Real and Fantastic World of Holden in Catcher in the Rye

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The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger, tells the story of Holden, a teenager who is searching for understanding in the world. After his expulsion from yet another boarding school, Holden runs to New York, where he spends the next few days. During his stay in the city, Holden constantly attempts to connect with others only to end in failure every time. Feeling lonely, Holden rejects reality, prefering to take refuge in his own perfect fantasy world. While Holden’s fantasy world changes throughout the novel, each form expresses a common set of ideals that Holden holds dear. Salinger’s usage of the real and Holden’s imaginary worlds demonstrates Holden’s desire to play the hero and his resistance to change.

In his fantasy world, Holden rejects his weakness and sets himself up as a strong hero. After Holden surprises Stradlater with a half nelson, Stradlater frees himself easily himself. Holden perceives himself as a frail person, saying that “I’m a very weak guy”(39). The fact that he considers himself as a “very weak guy” shows how Holden feels that he can’t protect anything and wants to get stronger. While someone who is decently strong would have been able to keep Stradlater in the half nelson, Holden was easily overpowered by him, which shows how weak Holden really is. After Sunny and Maurice return to demand Holden give them ten dollars, Holden puts up a struggle, refusing to give up the money. He calls Maurice a moron several times until “... he smacked me. … All I felt was this terrific punch in my stomach”(135). Despite being much weaker and smaller than Maurice, Holden tries to stand up to him only to be knocked down by one punch. By not trying “to get out of the way or duck”, Holden shows that he wants to show that he is strong and play the hero. Unfortunately, he is much weaker and when the punch lands, all he felt was a “terrible punch”, showing how much the punch hurt him. After Maurice and Sunny leave with their money, Holden imagines that “Old Maurice had plugged me. Now I was on the way to the bathroom to get a good shot of bourbon or something to steady my nerves and help me really go into action”(135-136). The imagery that Maurice had “plugged” Holden and that he was now going to “get a good shot of bourbon” creates the image of a tough person who is on the brink of death. While he had failed to get vengeance in reality, Holden is about to “go into action”, showing how he would have his revenge. While walking back to the hotel, Holden recalls that his gloves were stolen and tries to imagine what would have happened if he had caught the thief. He imagines that he “ … would’ve just stood for about five minutes … I’d just stand there, trying to look tough”(116). The imagery of Holden just standing there instead of taking a “sock” at the guy because he “wouldn’t have the guts to do it” creates the image of a cowardly person who is afraid of fighting back. By trying to “look tough”, Holden is attempting to seem extremely confident and brave while on the inside, he is neither of those things. While weak and cowardly in reality, in his fantasy, Holden is both strong and brave in his fantasy realm.

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Aside from wanting to be strong, Holden also resists change. Reality is constantly changing, something that Holden’s fantasy realm lacks. This desire for everything to remain the same is also shown when Holden talks about the Museum of Natural Science. While looking at the various displays, Holden states that the best part of the museum is that “Nobody’d be different. The only thing that would be different would be you”(158). The fact that Holden thinks that the best part of the museum is that “Nobody’d be different” shows how he feels that the lack of change is a good thing. For Holden, the museum has become a real fantasy world because of how little it has changed despite many years passing by. However, this perfect image is ruined by how Holden himself “would be different” every time he visited, emphasizing Holden’s love for a stable situation. Holden’s wish for everything to remain unchanging is also shown when Phoebe asks him what he wants to be. When Phoebe asks Holden what he wants to be when he grows up, Holden responds, “Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game … I’d just be the catcher in the rye” (224-225). By emphasizing that he would be the “catcher in the rye” and that “That’s all I’d do all day” shows how he wants things to stay the same. Instead of being a mentor and teaching the children lessons, Holden prefers them to just run around and play, emphasizing his desire for everything to remain unchanged. While Phoebe suggests being a lawyer or scientist, Holden prefers to be the “catcher in the rye”. Scientists seek to make major breakthroughs and change how humans perceive the world while a lawyer’s job is always shifting from one client to another. Compared to these jobs, Holden’s imaginary job of catching children is relatively stable and unchanging. The imagery of children “running and they don’t look where they’re going” creates the image of a group of carefree “little kids” who haven’t matured and hence haven’t changed yet. The fact that Holden wants to “catch” them if they start to “go over the cliff” demonstrates Holden’s desire to save these children who are still young and innocent and haven’t experienced much change in their mentality. Holden’s fantasy world offers him a place to escape to in order to avoid change.

Holden’s desire to be strong unchanging pushes him to live in his own fantasy worlds. When in a situation where he feels weak or sees change, Holden instantly takes refuge in his imaginary world, ignoring everything that is happening around him. Whether he is beaten or seeing changes in places he used to go to, Holden has again and again escaped into his perfect realm. In the face of hardships, one can always imagine a perfect situation to escape only to be painfully pulled back into reality.

Work Cited

  1. Salinger, J.D. The Catcher in the Rye.1951.New York: Little, Brown and Company. 2010.
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Real and Fantastic World of Holden in Catcher in the Rye. (2022, Jun 09). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 16, 2024, from
“Real and Fantastic World of Holden in Catcher in the Rye.” Edubirdie, 09 Jun. 2022,
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