holden feels that the things which upset him are confined solely to the adult world and so he feels that the process of growing up is turning him into something which he despises. Stradlater has a date with Holden's childhood sweetheart, Jane Gallagher. Although Holden wants to see Jane and has fond memories of the time they spent together he backs out of going and saying hello to her.
Holden reveals that he had a younger brother Allie who was two years younger than him who died of leukaemia when Holden was thirteen. Holden was extremely traumatised by the death of his brother, on the night Allie died Holden says that he slept in the garage and smashed all the garage windows with his fist, breaking and permanently damaging his hand.
Later that night when Stradlater returns from his date Holden demands to know if he has slept with Jane. When Stradlater evades the question Holden flies into a rage and attacks him but Stradlater easily fights him off and gives Holden a bloody nose. Holden decides to leave Pencey early and stay in a hotel for a few days until he goes home. Despite Holden's indignation at Stradlater's date with Jane he admits that he is very interested in sex. From his hotel room window Holden sees a man in an opposite room dressing himself in women's clothing and in a room above Holden sees a couple spitting drinks into each other's faces. Holden refers to these people as perverts and says that he finds the behaviour distasteful and yet, he confesses, arousing. Holden has an idealised conception of relationships and this clashes not just with the world around him but with himself.
The elevator attendant offers to arrange for a prostitute to come to Holden's room. Holden agrees and he is keen to acquire some experience. When the girl arrives Holden loses his nerve and tries to initiate a conversation with her, eventually he makes an excuse not to sleep with her and
she leaves. The girl returns with the elevator attendant to demand more money and Holden is punched in the stomach during the altercation. Holden feels very depressed and starts to talk to his dead brother Allie, he says he often does this when he feels low.
The next day Holden calls a girl called Sally Hayes and they go on a date. Holden asks Sally to run away with him and ultimately marry him, Sally refuses and Holden insults her before leaving. He claims that he didn't want to go anywhere with Sally anyway but that he was sincere when he asked her. Holden calls a teacher from Elkton hills called Mr. Antolini and goes to spend the night at his home.
Mr. Antolini tells Holden that he thinks he is riding for a terrible, terrible fall and tries to persuade him that if he pursued his studies he would get past the irritations he feels for teachers and fellow pupils when he reaches the knowledge that really inspires him. Mr. Antolini tells Holden that many people have experienced the despair that he feels and that one day Holden might write an account of his thoughts and experiences. Holden falls asleep and wakes up to find Mr. Antolini stroking his head, Holden assumes that the gesture is sexually motivated and hurriedly leaves the house. Whilst Mr. Antolini was over stepping a boundary it is more likely that he was merely being overly affectionate on account of having consumed a lot of alcohol.
Later Holden reconsiders his rash assumption about Mr. Antolini and feels guilty for taking off from his house. Holden sends a note to Phoebe to tell her to meet him before he hitch hikes out West. Phoebe meets Holden wearing his red hunting hat and dragging a suitcase, she is so determined to go with him that Holden agrees to go home instead of leaving. At the end of the book Holden says that he doesn't know if he will be able to pursue his studies and apply himself, it is unclear whether Holden will sink into another cycle of negative thoughts and actions after he leaves the hospital.
by stefanina hills, published at www.associatedcontent.com
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