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Perhaps the strongest theme in The Catcher in the Rye is the main character Holden Caulfield’s fascination and even obsession with the ideal of true innocence; a higher innocence from the superficiality and hypocrisy that he views as a plague on American society. Conjoined with this ideal comes a wariness of adults and an alienation from his peers. His engrossment with purity eventually leads to his nervous breakdown, in that everywhere he turns, someone else has lost his or her innocence. Holden, like most adolescents, embarks on a journey of self-discovery as described over the course of the novel. However, this coming-of-age becomes particularly turbulent for Holden. He feels like he does not belong anywhere, certainly not in the “dirty little cliques” (The Catcher in the Rye 131) that fill his boys’ schools, and not with his distant and rarely mentioned parents.
Holden’s peers represent the degeneration slowly turning them into full-fledged adults. He sees that one by one, all of the people his own age are becoming “phony;” that is, growing up. Stradlater, Holden’s roommate at Pencey Prep, is the epitome of what Holden despises in his generation. Stradlater is hypocritical; he goes “crazy when you (break) any rules” (41) while at the same time he makes his date late for her nine-thirty curfew, because “who the hell signs out for nine-thirty on a Saturday night” (42)? His date happens to be a very dear friend to Holden named Jane Gallagher, whom Holden respects and holds to the highest form of admiration and fondness. Holden cannot bear to think that the sexually “impure” Stradlater might jeopardize her innocence, and this makes him lash out violently. Holden later finds his sweetheart, Sally Hayes, and opens up to her completely. He tells her of all his problems and his complaints about society, and is even more depressed to find that she is just as jaded as Stradlater, and on her way to becoming a shallow adult. She meets his extravagant plan of running away with rejection and a disheartening dose of reality, exclaiming that they were “both practically children” (132). Holden’s isolation from his peers is a result of his anger at his generation and at himself; he regards adults as jaded, and is fearful of how everyone his own age is slowly turning the same way. “He is terrified of growing up because he fears he may become like the people he scorns” (Bean), and he already sees this change among his age group.
Growing up, to Holden, only denotes negative thoughts, that all adults care about is “how many miles they get to a gallon” (131) on their cars, and other equally superficial things. Adults cannot even participate in charity work, at least “(they can’t) go around with a basket collecting dough…(unless) everybody kiss(es) (their) ass(es) for (them) when they made a contribution” (114). Adults are “phonies” of the highest order to Holden; they lack all the intense emotion, impetuousness, and otherwise human qualities often shown in young people. They are enwrapped in their own superficial pastimes, “mak(ing) believe (they) give a damn whether the football team wins or loses” (131), and in all other ways are self-absorbed. Holden observes this in his own parents and every other older person, and can’t stand to think he could become something like that.
Children, on the other hand, are a great source of joy for Holden. He holds “little kids” to the high esteem of Jane Gallagher, in that they are completely uninhibited and innocent in that way. His own little sister, Phoebe, is the epitome of his ideal sense of innocence. She is one of the very few people throughout the entire book that Holden does not label as “phony,” and Holden feels an incredible amount of protective instinct towards her. When Holden comments on the song “The Catcher in the Rye,” he explains to Phoebe that he would want to be “the catcher in the rye” (173), a metaphor for innocence. “(He would) stand at the edge of some crazy cliff…(and) catch (all the little kids) if they start(ed) to go over the cliff” (173). Holden feels that his innocence has already left, but he knows the pain of this and wants to become the metaphorical preserver of innocence. When the children would begin to fall off the cliff and out of grace, Holden would catch them, because no one had caught him. This applies to Phoebe as well. The reason he does not run away from home and instead tries to apply himself is Phoebe; he thinks that if he can stay and prevent her from “falling off the cliff,” then he would have accomplished his goal in life.
Holden Caulfield’s story speaks to many because the author, J.D. Salinger, effectively expresses the real thoughts and feelings of a teenage boy, without the sugarcoating or stereotypes often associated with youths. His isolation from and general disgust with society are common adolescent anthems, although particularly strong in the character of Holden. The fact that Holden finds absolutely no stability in his life may be a contributing factor, as every single person he knows becomes “phony,” leaving him in a “one against the world” frame of mind. At the end of the novel, however, Holden finds where he belongs in his own mind and there is a ray of hope for him. In saving Phoebe from her fall from grace, Holden has also saved himself.
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