Catcher in the Rye


The World of Holden

By Robert P. Moore

Salinger's Holden Caulfield is surely one of the heroes of twentieth-century American literature, both from critical and popular points of view. This writer presents another analysis of Holden Caulfield and what have gone into his characterization. Mr. Moore is Chairman, Department of English, St. John's School, Houston, Texas.

The usual charge made against Salinger's CATCHER IN THE RYE, which may well be one of the most controversial books of our time, is that it is a dirty book. It includes four letter words that, some suppose, the adolescent in America is being introduced to four the first time. It includes dirty scenes in hotel rooms, and its includes permit and violent scenes in dormitory rooms.

Another charge is that, like ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN, it is a negative, subversive, and immoral book. Holden Caulfield rejects his school, and the school rejects him. Holden is without ambition, without creed, without purpose. Holden is a drifter, a wanderer, an adventure who seeks not adventure but smut and the negative satisfaction of a negative rebellion.

And, of course, in a very inaccurate and superficial sense, to the unseeing, unperceptive, and puritanicle eye, much of this is not without foundation. There is negation in the book, and there is dirt and crudeness subversion and immorality. But it is the world around Holden Caulfield that is negative. It is the world around Holden Caulfield that writes the dirty words on the walls, that does the crude things that make the sensitive cringe, that is immoral and duplicitous and vengeful. The world around Holden but never Holden himself.

The point central to the novel is that Holden in the innocent youth in a world of cruel and hypocritical adults. He is the twentieth-century, unromantic version of Melville's Billy Budd. He is the night-errant trying to make some sense, find some meaning, gain some understanding of a world at won't listen to him, a world that doesn't care, a world that segregates sixteen-year-old, separate and never, never equal, a blind, callous, fumbling, bumbling world that often reduces him to tears.

Holden's world is a world of people. Always. He himself is never alone. He hates being alone and he cannot live alone. If he find himself without anyone to whom he can talk, the heads for the nearest phone booth so the he'd can call someone up. People are important to him, whether they're sitting next to him on the train, driving him in a taxi, or sitting next to him in a Greenwich Village late spot. But the people the world, the vague, vast "they" people who constitute authority -- the adult world, that is -- are important to him, too. "People never notice anything," Holden laments. "People never give your message to anybody," he says. And, again, "People are always ruining things for you." This is the incomprehending world of the adult plotting, ceaselessly, to make life difficult and without joy.

But more important to Holden are those with whom he comes in contact. And most of these don't listen to Holden. They are twin to the people who never notice anything.

He dances with the blond in the Lavender Room and asks her question after question:

Q: "Did you ever hear of Marco and Miranda?"
A: "What?" she said. She wasn't even listening to me.

Q: "You know when a girl's a really a terrific dancer?"
A: "Wudga say?" She wasn't listening to me even.

Q: "Where you girls from?" I asked her again.
A: "What?" she said.

Q: "You're a very good conversationalist," I told her. "You know that?"
A: "What?"

Holden asks Horwitz, the cab driver, to share a drink with him. "He didn't even answer me, though. I guess he was still thinking.

He says something to old Spencer, his history teacher, and then discovered that "he wasn't even listening. He hardly ever listened to you when you said something."

He follows Stradlater into the bathroom and talks to him but finds that "Stradlater wasn't hardly listening. He was combiing his gorgeous locks."

The nuns he meets are polite, and they listen to him out of politeness, but this is not an easy conversation for Holden to take part in. For one thing, Holden is never rude or offensive. He may make a disparaging remark occasionally, but the remark has to do with, say, the person's age and is immediately canceled out not only by a remark such as "She was pretty nice, and the told her how I'd gone to the school, too, and my brothers," but also by the tone of the conversation itself. Which is one reason why Holden does lie and is himself so concerned about the fact that he does. Several times he lies to that he will not have to be rude. But with a nun Holden finds that "it was sort of embarrassing, in a way, to be talking about Romeo and Juliet with her. I mean that play gets pretty sexy in some parts, and she was in nun and all, but she asked me, so I discussed it with the her for while." Holden the Protector of Propriety, as always.

Mr. Antolini listens to Holden, and Holden thinks that he is a friend, a friend who foresees Holden's possible mental breakdown, who understands Holden's sensitive rejection of the adult world, and who tells him with truth and perception " that you're not the first person who was ever confused and frightend and even sickened by human behavior... Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now." But then, awakened, Holden discovers, in the book's greatest irony, that Mr. Antolini isn't what he seemed to be, either.

But not Phoebe. One critic has said that this relationship represents a muted incestial desire on the part of Holden, but I for one can't buy that. I think that she, like Sybill in "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," simply represents the innocent world of unspoiled youth that Holden and Seymour don't want to leave as opposed to the phony adult world of Muriel and most of those who hover around Holden.

Phoebe listens and that is good. "Old Phoebe didn't say anything, but she was listening. I could tell by the back of her neck that she was listening. She always listens when you tell her something. And the running part is she knows, half the time, what the hell you're talking about. She really does."

For it isn't really understanding that Holden is looking. He doesn't want anyone to solve his problems for him. He isn't seeking easy solutions but, rather, the therapy of having someone care enough about him to listen to him, genuinely and sincerely and with love -- and squalor, if you like. "I'm not too sure old Phoebe knew what the hell I was talking about. I mean she's only a little kid and all. But she was listening, at least. If somebody at least listens, it's not too bad."

But for every Phoebe there are a million Muriels and Stradlaters and Maurices. For every ten-year-old on a carousel ride there are a million who "cut their damn toenails or squeeze their pimples or something" or women who won't do charity work if they have to wear black clothes and no lipstick or headmasters who are "charming as hell" with the wealthy parents but who ignore the parents "who were corny-looking or something."

These are the actors and the actions that disgust Holden. The hypocrisy behind the football game that becomes so important that "you were supposed to commit suicide or something if old Pencey didn't win." The glib falseness behind such adult platitudes as "the game of life." "Some game," Holden says. "If you get on the side were all the hot-shots are, then it's a game all right. I'll admit that. But if you get on the other side, where there aren't any hot-shots, then what's a game about it? Nothing. No game." The emptiness of certain adult conventions: "I always saying 'Glad to 've met you' to somebody I'm not at all glad I met. If you want to stay alive, you have to say that stuff, though."

Holden's sensitive soul has been over-exposed to the harsh light of the adult world. And now he wants above all to protect Phoebe from that world. He can't beat the world or change it. He can run away because, like Nick Adams in "The Killers," he would merely find that evil someplace else. Like J. Alfred Prufrock he detests the women who "come and go, talking of Michelangelo." The depressed Prufrock, and they depress Holden. But unlike Seymour, neither so old nor so long exposed to this world, Holden will not commit suicide. He will try to protect Phoebe, and as hard as it is to watch her take her bumps when she reaches for the gold ring on the carousel, knowing that she may fall off, he lets her "grab for the gold ring, because you have to let them do it and not say anything."

And perhaps more than any other passage, the one about the dirty words on the wall of the old school building reveals this about Holden. He is making the effort. He rubs the dirty words off the walls, because he wants the world to be good and clean and pure for all the Phoebes of the world.

It drove me damn near crazy. I thought how Phoebe and all the other little kids would see it, and how they'd wonder what the hell it meant, and then finely some dirty kid would tell them -- all cock-eyed, naturally -- what it meant, and how they'd all think about it and maybe even worry about it for a couple of days. I kept wanting to kill whoever'd written it. I figured it was some perverty bum that'd sneaked in the school late at night and then wrote it on the wall. I kept picturing myself catching him at it, and how I'd smash his head on the stone steps till he was good and goddam dead and bloody. But I knew, too, I wouldn't have the guts to do it. I knew that. That made me even more depressed. I hardly ever had the guts to rub it off the wall with my hand, if you want to know the truth. I was afraid some teacher would catch me rubbing it off and would think I'd written it. But I rubbed it out anyway, finally.

But while the revolt against adult world maybe key to the book, Holden is not a negative character. Most of his actions are affirmative. Some of them appear negative because, like Huck in HUCKLEBERRY FINN and Finny in A SEPARATE PEACE, he often makes his own rules or, as Stradlater says to him: " No wonder you're flunking the hell out of here. You don't do one damn thing the way you're supposed to." Of course, Stradlater does. He, presumably, is one of those splendid, clear-thinking young men that Pencey prep has been molding since 1888. But Holden wants no part of that kind of splendidness, of that kind of clear-thinking, of that kind of character building, of that kind of prep school.

Holden's kind of clear-thinking is on the side, always of the underdog, the downtrodden, the young, standing out there on the edge of the cliff in the field of rye catching the little kids as they are about to fall off the edge into the abyss of adulthood.

Holden is kind of clear-thinking reacts against sex without love, against unclean personal habits, against any manner of rudeness. But it reacts for the persecuted James Castle and for the seemingly lonely nuns at the lunch counter and for the little kid who hums the title song and for, the ducks in the pond in Central Park.

Holden is drawn to the kind of person who finds pleasure while playing checkers not in winning the game but, instead, in keeping all her kings in the back row. And he likes D. B.'s short stories and Robert Pichener and Paul Campbell at school, and Robert Morrow's mother and the guards at the Museum of Natural History and Jane Gallagher and the hat check girl at the Wicker bar.

And Holden is a most compassionate person. Ring Lardner's story "There Are Smiles" "just about killed" him. When Allie died, he broke all the garage windows. He says that he didn't know why he did it, but the reader most certainly does. From Penn Station, much in need of the security of conversation and much in need of Phoebe, he won't call her up on the phone because it is after her bedtime and he doesn't want to disturb her. He puts his genuine leather Mark Cross suitcase under his bed so that he will not give an inferiority complex to his roommate who had one of those cheap ones that aren't even leather.

And when he sees to men unloading a Christmas tree from a truck, he gives the reader a glimpse of his intense religious feeling: " One guy kept saying to the other guy, 'Hold the sonuvabitch up! Hold it up, for Chrissake!' It certainly was a gorgeous way to talk about a Christmas tree."

To Holden A FAREWELL TO ARMS has to be a phony book, because it is about war, and war is wrong as violence is wrong as force is wrong as any crude, animal-like actions are wrong on the part of man.

He even feels sorry for Ackley "sinus, pimples, lousy teeth, halitosis, crumbly finger nails and all."

So tender-hearted, indeed, so much in the need of order, of beauty, of serenity that he can't throw a snowball at a car or even a hydrant because three inches of gentle and beautiful snow lies on top of it, God's mantle of order and beauty, so much in contrast to life in the boarding school dormitory. He doesn't want to spoil it, to mar it, to hurt it. And then absently he carries that snowball onto the bus, and the driver makes him throw away because, obviously, a kid with a snowball is intent upon harm.

Is that is, in a way, the story of Holden's life, then it is small wonder that the words depressed and sad and madman are sprinkled throughout the story to the point of saturation. Holden thought of himself as a sad and depressed madman. And a sad and depressed madman because he lived in a world that was full of phonies and fakes and hypocrites.

The novel is divided into three sharply defined parts: the first part when he is rejected by the school and when he, in turn, voices his rejection of the school, capping it with a final pronouncement: "Sleep tight, ya morons!" The second part is his flight from the school and his stay in midtown New York. The third is his reunion with Phoebe, the last best hope, that Sybill of "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," that Esme of "For Esme, with Love and Squalor," that Fat Lady out in Radioland of "Zooey."

In the first part he is able to reject and be rejected much on his own terms. He had been through this before; he may go through it again. He hates the lousy manners, the uunlistening teachers, the uncaring friends and he rejects them; he can, in turn, be rejected by the school own relatively even terms because he refuses to be molded into the likeness of a Pencey Prep billboard.

The second part finds Holden seeking acceptance. Now he wants the companionship, the friends, the conversation that he rejected at school. Once again he is rejected, but this time it hurts. And this is pathetic, because he doesn't really realize that he is being rejected or why. He has two drinks with former acquaintance Carl Luce, and he appears to be unaware of Luce's contemptuous and patronizing attitude toward him. He dances with an uninterested blond pickup and then sits at the table with her and her two girl friends, naively believing that they are really from Seattle, indignantly believing that they are going to bed early so that they can get up and see the first show at Radio City Music Hall, to youthfully obtuse to see what they were and what they thought of him, even after paying their almost $13.00 drink tab.

He is not on firm ground in midtown New York. At prep school he was a teenager among teenagers. In New York City he is a teenager against the world of sharpies and sophisticates and phonies and adults, and he has no place there, no right there, and never really realizes it.

It is when he begins to sober up in Central Park that the final section of the story begins. It's been a long and lousy night. Holden doesn't say so. He doesn't see it that way, but he feels it that way and this is no better illustrated than by the fact that his predominating thoughts are about Allie, his dead brother. He tells why he couldn't go out to see Allie's grave anymore.

In the first place, I certainly don't enjoy seeing him in that crazy cemetery. Surrounded by dead guys and tombstones and all. It wasn't too bad when the sun was out, but twice -- twice -- we were there when started to rain. It was awful. It rained on his lousy tombstone, and it rained on the grass on his stomach. It rained all over the place. All the visitors that were visiting the cemetery started running like hell over to their cars. That's what nearly drove me crazy. All the visitors could get in their cars and turn on their radios and all and then go someplace nice for dinner -- everybody except Allie. I couldn't stand it. I know it's only his body and all that's in the cemetery, and his soul's in heaven and all that crap, but I couldn't stand it anyway. I just wish he wasn't there. You didn't know him. If you'd known him, you'd know I mean. It's not too bad when the sun's out, but the sun only comes out when it feels like coming out.

Allie can't listen to Holden, but Phoebe can and will and does. There is no rejection here, no school authorities can touch him, no New York sharpies can use him or bully him. Here he has love as love should be. And here suddenly he is the authority, telling Phoebe to go home, tell her to shut up -- but being sorry immediately -- and then taking her to the zoo -- note the symbolism in that! -- and letting her grab for the gold ring, as he knows he must as a teacher and a guardian trying to protect her from all the dirty words written on the walls everywhere.

But long before Holden gets home to Phoebe, he buys something that became important to both them and their relationship. This is his red hunting hat which is to Holden what the blanket is to Linus. The hat is something that he wears when others aren't around, when he is walking to the train, sitting in Central Park, standing in the rain watching Phoebe, and writing, alone in his room, a composition for Stradlater.

It is a real hunting hat, and early in the story Holden says that it represents the only kind of hunting he could be interested in; the hat is not a deer hunting hat, but a "people shooting hat." Holden likes to look at the hat and to look at himself when he wears it. He is particularly fond of wearing it with the peak at the back; he "really got a bang out of that." And whenever he can during movements of duress, he has the hat on his head or in his hand. It is the first move that he makes after Stradlater clobbers him -- he puts the old red hunting hat on, peak at the back. He has it on when he leaves the school, and he wears it to the station and takes it off in the train. He wears it in the cab in New York, but he takes it off when he gets to the hotel, because he does a want look like a screwball or something.

He wears it on the way to his date with Sally, because "I wouldn't meet anybody that knew me and it was pretty damp out."

And he shows it to the hat check girl and she likes it, and that is the only time that anyone seems to like anything about him during his entire New York stay.

The hat is so valuable to him that he gives it Phoebe, and act that obviously reveals something about both hat and sister. But the hat is no great protector. He had worn in in Central Park and it hadn't kept little chunks of ice from forming of his wet hair. He gets back the hat as well as a kiss from Phoebe just before her second ride on the carousel. "My hunting hat really gave me quite a lot of protection (from the rain), but I got soaked anyway, I didn't care, though. I felt so damn happy all of the sudden." By then the hat had served its purpose. He had it when he had needed it. It has served as an aid in patching up his quarrel with Phoebe. And hat or no, he is going to stand there in the rain and he is going to watch and he is going to love Phoebe and he is going to get pneumonia.

Both Holden's "speaking voice" and the question of whom it is that Holden is talking to it is relevant to any discussion of the novel's essential value and Holden's puritanical nature. Holden's usage level is that of average high school student. It is not subnormal, it is not pretentious, and, aside from a liberal sprinkling of goddamn, it is not profane. He says: "I and Allie used to..." "While I was laying there..." "... where I was at." "...the guy on the horse's picture..." and "D.B. took Phoebe and I to see it."

Holders qualifying and intensifying words are, generally speaking, on the high school level: "quite touchy," "pretty personal," "pretty run-down," "next month, maybe," "very big deal," "pretty nice girl," "pretty dark," "pretty healthy."

Holden's expressions that indicate the indefiniteness of youths are meager in variety and consistent through the novel: "suicide or something," "we sort of struck a conversation," "applying myself and all," "no gloves or anything," "no sun out or anything," "their own room and all," "just be polite and all," "thinking and all."

Holden's exaggerations and extremes are typical of youth: "lousy childhood," "two hemorrhages apiece," "around two hundred miles an hour," "for about ten years," "for about ten days," "for the fiftieth time," "for about ten hours," "for about ninety years," "boring to do that every two minutes," "I practically got t.b.," "about a thousand magazines," D.B.'s bed is "about ten miles wide and ten miles long," " some lady around 100 years old."

The question of whom it is that Holden is talking to takes up a surprising number of pages in the critical journals. The general opinion is that he is talking to his psychoanalyst. Holden is telling, not writing the story. If he had written it there would have to have been, among other changes, many misspellings. He is talking to someone who cares about him, if not personally, then professionally. "If your really want to hear about it..." is a part of the first sentence. "That's all I'm going to tell you about" is a part of the last chapter. Does the listener have to be someone from his own background? Of course -- at least as to word choice and interest. Holden isn't going to tell his story to just anyone. It is apparent that his listener is somewhat like Holden in regard to a sensitivity about truly crude events. Holden several times tells his listener that he can't divulge the details; they're simply too much. So perhaps the person has to be someone quite like Phoebe -- as well as Holden himself. But of course he isn't telling the story to Phoebe because too much of it is about Phoebe. Nor is it D. B., because the book closes with the statement "D. B. asked me what I thought about all this stuff I just finished telling you about."

And, more pertinently, it isn't the analyst either, for in the last chapter Holden says, "A lot of people, especially this one psychoanalyst guy they have here, keeps asking me if I'm going to apply myself when I go back to school next September." Silly questions aside, this means that Holden is talking to someone in a hospital, but not a mental hospital as some critics have concluded, but in a hospital in which he is being treated for the pneumonia that it is so obvious he is going to have. He is not talking to the analyst simply because there is but one analyst around, and he is not talking with him at this time but only at those other times when the analyst asks him about his next year's schooling.

Holden's story is told to a friend, and that friend is, as often as not, the reader. But it is not the reader who is appalled by the first four-letter word that he comes across. It is not the reader who doesn't want youth to be like the youth that Holden is and sees. It is not the reader who has heard that the book is subversive and immoral. The reader I have in mind is the one takes Holden's side and sees with him the phoniness of the world around them, who sees Holden's dilemma, who sees Holden's sensitivity, who sympathizes with Holden's love and fear for Phoebe, who joins Holden in his reaction against the conditions that exist. This is the kind of reader, the kind of person Holden is talking to. They're a bit lost, the two of them, a bit bewildered, at bit at odds with the world of today and yesterday and tomorrow, and they both sympathize with and admire Holden's good fight.