Holden Caulfield’s monologue in The Catcher in the Rye is an examination of one boy’s struggle of entering into adulthood. He is a classic screw up with no goals, just as Stradlater, his roommate at Percey, states; “you don’t do one damn thing the way you’resupposed to” (Salinger 41). It is really Holden’s avoidance of having to grow up and his fears related to it. It is because of Holden’s fears the he becomes so full of despair and loneliness and is often nauseated by the world around him (Lunquist 38-9).
He continually puts himself into situations that only lead to his personal pain or revulsion, and then brood on them repetitively after. He could in some respects be defined as a masochist. Holden dwells in the past, obsessing over his dead brother Allie, and his former classmate at Elkton Hills, James Castle. He often goes places he should not be, or only going there to serve the purpose of depressing him. Holden though he has no true desire to talk to certain people, he often out of loneliness calls them anyway (42).
It is probably because of Holden’s masochistic tendencies, that his favorite story in the bible is about “Legion,” a “lunatic that lived in the tombs and kept cutting himself with stones,” as to described himself (Salinger). Like “Legion,” Holden possesses many demons, those of fate and death, emptiness and meaninglessness, guilt and condemnation, despair, and lastly the demon of jealously. Once again torturing himself Holden dwells in jealousy about what Stradlater and Jane Gallagher are doing on their date (Lunquist 42-3). After getting into a physical fight with Stradlater, he runs from reality and leaves school in the middle of the night.
Holden’s demonic possession continues when he is on the train on his way to New York. There he meets one of his now former classmate’s mother. Knowing that classes do not end until Wednesday, she inquires to why he is out earlier than the rest of the student body. It is then that he becomes what he hates most, a phony. Holden takes on a new personality, he informs the women that his going to have an operation on a brain tumor. He continues by telling the women how great her son is, though he truly feels that he was “the biggest bastard” (Salinger 54). Though he hates it, phoniness works for him, in a phony world. It is here that his actions seem more like those of a madman, who is losing more and more control of his actions (Lundquist 43).
It is Holden’s despair over obscenities that he sees all around him that send him into a self-destruction spiral, that in the end eventually lead to his redemption. To him, his dead brother Allie and his little sister Phoebe represent innocence. That childhood is a source of goodness in human life. Adulthood is the end of goodness the beginning of destruction and evil in one’s life (43-4).
Though Robert Burns poem goes, “if a body meet a body in the rye,” Holden believed that it was “if a body catch a body comin’ through the rye” (Salinger 173). It is thought to be Holden’s subconscious desire to rewrite the passage in order to change those things he feels are unacceptable. What Holden’s ultimate desire, is to be that catcher in rye, as he explains to Phoebe;
“I thought it was ‘If a body catch a body,’ I said. 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 at 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 mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have come out of somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d like to be. I know it’s crazy. (173)”
The cliff though is something everyone must go over, it represents ones “fall from the innocence of childhood into the obscenity of adulthood.” Holden is sixteen, he cannot remain a child, he can not continue to remain on the edge of the cliff and catch the children, he himself needs to fall into adulthood (Lundquist 45-6).
Holden’s former teacher from Elkton Hills, Mr. Antolini, tries to explain to him that if he is not careful he is in for a big fall. That this horrible fall will be hard to recover from because you just keep falling, looking for something in your world that will never be able to be supplied, and to Holden that’s innocence. Mr. Antolini then wrote a quotation down and gave it to Holden, hoping he realize he needs to take responsibility for his own life and enter into adulthood. The quotation stated;
Holden though sees himself as the catcher, risking his life to protect others from the “crazy cliff,” what he is really trying to do though is denying it by refusal and wishing to prevent others from growing up. He feels as if he is a “savior,” sacrificing himself to preserve what he feels to be good and innocent.
Holden goes to the museum to meet with Phoebe to say goodbye, while waiting for her though something happens. Holden, always interested in the ancient Egyptians’ secret of preservation, goes to the mummies’ tomb. It is this room, that from his childhood, that has never changed. On the wall though written in red crayon, a symbol of childhood, is an obscenity of adulthood, “Fuck you”(204). After seeing that, Holden feels that there is no place that you can go that is nice and peaceful. He is soon over come by a feeling of sickness and goes to the bathroom, where he passes out and falls to the ground. It is this fall that represents his fall from childhood into adulthood. He even says how lucky he was that he did not kill himself, he does not exactly understand why. Holden does say though that he feels better after falling, in other word he achieved a release.
We can see this change when Holden takes Phoebe to the park to ride the carousel. Though she wants him to ride with her he just sits and watches. Holden has come to a point where he has left the idea of being the catcher in the rye behind. It is proven when he comments on Phoebe trying to grab the golden rings:
“‘I was sort of afraid she’d fall off the goddam horse, but I didn’t say anything or do anything.’ The thing with kids is, if they want to grab for the gold ring, you have to let the do it, and not say anything. If they fall off, they fall off, but it’s bad if you say anything to them (211).”
At the end of the novel we see Holden go through a symbolic death and resurrection. Over the entire novel is a good study in the rites of passage of an American youth from adolescence into adulthood (Lundquist 61).
Lundquist, James. J. D. Salinger. Frederick Ungar Publishing Co. New York: 1979
Salinger, J. D. The Catcher in the Rye. Little, Brown & Co. Boston: 1951