Holden’s Development: Assessing The Catcher in the Rye as a Bildungsroman

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Throughout J.D. Salinger’s 1951 novel The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield, our 17-year-old narrator is remembering a disturbing weekend from the previous year. His narrative takes the reader through his expulsion from his high school, Pencey Prep, his journey in New York, and his encounter with his sister, Phoebe. Considering J.D. Salinger characterization of Holden allows the reader to realize his moral and psychological growth changing him from childhood to adulthood which emphasises the novel as a bildungsroman.

The word Bildungsroman is a combination of the German word bildung that means education and roman means novel (Webster). Also, Bildungsroman is a novelistic genre that originated in Germany in the early 19th century during the German enlightenment (Webster ). The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines Bildungsroman as “a novel about the moral and psychological growth of the main character from childhood to adulthood.” It is usually known as a coming of age novel. The Catcher in the Rye is considered a bildungsroman because it is a novel dealing with a young boy who matures from childhood to adulthood.

Holden Caulfield is a teenage boy who is 6 feet 2 1/2 inches and skinny with a lot of grey hair. He has been expelled from Pencey Prep because he flunked four academic classes (Salinger 6). Although he is very sensitive, he typically is critical of everyone and everything in society because he considers them as phonies. Additionally, he loves to lie because he sees himself as a terrific liar and whenever he starts he cannot stop (19). Holden values family especially his brother Allie and sister Phoebe. His brother Allie died from cancer which caused a traumatic event in his life. He was very aggressive after his brother’s death; he even punched all the windows and slept in the garage ( 44 ). His weakness is that he cares more than he says he does and struggles to accept life changes.

Other than Holden’s characterization, he is eager to achieve goals. Holden’s target is to preserve and save his innocence because he fears change. Even if he cannot protect his innocence, his intention is to stop children from growing up. He wants children to stay children and for them not to fall in the phony adult world. He has the desire to stop at the moment of childhood and not to move on. In the History Museum, Holden said “The best thing in that museum was that everything always stayed… Nobody’d move… Nobody’d be different” (Salinger 135). He loved that museum because no matter what changed in his life, everything in the museum freezes and nothing changes. It is a safe spot for him to be and his goal is to keep all children in that safe spot without needing to move to adulthood. Most importantly, he wants to be the catcher in the rye where he catches children before the fall of the cliff which resembles them falling into the pit of adulthood (191).

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Holden is blind toward adulthood because he is not ready for it and does not understand it. He is confused between the difference in childhood and adulthood, so he does not know how to move to adulthood. He does not recognize that his dream to be the preventer of adulthood for children is unrealistic because he cannot stop a child from growing. In the Catcher in the Rye, Holden meets one of the traits of Bildungsroman because the goal is maturity and the protagonist achieves it gradually and with difficulty (Traits). Holden stays at a hotel in New York when he comes back but does not want to go back home to face his parents. He gets beaten up by a worker, Maurice, then wanders off in the streets (114-115 ). He is trying to communicate with people and have someone to talk to like the prostitute girl, Sunny.. He is reaching out for friendship and someone to comfort him because he does not understand or know the stage he is in. Holden is experiencing a moment of adolescent growth which is acquiring him to be confused and not able to consider that change he has to go through.

Ultimately, Holden realizes that he cannot stop children from change. During his time wandering off in New York and feeling extremely depressed, he had to come to some sort of conclusion. He has his moment of realization when he takes his sister to the park when she rides the carousel. While she is on the carousel, all the children are trying to rab for the ring. Then Holden says, “The thing with kids is, if they want to grab for the gold ring, you have to let them do it, and not say anything… but it’s bad if you say anything to them” which explains how he realized that he cannot be the catcher in the rye because no matter what you do, kids will eventually have to be adults (Salinger 232) . Another realization he has is that cannot preserve his own innocence because he will not stay a kid forever because the carousel is a symbol for the time moving and moving. After the realization that the carousel can be moving around from childhood to adulthood, Holden just feels extremely happy watching Phoebe going around and around (233).

Since Holden realizes he cannot stop adulthood, he has to have a moment of change. At first, Holden wants to be the catcher in the rye but in chapter 25, he says, “The thing with kids you have to let them do it (Salinger 232).” He will not be the catcher in the rye anymore because there is no way to stop adulthood. Another proof of his change is in chapter 1 and 26 compared to chapters 2 until 25. Holden, the sixteen-year old boy, was still acting like a child and told us everything that happened to him. Usually young kids say everything in their mind without any privacy. On the other hand, Holden as the seventeen-year old boy says, “ I could probably tell you what I did… but I don’t feel like it” expressing his change from being freely open to private about his life (234). His moment of change impacts him as a character by making him see the world and the people differently. He is not as critical anymore. He is not a character that does not even know himself but rather is starting to find out who he is. He is a character that had a conflict with adulthood, but is trying to cooperate with coming of age.

Critics argue that The Catcher in the Rye is not a bildungsroman because they question if Holden even did come of age or even matured. While it might be true that he did not fully mature, still all in all Holden significantly did change morally and psychologically. Some say that he was a critic of everything and everyone by only focusing on everyone’s negativity. An example would be his friends Ackley and Stradlater; he described everything that was bad about them because they are phonies. He completely changed at the end of the book when he said “ It’s funny. Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody” (Salinger 234). That is a big change even if some consider it a minor change. Holden did not like anyone and was so critical but at the end he actually was missing everyone. Another proof that he matured is that he returned home because when he was immature he wanted to run away and live in a cabin (218-219). His return back home is a trait of a bildungsroman that the protagonist returns back to the place he wanted so desperately to escape to achieve this maturity (Traits).When he was wandering in New York, he was trying to find his identity because he was lost. During that moment, he was immature because he did not know who Holden is but he changed because he is begging to know his self-identity. The protagonist often seeks to gain an identity of his own is another trait of a bildungsroman (Traits). Overall, The Catcher in the Rye is a bildungsroman because Holden did change even if it slowly happened. Plus The Catcher in the Rye meets a lot of the criterias of bildungsroman.

Finally, The catcher in the rye is a bildungsroman because Holden encounters changes, morally and psychologically, from him being the preventer of adulthood to him letting everything go around and around. He is different at age seventeen than he was in his flashback. Holden is much wiser and different when he is telling the story than Holden inside the story.


  1. Salinger, J. D. The Catcher in the Rye. Boston: Little, Brown, 1951. Print.
  2. “Bildungsroman.”Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/bildungsroman.
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