In Catcher in the Rye, Salinger creates a unique character of Holden Caulfield, a young and ambitious man, who tries to understand the world around him and search for the truth of life. Critics (Gwynn and Blotner 37) admit that Salinger’s depiction of Holden Caulfield symbolizes the dilemma of the idealist in the contemporary world and shows the primary structural framework of a novel. Thesis Holden Caulfield portrays a prophet searching for a meaning of life and trying to predict and facedown evil and social discrepancies.
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Holden is depicted as a prophet who idealizes the world around him and reality.
Maurice symbolizes the negative features of Holden’s ideal and the fact that Holden rejects it. He is portrayed as a contrasting character of the personality that Holden appraises. Using many minor characters Salinger creates the character of his “hero” and a prophet. Following Wissen (92) “it is largely this technique that makes Holden the extraordinarily “round” character that he is”. Readers view Holden not from the first person point of view, but also in a series of self-portraits. It reinforces the structural pattern of the novel in that it allows Holden to sort out the true from the false images of himself through confrontation with them. He thinks he admires James Castle, for instance, but he cannot act like him (Bereska 157).
He comes to the final stages of his quest by discovering whom he can and cannot act like, and the person he most acts like at the end is Mr. Spencer. Holden uses the term “boy,” nods his head, repeats himself, and is often sarcastic. While he criticizes Mr. Spencer for his false laughing at the headmaster’s jokes, one of the most obvious things about Holden’s behavior is that he is conventional. Though he hates saying “Glad to’ve met you” to someone he is not glad to have met, he is constantly doing so. As he is depicted in the novel, “If you want to stay alive, you have to say that stuff, though” (Salinger 34). Not only does the special subject that Holden has been studying with Mr. Spencer, the Egyptians, take on a tremendous symbolic significance for him, but in the scene with the two boys outside the Natural History Museum, Holden both acts the part of the history teacher and shows us how much more he had learned from Mr. Spencer than his exam paper indicated (Gluck 56).
The character of Holden is unveiled through minor characters and portrayed as an ideal one. His attitude towards sunny is the result of adolescent greenness; he cannot treat her as a prostitute because she is too close to being the apathetic image of himself; she so depresses him because his pity for her amounts to self-pity. After all, she contributes to the gradually encroaching vision of himself as the homeless wanderer, alienated from man and society (Pearlman 233). His admiration for the drummer at Radio City Music Hall can only be fully understood when we recognize that to Holden he represents a kind of saintliness. The way Holden Caulfield sees the world is that “if you had a million years to do it in, you couldn’t rub out even half the ‘Fuck you signs in the world” (Salinger 262). If life aims to retain or regain, youthful innocence and goodness, the drummer, with his total absorption in perfecting a relatively simple and uninteresting task, has achieved a kind of beatific state (Gluck, 56).
Wissen underlines that views can fail to see the significance that Holden attaches to Jane Gallagher’s keeping her kings on the back row unless critics realize that both Holden and Jane are scared of the adult world into which they are plunging and that her behavior symbolizes her unwillingness to risk the loss of innocence and goodness by confronting life, by using instead of hoarding whatever powers she might possess. Stradlater’s date with Jane so upsets Holden not just because he knows what a lady’s man Stradlater is but because he would like to approach her romantically himself but no more dares to upset their childish relationship than she to move her kings from the back row (Pearlman 233). That Stradlater symbolizes Holden’s romantic ideal of himself in this scene is underlined by the fact that Stradlater is wearing Holden’s jacket. It is significant that only after Holden feels momentarily secure at the Antolinis’ does he decide to call Jane on the telephone. His failure to call her is a symbolic reminder to us of two things: that he cannot reestablish contact with what he believes to be goodness and innocence; and secondly, that he is experiencing a growing alienation from his world. That he never does call her and that there is no specific mention of her at the end also reminds us that, although he has been saved from figurative and perhaps literal death, he is still far from being “romantically” adjusted to the real world (Wissen 92).
Depicted as a real prophet, Holden is conservative in manner and particularly in dress; but he sees these traditional values as a sign of phoniness in himself. Through his conservative dress and manner, he dimly sees himself as supporting the very world that he is so hostile to. Thus, wearing the cap also symbolizes his desire to break through the phony conventions of his world; not wearing the cap dramatizes his failure to destroy what is phony, either in himself or in his world, as well as reminds us of the power that the conventions have over him. His ideas are unconventional but his behavior, except for his running away from school, is remarkably like that of any well-brought-up boy (Takeuchi 320).
The hunting hat is linked to the basic structure of the novel. it can be interpreted as Holden’s search for truth. To Ackley, the hat is simply a hunting hat, a deer shooting hat, as he calls it. Holden’s response is: ” ‘Like hell it is.’ I took it off and looked at it. I sort of closed one eye, like I was aiming at. ‘This is a people shooting hat,’ I said. ‘I shoot people in this hat.’” (Salinger 26). At the essence of Holden’s personality lies the binary vision, and therefore double nature, of the prophet. The main ‘phony’ motif is his love-hate for humanity. Holden sees with simplicity the difference between what is and what ought to be in life, and that vision is the basic motivation for whatever he does. Though he finally learns that he must love man and the world despite their faults, the major portion of the novel charts his progress towards world-weariness and the triumph of hate, not love. Through his jocular remark to Ackley, made early in the novel, Holden unwittingly reveals the degree of his hatred for man as he is. He would like to kill him (Takeuchi 320).
Salinger depicts that one of Holden’s most valued things is his brother Allie’s fielder’s mitt. In the fact that it is a left-handed mitt and that Allie had covered it with poems so that he could read them when no one was up an at-bat, the mitt is a rich symbol in its own right. Holden idealizes Allie as by far the brightest as well as the nicest member of his family (Gwynn and Blotner 76). When Allie died Holden so damaged his hand by breaking out the garage windows that, as he tells us, it still hurts him when it rains and he can no longer make a proper fist. Part of what is suggested here is that Holden, equipped by his brother with a means of catching the good and the innocent, has, because of his love for his brother, made himself ineffective as a hater (the broken fist) and, like his brother, has dedicated himself to an impossible ideal. When the impossibility, and more importantly, the undesirability of the ideal is finally grasped (as it is by Holden while watching Phoebe on the merry-go-round), the idealist is saved from self-destruction and uselessness and led back to the man and the world using love (Gwynn and Blotner 87).
In many situations, Holden is trying to go backward. He is between childhood and adulthood, a condition that is symbolically represented in the fact that the hair on one side of his head is grey. M. A Salinger writes: “In The Catcher in the Rye, this touchy subject comes up several times regarding Holden’s religious background” (23). More than anything else he wants to keep for himself and others what he imagines to be the untarnished goodness and innocence of the child. The reversed peak, then, suggests his idealization of and yearning for the childhood condition. It also, both literally and figuratively, emphasizes his childishness, for it is partly because Allie had died while still a child that death is associated with goodness and innocence in Holden’s mind (Wissen 83). Thus the peak also reminds readers of what must be the result if Holden continues to look to the past—his death. As he comes nearer to literal as well as figurative death in the course of the novel, the death images predominate. The peak of his cap points to the dead civilization of the Egyptians, to the death in life image that Holden imagines for himself in the form of his deaf-mute ideal, and to the mummies that symbolize that state. His fainting spell after visiting the tombs is a figurative death; his meeting with Phoebe outside the museum is the beginning of his re-birth (Takeuchi 320).
Phoebe is one of the characters who accepted Holden’s quest. This theme can be defined as prophecy and teaching, the ability to persuade and change other people. When Phoebe meets him she throws the hat at him in fury because she recognizes that his refusal to accept her as a companion is an admission of phoniness, both in himself and in his plan. In reality, of course, she has saved him by symbolically showing her willingness to die with him Wissen 92). Instead of looking to the past, he is now going to try to deal with the future. This is the affirmation with which the novel ends, and Salinger has very unobtrusively underlined it by the use he makes of the hunting cap in this final scene (Salinger, M. A. 43). Holden has forced the hat upon her—given up the quest, that is; and her forgiveness of him for disappointing her is again symbolically portrayed in her giving him back his hat, his identity as an idealist. That he has changed the direction of his quest and that she is the person responsible for his doing so is told us by her putting on his hat for him and putting it on his head with the peak facing the front (Wissen 101).
It is clear that she does so place the hat on his head, but Salinger is clever enough not to force the symbol on us in so direct a manner. Rather he chooses that we discover it. While Holden watches Phoebe ride around on the carrousel, it begins to rain. He sits there in the rain and Salinger tells us: “I got pretty soaking wet, especially my neck and my pants. My hunting hat really gave me quite a lot of protection, in a way, but I got soaked anyway.” (Salinger 192) The “especially my neck” is Salinger’s masterstroke in the use of symbolic technique, a technique that so often in modern fiction results in lifeless allegory. Holden has thus been re-born into at least a partial acceptance of life. His direction has been radically changed. It seems to be no mere happenstance, then, that Salinger should set this final scene in the Zoo, the place of life, after leading Holden from the Egyptian tombs, the place of death. Nor, particularly as we know that Salinger himself is deeply interested in Zen, does it seem improbable that Salinger means us to see the carrousel as symbolic of the wheel of life, the constantly changing pattern of the Eternal One (Wissen 92).
Following Gwynn and Blotner (29), Salinger’s method of using other characters to dramatize various images that Holden has of himself does more than just increase the “roundness” of his character, however. While many of the characters in The Catcher in the Rye take on interest and importance once their symbolic connection to Holden is seen, Salinger’s deepest symbols are found not in them but in some of the minor details of the novel. Of these the most important is Holden’s red hunting hat. The effectiveness of this symbol lies in its great suggestiveness. Even the circumstances of Holden’s buying the hat, suggest that readers must go beyond this understanding of it. Holden purchases it just after he notices that he has lost all the fencing foils (Wissen 76). As manager of the team, he is immediately ostracized by the other boys, and thus, from the very beginning, the hat is a comforter, a consolation prize for failure.
In sum, Holden is portrayed as a prophet who tries to find the truth of life and personal self. Holden proves that it is a difficult task but it is possible to reconcile self and society. Uniqueness is one of Holden’s most outstanding qualities as he starts his story. Holden fails all of his subjects but he succeeds in alienating himself from the other students, and he even fails as manager of the fencing team. As a real prophet, Holden operates on several different levels of meaning, but Salinger makes a hat as a symbol that to most readers it is simply a funny hat, just the sort of thing that a rebellious adolescent would wear.
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Gluck, R. ‘A Boy’s Own Story. The Review of Contemporary Fiction, 16 (1996): 56.
Gwynn, F. L., Blotner, J. L. The Fiction of J. D. Salinger. University of Pittsburgh Press, 1958.
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Salinger, M. A. Dream Catcher: A Memoir. Washington Square Press, 2000.
Salinger. The Catcher in the Rye. Back Bay Books, 2001.
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