April 24, 2016

The Dangers of Adulthood | The Catcher in the Rye

Disclaimer- These are just my thoughts on a classic novel. They are not intended as a study guide for an English test that you forgot to study for. I am by no means an expert in literature. I just enjoy reading and discussing classic novels. My opinions may vary from other people's, even yours. Please respect my opinions as I will respect yours. 

Also, this is a discussion of the entire novel, which includes the ending. Basically, there will be spoilers about everything. Read at your own risk.

The Catcher in the Rye is one of the most popular classics among youth. Many people can identify with the main character, Holden, and his struggles to find a place in the world while on the verge of adulthood. Catcher in the Rye is also one of the very first novels written in the teenage perspective, which contributes to its status as a classic.

Its lessons about adulthood, loneliness, and relationships truly transcend time. The teenagers of today can relate to Holden's struggle in the same ways and the teenagers that read the novel decades before.

The Basics  

-Written by J. D. Salinger (One of John Green's favorite authors)
-Set in New York City during the 1950's 
-Written in 1st person and narrated in a storytelling fashion by the main character
-Features an angsty teenage boy, Holden Caulfield, and his attempts to avoid the phoniness and lose of innonence that comes with adulthood
-Focuses on themes of loneliness, growing up, grief, and relationships
-is one of the first novels written from the teenage perspective

Holden Caulfield is not the best student. The novel opens up with him getting kicked out of Pencey, which is another boarding school that his parents shipped him off to. He starts the story alone, watching the football game that is going on. Then, he rushes off to see his history teacher, Mr. Spencer, who talks to him about his failing grades that caused his expulsion. He comments that Holden is a very capable student, and he just needs to apply himself more. 

After bitterly walking out of Mr. Spencer's house, Holden goes back to his dorm and runs into his neighbor, Ackley. Holden starts to complain about Ackley's poor hygiene and disgusting habits. Then, he talks to his roommate, Stradlater, who is going on a date with Holden's former friend, Jane. Holden is annoyed with Stradlater for being a "secret slob" and messing around with the friend he respects. This naturally turns into a fist fight. In the end, Holden decides to leave Pencey early and spend a couple of days in New York City before he has to tell his parents that he was expelled again. 

In New York City, Holden becomes increasingly lonely. He always thinks about calling everyone he knows, including Jane, but chickens out at the last second. He tries to seek companionship with many people, including a stripper, a prositute, celebrity-hunting women at a bar, old friends, and old girlfriends. None of these interactions turn out particularly well.

Holden ends up going back to his family's apartment in New York City to visit his innocent little sister, Phoebe. This is when the meaning of the title is finally explained, when Holden says he wants to be the "catcher in the rye" who prevents children from falling out of innocence and into adulthood. He explains his situation to her, including his intentions to pack up and leave New York in favor of a small city in the country where he will not have to face adulthood. She pleads with him to not go.

Holden then seeks safety at the house of his former English teacher, Mr. Antolini. Like Mr. Spencer, Mr. Antolini attempts to persuade Holden into giving genuine effort into his schoolwork and activities, or he is going to fall and it will not be pretty. Unlike the situation with Mr. Spencer, Holden actually somewhat listens to Mr. Antolini (at least as much as Holden ever did throughout the novel). But he leaves when he wakes up to find Mr. Antolini petting his head. This is followed by Holden freaking out and storming out of the apartment. 

Holden is convinced that he has to leave as soon as possible, so he contacts Phoebe to say goodbye. When he meets her to say goodbye, she comes with her own luggage, under the impression that she is going with him. Holden promptly refuses and actually makes a reasonable decision to tell her to stay in New York. This frustrates Phoebe, and is followed by a silent treatment. Holden coaxes her out of her silence by taking her to the zoo and letting her ride the carousel. 

The story ends as Holden realizes that leaving will not help him. He needed to get professional assistance, which ends up landing him in a mental hospital where he is narrating the story. 


The story takes place during the 1950's during the time of post World War II anxiety and booming popular culture. The story starts off at Pencey Preparatory School, which is one of the many boarding schools Holden has attended. 

It is revealed at the end of the novel that Holden is narrating this story from a mental hospital. 

Major Themes

The struggle of loneliness - The entire novel showcases Holden's desire for human connection and the consequences of isolation. The novel starts off highlighting Holden's loneliness when he is stuck watching the football game alone, on a distant hill instead of in the stadium. He is bitter because he left the fencing equipment for the team's match on a train, so they could not compete. This is one of the many instances that Holden finds himself alone after messing up. 

Holden's struggle of isolation is also emphasized by his relationship with his parents and brother. The whole reason that he fled to New York City is to isolate himself from his parents and to try to avoid the inevitable punishment and disappointment. His little brother, Allie, died before the course of the novel. This might be the stem of Holden's isolation. He is afraid to get close to anyone else since they might leave him and break his heart like Allie's death did. He tries to create superficial relationships throughout the novel in an attempt to get human contact with the commitment. For example, he tries to hire an prostitute, but as can be expected, that does not go well for Holden. He also tries this tactic by going out again with an old friend, Sally, who he supposedly hates. But he knows that if she rejects him it will not hurt since he never really liked her in the first place. 

Eventually, Holden realizes that isolation is the answer to his problems, mostly through Phoebe's interactions with him. When they are at the park in the end of the novel, Holden learns to appreciate Phoebe and her innocence, which leads to him seeking help. 

How hard it is to let go of grief - As I said before, Holden's self-isolation is mostly an effect of his lingering grief from Allie's death. Holden believed that Allie was the only one who truly understood him, and he was the epitome of innocence in Holden's eyes. So when he was ripped from Holden's life due to a premature death, he is not able to get over it. He turns to self-harm (like his broken hand) and isolation to "deal" with his grief. We all know that these are not the healthiest ways to deal with such strife. Unfortunately, instead of trying to fix the problem, his parents ship Holden off to several different boarding schools in hopes that time away will heal him. But without the support of his family, Holden seethes in his grief, and eventually, his isolation. 

Holden's grief accumulates throughout the novel, and reaches its apex when he starts talking to Allie in the middle of New York City. He is convinced that Allie is following him and giving him advice. In the end, Holden is unable to deal with his grief alone and seeks the help at home and at a mental institution. 

Fighting conformity- One of Holden's favorite words is "phony." He hates anyone who says that they are one thing, but they are really something else. One example is how he calls Stradlater a "secret slob." He claims that Stradlater tries to portray himself as a perfect gentleman with impeccable hygiene, but really he is a slob since he never cleans his bathroom things. 

He relates "phoniness" with growing up, since most adults are phonies. He dislikes hypocrites, copycats, and people who blindly follow the status quo. Holden does not just want to blend into the crowd and their lies. He wants to be an individual, which leads to the creation of his plan to escape the conformity of life by running away. He believes if he finds a small cabin in the middle of nowhere, he will be able to keep his innocence and individuality.

Growing up- The most important theme in The Catcher in the Rye is Holden's struggle against growing up. Almost all of the other themes are connected to this one. Holden is afraid of growing up and losing his innocence. In his eyes, when you lose your innocence, you just become part of the never-ending cycle of phoniness that is adulthood. He wants to avoid that at all costs, which includes running to New York City with a half-baked plan to move to the country alone. Holden cracks under the pressure of the future, especially since he has not been particularly strong in his studies. Throughout the novel, multiple people tell Holden to clean up his act or else his future is going to suck. Unfortunately, Holden focuses on the sucking part and not the improving your life part. Instead of trying to get better grades and working harder, he tries to escape the future. 

This theme is where the title, The Catcher in the Rye, comes from. Not only does Holden want to escape adulthood, but he also wants to prevent other children from growing as well. He claims that his dream job is to grab children before they dive off of the cliff of a wheat field into adulthood. 

Connect to YA books

The Catcher in the Rye was one of the first books written completely in a teenager's perspective. Most people consider it the start of the young adult genre. This novel put the struggles and triumphs of the teenage years on many people's minds. It brought awareness to the true feelings of teenagers. 

Countless YA books today reflect the same struggles that Holden faced. 

Here are some examples of books that relate to The Catcher in the Rye's themes about growing up, relationships with family, grief, and loneliness.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

The Outsideer by S. E. Hinton

Looking for Alaska by John Green 


“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 mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That's all I do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it's crazy, but that's the only thing I'd really like to be.” ― J.D. SalingerThe Catcher in the Rye
This is the quite where the title comes from.
“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn't happen much, though.” ― J.D. SalingerThe Catcher in the Rye
This is one of the most famous quotes from the novel. It is a quote from Holden from the beginning of the book. 
“The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one.” ― J.D. SalingerThe Catcher in the Rye
This is one of my personal favorite quotes from the novel. It is a quote from Mr. Antolini as he is trying to convince Holden to put some effort into his life and not just recklessly run away.

Have you ever read The Catcher in the Rye? If so, which theme stood out the most to you? Have you ever been afraid of growing up? Do you think that it is possible to escape growing up? Can you keep your innocence forever? What are your thoughts on The Catcher and the Rye? If you could give one piece of advice to Holden, what would it be?

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