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Holden Caulfield and Preserving Innocence in Catcher in the Rye

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In some literary works, unseen characters influence and move the narrative forward despite otherwise not serving as main characters. These characters might have been in the protagonist’s life before the book began, or they may have barely been mentioned, but they still have a profound impact on the story. For example, in The Catcher in the Rye, Allie was the brother of the main character, Holden Caulfield. Allie dies before the book begins, and the audience never meets the character. Even though Allie does not physically appear in the book, this does not mean that his impact is not profound. Allie represents Holden's desire to preserve innocence, an idealization which limits Holden's maturity.

Holden idealizes his brother Allie. He views him in the best possible light and remembers him with no flaws. When Holden is reflecting upon his brother in a memory, he says, “He was about fifty times as intelligent. He was terrifically intelligent. His teachers were always writing letters to my mother, telling her what a pleasure it was having a boy like Allie in their class. And they weren't just shooting the crap. They really meant it. But it wasn't just that he was the most intelligent member in the family” (21). This example of Holden idealizing his brother is particularly forceful. He sees him as a great student and intelligent, an area in which Holden struggles. Holden has dropped out of school multiple times, so the fact that Allie was so good at school could only exaggerate the effect of Allie’s flawlessness. A few sentences later, Holden explains, “He never got mad at anybody. People with red hair are supposed to get mad very easily, but Allie never did, and he had very red hair” (21). This is another way the reader can imagine Holden seeing the best in his brother. He sees him as special because he likes Holden and is not mean to him and never gets mad at him. Other children in Holden’s life are mean to him, like Stradlater, but Allie never was. Holden sees his brother as extraordinary in both intelligence and temperament.

Holden’s idealization of Allie has negative consequences for Holden’s maturity. Holden goes to the history museum that he went to as a child, and it represents his effort to preserve the past. While Holden is there he sees, “‘Fuck you’ on the wall. It drove me damn near crazy”(108). He then proceeds to try and clean it but fails. He also imagines an adult sneaking in to write it. This suggests that Holden is somewhat immature because he overreacts when he sees the “fuck you” on the wall. His impulse to fix the situation seems unusual for a museum visitor. A normal reaction would be to ignore it. However, Holden becomes infuriated and angry. He tries to rub it off but that does not work. He imagines that a creepy person or an adult would come in to write the sign, yet it is more likely that a kid rather than an adult wrote the graffiti. His thinking is simplistic because he thinks of adults as vulgar as opposed to his perfect brother Allie who never grew up. He is so infuriated when the museum, which represents his innocent childhood, is damaged. Holden's emotional overreaction in this case stems from his memory of his brother. Another example of Allie keeping Holden’s emotional focus in the past occurs when Holden wears Allie’s hat. When Holden is leaving his old school, Pencey, Holden remarks:

I was sort of crying. I don't know why. I put my red hunting hat on, and turned the peak around to the back, the way I liked it, and then I yelled at the top of my goddam voice, ‘Sleep tight, ya morons!’ I'll bet I woke up every bastard on the whole floor (29).

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He puts on the hat which represents Allie’s hair color. He gets comfort or “warmth” literally from the hat and figuratively from the hat representing Allie. This allows him to then be immature and yell at people at the school, calling them morons. The hat may provide him comfort, but it does not provide him with a real emotional bond with another person. It only deepens his emotional bond with his dead brother. This confirms he has to grow up more so he can move on from Allie. The people around him also confirm his immaturity. When he is talking to his friend “old Luce,” Luce states, 'Same old Caulfield. When are you going to grow up?”(77). Everyone is constantly asking when Holden will grow up because he acts immaturely throughout the book. Further in the conversation, Holden continues to annoy Old Luce by asking him questions about his sex life. Luce does not want to continue and replies, “Your mind is immature” (79). Holden not only reveals his immaturity through his actions but his friend recognizes it as well.

Holden’s idealization of immaturity also leads him to hold unrealistic expectations for adulthood. When asked to think about the future, a time when he should theoretically be more mature, Holden responds:

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'd do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all. (93)

The cliff represents adulthood and the kids falling off are falling into adulthood. Holden, who has not matured himself, wants to save children from going to adulthood and maturing. This is in part because Holden idealizes the past. Allie never fell off the cliff because he died so young, and he did not have the opportunity. So it is as if Allie was somehow saved, and Holden wants to save other children from growing up. This illustrates that he has not grown up and he cannot even envision a realistic adulthood. Holden’s desire to save others and preserve some sense of innocence results in him resisting adulthood and trying to delay his own development.

Allie, who never actually appears in the book, The Catcher in the Rye, has a disproportionate influence on the protagonist, his brother, Holden Caulfield, keeping him emotionally stunted. Holden idealizes his brother, and this fixation affects his development. He is often described as immature by other characters and wants to remain within the comforting memory of his brother. Holden not only does not want to grow up, he ideally would protect other people from maturing as well. His idealization of his brother Allie, who died too young, before he could mature, influences Holden throughout the book. This unseen character keeps Holden from growing up and reaching maturity.

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Holden Caulfield and Preserving Innocence in Catcher in the Rye. (2022, Jun 16). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 24, 2024, from
“Holden Caulfield and Preserving Innocence in Catcher in the Rye.” Edubirdie, 16 Jun. 2022,
Holden Caulfield and Preserving Innocence in Catcher in the Rye. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 24 Feb. 2024].
Holden Caulfield and Preserving Innocence in Catcher in the Rye [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Jun 16 [cited 2024 Feb 24]. Available from:
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