The Portrayal of the Main Character in the Catcher in the Rye

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The book “The Catcher in the Rye” follows Holden Caulfield as he faces the stage between childhood and adulthood. More specifically, the book describes the days after Holden gets kicked out of a prestigious boarding school (for the third time), and how he spends his days in the city before he tells his parents about getting kicked out. During his stay in the city, he faces many ordeals and is forced to evaluate his life and the shift into adulthood. Holden narrates his thoughts in a very disorderly way, jumping from one topic to another, which, along with the informal language the author uses, makes the book seem realistic and grounded. The tone of the book is quite peculiar in that sense, and it sets up an equally peculiar atmosphere, which could best be described as dark yet genuine. Holden himself is a complex character and describes the struggle many people have before becoming adults, as he's in constant confusion about where he wants to go in life and what he wants to achieve. He doesn't want to do regular, boring things, and seeks excitement and adventure, but at the same time he seeks security and stability, and it's quite difficult for those things to coexist in harmony.

In many ways, Holden is but a child. His childish tendencies are evident in almost every conversation he has in the book. For instance, in chapter four, when he is talking to his roommate Stradlater, Holden finds it hard to sit still, and starts tap dancing and fooling around, trying to get Stradlater’s attention. Unless he is the one speaking in a conversation, he doesn’t like concentrating on what the other speaker is trying to say. His conversations are more like monologues rather than discussions. He gets bored quite easily, especially when he’s not the center of attention, or the conversation isn’t “intelligent” enough for him, or he’s getting criticized. Even when Mr. Spencer and Mr. Antolini were giving him advice, he didn’t seem all that interested in what they had to say, or he “wasn’t in the mood”. Holden also has a knack of making his own version of rules that he’s faced with. When Stradlater asked Holden to write a composition for him, describing a room or a house, Holden instead started describing his deceased brother Allie’s baseball mitt. Later on, when Holden took the train to New York, he started to smoke on the car even though it wasn’t allowed, and he justified it by saying that he would get rid of it when he got yelled at, which is a very childish mindset to have. Holden’s immature behavior is accentuated by the imaginary scenarios he makes up in his head, such as him being shot and having to walk normally while hiding his wound, and him murdering Maurice while he himself was wounded, and him calling Jane to help clean his wounds… very movie-like scenes. It feels that he struggles with facing reality, so much so that he has to make up imaginary alternatives for any event that occurs. From his perspective, everything is phony, and everyone is a moron, and he’s the only normal person in the world. Most of his hatred, however, is directed towards adults. He doesn't like anyone that acts “phony” and he doesn’t like anyone that thinks differently than he does in general, which most of the adult characters in the book do. People that are obsessed with social status or movies or money are all phony, which is again, a very childish mindset. In hindsight, he really only likes Allie and Phoebe. He thought of them as pure, and innocent, and brilliant for their age. In chapter sixteen, Holden says “Certain things they should stay the way they are. You ought to be able to stick them in one of those big glass cases and just leave them alone. I know that's impossible, but it's too bad anyway.” By putting something on display at a museum, you are constantly being reminded of that thing, and no matter how its surroundings change, whatever is in the glass case stays the same. This shows Holden’s dislike of change, and how he wants to avoid adulthood at any costs. Holden wishes for everything to remain the same, and he longs for eternal childhood, because deep down he knows he has to one day move on from his past and become an adult, and he thinks that all the thoughts and sensations he felt throughout his life will all be forgotten.

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Even though he dislikes adults and their obsession with movies and money and social status, Holden still likes to pretend that he is an adult. Not just by smoking or drinking, but also through social interactions. He deepens his voice on the phone to sound manlier, he changes his name to sound cooler, he lies about insignificant details of his life to seem older, and he attempts to flirt and be suave all the time. Holden seems to have an obsession with intelligence as well. He doesn’t necessarily think that if you’re an adult you're intelligent, but he does associate intelligence with maturity (the idea that being intelligent makes you mature). What he often seeks throughout the book is “intelligent” conversations or “intelligent” interactions, that he can distract himself with, so that he won’t feel lonely. Which leads to him often calling someone, usually a girl, to go out for drinks or some other kind of date. Though, almost every woman he interacts with, he ends up hating. For instance, Sally Hayes, one of his past flings, accepted to go on a date with him. Holden then jumped to conclusions and continued to make Sally uncomfortable by making up a scenario in which they run away and get married and live happily ever after (a highly flawed plan). When she asked him to be rational and think about work and the money aspect of everything, he proceeded to get angry and insult her, leading her to cry, and him to realize that what he had said was insensitive and impolite. He apologizes, but he still continues to express his dislike of her and doesn’t understand why he would want to get married to someone he can barely tolerate. Actually, Holden doesn’t want to marry Sally, he just likes the idea of it. Living happily and romantically in isolation with his kind and obedient wife and their adorable children, homeschooling them and not having to worry about anything (including money). It's an adorably naïve way of thinking. Much like childhood friends promising each other that they’ll get married in the future. This theme of naïveness keeps on repeating itself throughout the book, by Holden having his dreamlike expectations greatly unmet, and others disagreeing with the way he thinks. We face this issue on another occasion, where Holden’s younger sister Phoebe asks him what he wants to do in life, and instead of a scientist or a lawyer, Holden tells her he wants to be a “catcher in the rye”. An absurd answer to a fairly rational question. The origin of the “occupation” itself is strange. “Comin’ Thro’ the Rye” is a poem written by Robert Burns describing how two lovers meet in a rye field. Holden hears a child incorrectly reciting the poem, instead of “if a body meet a body”, the child says “if a body catch a body”, leading Holden to make up another scenario about how a group of children would be playing in a rye field and how they wouldn’t be paying attention and how right before they fell off a cliff he would catch them. It’s a strange misinterpretation but it serves as a metaphor for the whole book. Holden himself is trying to stay on the field without falling off the cliff. The rye field, in this case, is youth and childhood, and the cliff is maturity and adulthood, or more specifically, the raging waters below the cliff are maturity and adulthood.

It’s true that Holden wants to remain young forever, but why is he so scared to move on to adulthood? The answer seems so simple, yet it’s much more labyrinthine than it seems. Holden is scared to move on from his childhood because his childhood was the highlight of his life, the time when he was the happiest, and he’s scared that if he lets go of what made him happy, he will never feel happiness again, which ends up having a reverse effect. On the surface, he seems like the average struggling teenager: confused, disliking anything and everything, running away from situations, trying to seem more mature. But, when you look at it from a more profound perspective, you start to see that all the details add up to a much greater picture. At the age of thirteen, Holden lost his brother whom he was very close to, and whom he thought of as a real-life angel. He found it hard to detach himself from Allie, so he ultimately decided not to, and held on to every piece of his childhood as tight as he could, so that he would always have Allie and he would always have his happiness. By trying to hold on to Allie and his happiness, he started to neglect what was really going on in his life, Holden was stuck in a child-like mindset, which explains a lot of his behavior patterns. Kids often have a tendency of not being able to differentiate their imaginary world from the real world, and Holden seems to be dealing with the same thing. He faced a traumatizing event in his life, and no one gave him the support he needed to move on from that event. Instead, they sent him to a boarding school and forced him to study for a life he didn’t want. In chapter 25, Holden kept on repeating 'Allie, don't let me disappear.”. This quote itself holds a lot of symbolism. We know that Holden isn’t good at handling death, and in this case “disappearing” could mean death. He’s begging his brother to make him stay alive. Much like a child would, he replaces a word he doesn’t like with a lighter one. He could also be asking Allie to not let his child self die. The only thing Holden thinks is connecting him and Allie is his childhood memories with Allie, and we know that Holden likes the idea of preserving things, so he could be asking Allie to stay forever with him, and that means not allowing Holden to become an adult. Holden’s relationship with his sister is another essential factor in the book. Holden has sort of an obsession with keeping her pure, and innocent, and pretty, which is quite strange, but considering he’s quite an unhinged individual it gradually becomes a little more understandable. The reason he has this weird obsession with Phoebe is that he misses the stage of his life that she’s going through, and he loves the idea of childhood, so talking to Phoebe and hanging out with her allows him to maintain his mental youth. However, Phoebe is a much more significant character than just the symbol of childhood. She helps Holden realize his immature ways by threatening to follow him when he runs away, and she helps him realize that he needs to grow up.

The most character development we get from Holden is when he takes Phoebe to the carousel and watches as she goes around and around in her blue coat, and he starts crying. He doesn’t fully understand why he’s crying, all he knows is that they’re happy tears. That is the book’s climax. That’s the one time in the whole book where he is happy in the present. That’s when everything starts to sort of click in his head, and he decides that he can be happy all the while moving on from his childhood. Even if he doesn’t know if he wants to be a scientist or a lawyer, he begins to understand the concept of making newer, happier memories, and slowly starting to accept the big shift. A year later, we get a peek at his new life, after everything had progressed. He has almost nothing figured out, his personality hasn’t changed much either, he still says that he’s not in the mood to talk about everything, but that’s how life is. That’s how the book maintains the realistic tone throughout, and it allows you to identify with Holden’s character more. Throughout the book, we get a peek at Holden’s childish and naïve thoughts as he tries to navigate the adult world. Holden’s brain is like a Rubik's cube, but only if each cube inside of the Rubik’s cube was it’s own Rubik’s cube, and so on. He isn’t all that rebellious, he’s just a kid trying to remain innocent in a tainted world, and desperately trying to stay on the rye field at a safe distance away from the cliff. He is between the stage of childhood and adulthood, and he doesn’t want to move forward. Through metaphors and symbolism used in the book, we see just how intricate the stage in between childhood and adulthood is, and how we all sometimes yearn to be inside of the glass case.

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The Portrayal of the Main Character in the Catcher in the Rye. (2022, Jun 29). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 26, 2024, from
“The Portrayal of the Main Character in the Catcher in the Rye.” Edubirdie, 29 Jun. 2022,
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