Many teenagers in high school go through a lot of very difficult times trying to figure out who they are and how to have a good life. Some of these young people find a good path, while others struggle much longer to do well. In his classic novel The Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger demonstrates how main character Holden Caulfield suffers through many challenges in trying to do well in his life, but seems to avoid confronting problems more than solving them. The author communicates his message by depicting how Holden’s desire to be the catcher in the rye symbolizes his character flaw in how he wants to hold on to his troubled past rather than face taking steps to improve his future.
Holden has many fears about his life, and does not know how to deal with the conflicts and changes that take place in the real world, avoiding facing these problems. For example, Holden likes to visit the Natural History museum because, no matter what else has changed in his life, this institution always stays the same, a place he looks to for stability. Salinger writes, “The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move. You could go there a hundred thousand times, and that Eskimo would still be just finished catching those two fish, the birds would still be on their way south, the deer would still be drinking out of that water hole… Nobody’d be different. ……I can’t explain what I mean. And even if I could, I’m not sure I’d feel like it.” (121) Holden loves the museum because nothing ever changes there. He prefers to spend time in a place where he doesn’t have to deal with the new developments in his life, as everything in the museum always remains the same, even the Eskimo, birds and deer never moving from their positions. Another example of how Holden avoids facing the fears and difficulties in his life is shown when his brother Allie dies and Holden continues to talking with him as if he hadn’t passed away. Holden describes, “Every time I’d get to the end of a block I’d make believe I was talking to my brother Allie. I’d say to him, ‘Allie, don’t let me disappear. Allie, don’t let me disappear. Allie, don’t let me disappear. Please, Allie.’ And then when I’d reach the other side of the street without disappearing, I’d thank him.” (198) This fantasy shows how Holden denies reality and is unable to deal with challenges, speaking to his dead brother as if he were alive begging him to not let Holden also die, possibly by being hit by a car when crossing the street. Holden’s inability to face life’s adversities, depicted in his love of the never-changing museum and conversations with his deceased brother, indicates that he feels separated from reality and prefers to live in the past or even create his own, more comfortable world.
Holden wanting to be the catcher in the rye reflects how he wants to help his younger sister Phoebe and also protect other children, although he does not seem able to help himself. When Holden visits Phoebe’s school, he notices a swear word written on a wall which made him want to defend the children from seeing this very bad graffiti. Holden says, “But while I was sitting down, I saw something that drove me crazy. Somebody’d written ‘Fuck you’ on the wall. 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 finally some dirty kid would tell them – all cockeyed, 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’s written it.” (201) Holden’s great anger tells the reader how strongly he cares about protecting his younger sister and other children from the negative aspects of life. In another incident, Holden tries to help children in a playground who are having trouble balancing on a seesaw. Holden explains, “I passed a playground and stopped and watched a couple of very tiny kids on the seesaw. One of them was sort of fat, and I put my hands on the skinny kid’s end, to sort of even the weight, but you can tell they don’t want me around, so I let them alone.” (122) Although the children did not want Holden’s help, his attempt to even out the weight shows that he cares about making their playtime happier. These two examples of how Holden watches over his younger sister and other children indicate how important it is to him to help make their lives better, even though he can’t do better in his own life.
Holden is in denial about his own troubled situation, and is too depressed to confront his bad choices or to find ways to improve his life. Frustrated by unsuccessful relationships with women, Holden hires a prostitute to get some experience. He says, “I was supposed to feel pretty sexy when someone gets up and pulls their dress over their head, but I didn’t. Sexy was the last thing I was feeling. I felt much more depressed than sexy.” (95) Even though he did pay for a woman to give him a fantasy he thought he wanted, Holden was too emotionally upset to even have this limited experience. He is also incapable of following some good advice about life he receives from a respected former teacher at a time when he needed help. The teacher tells Holden, “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.” (188) This guidance tells Holden that he should be more mature in his decisions and actions, and try to have a simple life. However, Holden is too emotionally unstable to accept advice about how to improve his life, leading him to try to live in his difficult past.
Salinger portrays Holden’s confused, troubled feelings in showing his character weakness in the inability to improve his life but that he would rather hang on to his difficult past. His love of the unchanging museum and conversations with his deceased brother reflects Holden’s need to live in the past. He is too depressed to be involved in experiences and can’t follow good advice. But he is very passionate about protecting his younger sister Phoebe and other children from the dangers of life. His desire to be the catcher in the rye, the story’s central symbol, exemplifies his dream to help people younger and more vulnerable than he is. Holden wants to save these children, but does not have the same feelings about saving himself. The readers of this book who can understand the pain that Holden feels about himself and his desire to help younger people might learn that helping others is very important but that we also must be able to help ourselves .