At the center of J.D. Salinger’s masterpiece, The Catcher in the Rye, is Holden Caulfield, a seventeen-year-old boy who feels superior to just about everyone and doesn’t see the need for an education. Conveniently for him, he has recently been kicked out of school for failing almost all of his classes. (At least that will excuse him from his ACT Prep duties, and he won’t have to spend any more of his time in AP Calculus. When’s the next time he’s going to need to know about limits and infinitesimals, anyway?)
Holden then embarks on a personal journey that, for all intensive purposes (that’s how someone without an education says ‘for all intents and purposes’), isn’t all that interesting or exciting. He strikes out with a number of girls, including a prostitute (ouch - that one had to hurt), takes a pretty uneventful trip to New York, makes little to no progress with his personal relationships, and doesn’t seem to grow any as a person. Sounds like a riveting read, eh?
But like most great literature, The Catcher in the Rye is more about what’s going on inside its protagonist’s head than what bomb he’s defusing. We are told that Holden thinks everyone - especially every adult - is a ‘phony,’ that his friends and teachers are ‘idiots’ and ‘morons,’ and that he can’t seem to connect with anyone. Doesn’t it sound like he’s trying perhaps just a bit too hard to convince the reader? Sure sounds like a case of denial if you ask us.
By reiterating Holden’s negative opinion of practically everyone he comes into contact with, and by repeatedly showing how unhappy and unfulfilled his hero is, Salinger uses the underlying subtext of the first person narrative to indicate to the reader that this exceptionally judgmental individual is really just lost and searching for himself. Surely, if he was content with who he was and believed honestly in his claims of superiority, he wouldn’t feel the need to justify his words and actions and continually appeal to the reader as if seeking approval.
And so by belittling the concept of love and genuine romantic connection, Holden is really telling us that he is lonely for companionship. By casually tossing off the subject of his expulsion from school, he subliminally informs us that he feels disconnected from his peers and lacks a sense of belonging. And by referring to everyone as ‘idiots’ and ‘morons,’ he reveals that what he truly desires is a shot at the education to which he no longer has access.
Because Holden isn’t really honest about any of his thoughts or feelings, it turns out he’s actually the biggest phony of them all. How’s that for irony?