THE CATCHER IN THE RYE (J. D. Salinger, 1951)

When The Catcher in the Rye was published in 1951, its author, J. D. Salinger, was a promising young writer, known primarily for his short stories published in magazines, especially “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” published in 1948. The Catcher in the Rye was then a well-reviewed bestseller that made Salinger one of the most famous authors in America[1], though he was still not well known as a person, in the sense that the remained notoriously reclusive until the end of his life in 2010, refusing to grant interviews or make appearances. The Catcher in the Rye, meanwhile, became one of signature novels of the 1950s, capturing especially the experience of young American men just approaching adulthood at that time, attempting to find a workable identity for themselves in a society that touted the availability of unlimited opportunities but often failed to deliver on that promise. In addition, they faced a society that claimed to be ideal but that was at the same time rapidly changing, while attempting to present that change as a positive improvement. This contradiction led to considerable confusion for the entire society—especially for young people who desperately wanted to believe the rhetoric of an ideal America but could easily see that there was something wrong with the world they were preparing to join as adult citizens.

The Catcher in the Rye clearly profits from being highly accessible, though the ease with which it can be read sometimes obscures the fact that it is actually a rather complex work that can be read in a number of different ways. The book has been widely taught in American high schools, largely because many educators have felt that it connects with young readers in a way that might encourage them to appreciate literature and perhaps explore it farther. At the same time, the book is also among the numerous respected works of literature that conservative groups have lobbied to have banned from American high schools, on the grounds that it teaches inappropriate behavior, unpatriotic attitudes, and a lack of respect for authority.

Holden Caulfield as Character and Narrator

The Catcher in the Rye made such an immediate impact on American literary culture partly because its narrator and protagonist, Holden Caulfield, seems to be such an open, honest, and uncensored narrator, revealing his feelings about everything he encounters in the course of the book in a very direct way, using plain language that seems like the authentic language of an intelligent sixteen-year-old in 1951, unembellished by any sort of fancy literary flourishes. The content of Holden’s narration seems unusually candid as well, addressing a variety of sexual and other topics that no teenage character in American literature had discussed before. Holden’s frank approach, informed by his basic innocence, made him seem like an especially honest narrator, one who communicated with his readers on a direct level unprecedented in American literature.

Holden, though, does have predecessors, such as Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, a fourteen-year-old first-person narrator who also presumably speaks quite openly and honestly about his feelings and experiences[2]. Huckleberry, like Holden, is an adolescent boy who embarks on an adventure after escaping adult supervision. Meanwhile, Huck addresses a number of controversial issues, most of them having to do with the racism and slavery that he encounters in his society and that he, despite his own lack of sophistication, can recognize for the wrongs that they are. Nevertheless, though Huck is younger and less sophisticated than Holden, one could argue that his narration is less authentic and more literary, largely because it is presented in a dialect used by the author as a literary device to create the sense of what a young Missouri boy speaking at a time forty years before the publication of the novel might have sounded like. Holden’s language, on the other hand, seems much less literary, in the sense that it seems more like the language any reasonably intelligent and well-educated American teenager at the time of the publication of his book might use—rather than an adult author’s reconstruction of that language. Holden’s story is also more personal and intimate, more involved with the details of his inner life, than is Huck’s story, which involves much more exterior action and adventure. This personal aspect also makes it easier for his readers to identify with his situation and to understand what he is feeling, a fact that accounts for the enormous popularity of this novel for decades after its publication, especially among high school boys who could easily imagine themselves in Holden’s situation, even if the details of his life might be very different than theirs.

Ian Kinane argues that Holden, as a character, captures something very fundamental about postwar America: “For many, Holden Caulfield encapsulated the sheer frustration of a society that had been irrevocably altered in the wake of war. Holden’s longing for something beyond superficial social inclusion, for an authentic and intimate communication with another, mirrored the predicaments of con- temporary youth—a generation of silenced and oppressed individuals with whom contemporary ideals and ideologies had failed to connect” (118). Kinane is no doubt correct, and this aspect of Holden as a character is certainly key to the way so many readers have responded to The Catcher in the Rye. However, a closer look at Holden’s role as the narrator in The Catcher in the Rye shows that this sense of authenticity in his narrative is a bit misleading. For example, Holden opens the third chapter with what might seem to be a startling admission: “I’m the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life. It’s awful. If I’m on my way to the store to buy a magazine, even, and somebody asks me where I’m going, I’m liable to say I’m going to the opera” (16). Granted, one could argue that Holden here is being honest about his dishonesty, but such an admission, coming from a narrator, is extremely significant because it threatens to destabilize the entire narrative. If Holden is such a liar, how do we know that we can trust any of the information he gives us? Indeed, how can we even believe him when he says he is a terrible liar? Such admissions, in fact, constitute a version of the so-called “liar paradox”: if someone says that they always lie, then that must mean that they are lying when they say they always lie, which means that they must not always lie, which means they might be telling the truth when they say they always lie, and so on, ad infinitum. In the same way, if a novel has a narrator whose veracity cannot be trusted, then it is very difficult to know when the information they supply can be trusted, a situation that is further compounded by the fact that everything in a novel is a “lie,” in the sense that it is all fiction.

Holden also gives us specific examples of cases in which he lies to others during his story—though, of course, he might be lying when he tells us about these lies. For example, after an altercation with his roommate Stradlater, his neighbor Ackley asks him what the fight was about, and Holden says that it was about Ackley and that he was defending Ackley’s honor, which isn’t true (49). Then, a bit later, when he meets the mother of another classmate on a train, he pretends to be someone called “Rudolf Schmidt” and proceeds to tell her a number of lies about her son. Once he gets going in fact, he finds it hard to stop. “Then I started reading this timetable I had in my pocket,” he tells us. “Just to stop lying. Once I get started, I can go on for hours if I feel like it” (59).

Given his dishonesty, Holden clearly falls in the category of the “unreliable narrator,” whose statements cannot necessary be regarded as true. In the case of this novel, of course, Holden’s unreliability can be taken as an integral part of his commentary on the society that surrounds him. Shaped by this society, Holden could hardly have turned out to be anything other than a phony of the kind he so despises. Indeed, it seems reasonable to surmise that Holden’s bitter attitude throughout the novel is due at least in part to his recognition that he is unable to avoid the influence of the society in which he lives, however rebellious he might want to be.

There is a certain universality to Holden’s adolescent experience in the novel, which largely involves his growing awareness of an experience with an adult world he does not fully understand and of which he does not necessarily approve. It is important, though, to acknowledge the details of Holden’s situation, because his experience is not actually nearly as universal as it first appears to be. What is most obvious about the special nature of Holden’s experience is that it is a very male experience and that many details of his situation would have been very different had he been a girl. And, of course, the fact that so many of his thoughts and experiences relate to his budding sexuality means that his gender is absolutely crucial to the novel, especially in a conformist 1950s America where any deviation from expected heteronormative behavior would likely have been treated as a form of mental illness.

In this environment, boys and girls were expected to be very different from each other and boys were, in general, expected to assume more responsible leadership roles in adult society. It is certainly the case that, not only is Holden’s outlook masculine, but girls to him are like members of an alien species almost impossible to understand.Granted, Holden’s most important characteristic might be his radical alienation, his sense of being different than everyone else around him. To the alienated Holden, almost everyone is Other, except perhaps his younger sister, Phoebe. One reason he can relate to Phoebe, though, is that she is prepubescent and has thus not yet entered the corrupting world of sex, in which girls function for Holden as extremely alien creatures. “Sex,” he tells us, “is something I really don’t understand too hot,” and the same certainly goes for all members of the opposite sex (63–64). Girls, he concludes soon afterward, “can drive you crazy” (74). Meanwhile, in the course of coming to grips with his emerging sexuality, Holden repeatedly attempts to assure us (and himself) that he isn’t really crazy and that his sexual urges are entirely normal, though he is forced to admit that, in terms of his thoughts, if not his actions, “I’m probably the biggest sex maniac you ever saw” (63). Indeed, despite Holden’s expressed desire to escape the conformist mainstream, he desperately wants to be sexually normal; thus, no matter how hard he might try to imagine an alternative lifestyle, he cannot imagine any life for himself that does not include a thoroughly conventional bourgeois heteronormative sexuality. After all, he does not want to be suspected of being one of those “flits,” whom his acquaintance Carl Luce can so expertly identify.

Holden’s experience is not merely male, but avowedly white, placing him in a doubly privileged position within 1950s American society.Holden doesn’t say much specifically about race in his narrative, though it is clear that he is very conscious of his whiteness. It is also clear that he accepts without question a number of attitudes about race that are common in his society. For example, at one point he decides to buy for Phoebe an old recording of the song “Little Shirley Beans,” by “this colored girl singer, Estelle Fletcher, made about twenty years ago. She sings it very Dixieland and whorehouse, and it doesn’t sound at all mushy” (59). Perhaps Holden can be forgiven the use of the then-common but now-problematic term “colored,” a designation that, by extension, suggests that white people are not colored, i.e., that they are normal, without the addition of a “coloring” agent that represents a deviation from the normal. But Holden also accepts, without question, the notion that this singer’s delivery of the song is somehow more authentic, more connected to the body, than might a white singer’s performance, which would probably be modified in order to try to appeal to a popular audience. He thus continues: “If a white girl was singing it, she’d make it sound cute as hell, but old Estelle Fletcher knew what the hell she was doing, and it was one of the best records I ever heard” (59). A white singer’s performance, in short, would be likely to be “phony,” while this black singer’s version was genuine. And, while this judgement might appear to accrue to the advantage of the black singer, it is filled with numerous time-honored racist stereotypes about the physicality and lack of sophistication of nonwhite people. Yet, Holden, ever the critic of his society’s problematic attitudes, does not question this attitude at all, just as he does not question the homophobia of Carl Luce. Some attitudes are so ingrained and deep-seated that Holden does not read them as attitudes at all, but simply sees them as facts.

Finally, Holden’s experience is also different from that of most American teenagers because he comes from such a privileged economic background. His has not been a life without tragedy, mostly because of the death from leukemia of his younger brother Allie, a death that still haunts Holden and that has clearly impacted his emotional development. Indeed, Holden is still grieving from that experience, which should be taken into account by those who would judge his behavior harshly. Nevertheless, Holden has lived a life entirely free of economic hardship. It is clear that he has never had a job, and it is also clear that one reason he does not take his schoolwork seriously is that he assumes there will always be more opportunities, more exclusive private schools for him to attend. Holden has no idea what he wants from life, but he has every reason to believe that he will be able to get what he wants if he can ever decide what that is. And he is very much aware of his privilege: he might express disdain for Ivy-League schools, but he knows they are available to him. And he might attempt to sound supportive of Bob Robinson, a boy whom he assumes to come from a poor family because of his parents’ bad grammar, but this support is, in fact, quite condescending (138).

Holden also comes from a privileged cultural background, partly because of his family’s wealth, partly because of the private schools he has attended, and partly because he has grown up in a culturally rich environment in Manhattan. Institutions such as the Metropolitan museums have been a part of his cultural milieu throughout his life, and he feels very much at home there. He is, for example, a great fan of the Museum of Natural History, which he describes as “the one where the Indians are,” apparently finding no problem with making the culture of Native Americans the stuff of museum exhibits, very much along the lines of the stuffed wild animals that constitute many of the other displays (121).

Again, Holden does not seem to question the premises of the museum, even though his comments on film make it clear that he regards the products of Hollywood as thoroughly informed by phoniness and sentimentality. It would seem that his cultural analysis is rather superficial, aimed mostly at the easy targets. For example, despite his numerous academic failures, it is clear that Holden has a fairly good knowledge of things like literature, even though his actual understanding of them seems highly questionable. On the very first page of his narration, he alludes to Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield (1850), a novel he would likely have studied in one or the other of his English classes, but he rejects this novel, assuring us that his narrative will be free of “all that David Copperfield kind of crap” (1). Only a few pages later, he oddly declares himself to be “quite illiterate,” but also admits that “I read a lot” (18). And, on this same page, he alludes to his reading of Isaak Dinesen’s memoir Out of Africa (1937), Thomas Hardy’s novel The Return of the Native (1878), and Somerset Maugham’s novel Of Human Bondage (1915), the latter two respected works that might have been taught in his classes, the former accidentally picked up at the library.

Other than his brother D.B., Holden’s favorite writer, he tells us, is Ring Lardner (1885-1933), a somewhat middle-brow writer noted for his sports journalism and his satirical short stories (often also about sports, especially baseball). Though Lardner was not, in himself, a major contributor to American literature, he was a highly successful writer, and a number of important writers admired his work, including both Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, perhaps the two most respected American writers as Holden was growing up. Holden’s description of his favorite Lardner story makes it clear that the story is “There Are Smiles,” though Holden himself does not name the story. The story is about a married New York traffic cop who becomes infatuated with a young woman he often sees driving by him in her sports car, seemingly carefree, as he directs traffic. Then her careless driving leads to her death in an accident. The cop has to keep his mourning for her loss to himself because of his marriage. As a result, he changes from being a lively and cheerful director of traffic to being sullen and abusive to the drivers he directs. Lardner’s stories are often quite funny, but this one is rather sad, despite its note of irony. Immediately after describing it, though, Holden announces says, “That story just about killed me. What I like best is a book that’s at least funny once in a while” (18). This statement would seem to indicate that Holden found the Lardner story funny, though the statement is also immediately followed by an approving mention of Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native (1878), a novel that most readers find quite depressing: the alluring Eustacia Vye, Holden’s favorite character, ends that novel as a tragic suicide.

Holden, it would appear, doesn’t really know what he likes in literature. He is adamant, however, that he dislikes Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (1929). Without really explaining why, Holden rejects the Hemingway novel and its protagonist, Frederic Henry, as “phony,” a reaction that D.B. has attributed, perhaps correctly, to Holden’s youth and immaturity. In any case, Holden claims not to understand how D.B. could hate war and the military (in which D. B. served during World War II)[3] and still like this book, which is odd, because this book is bitterly critical of war, the military, and the nationalist fervor that drives nations to senseless killing. Again, one wonders whether Holden actually understood this book at all. Meanwhile, Holden also doesn’t understand how D. B. could like A Farewell to Arms and also be a big fan of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), a book Holden himself absolutely loves. “I was crazy about The Great Gatsby,” Holden tells us. “Old Gatsby. Old sport. That killed me” (143). Hemingway and Fitzgerald were both members of the “Lost Generation” of American writers, and their work is often seen as expressing a similar skepticism about the glories of the American dream, something about which Holden is himself quite skeptical. Thus, it is unclear why Holden would love the Fitzgerald and hate the Hemingway, other than the fact that Fitzgerald’s Gatsby is a somewhat romantically tragic figure in some ways—and might appear especially so to a teenage reader such as Holden.

What Holden makes most clear about his reading is that he reads for a sense of connection with the author. “What really knocks me out,” he tells us, “is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it” (18). Holden, in fact, continually attempts to establish connections with others (often by telephone) throughout the book. It is clear, then, that he is searching in his reading for very much the same thing he is searching for in his everyday life: someone with whom he can communicate in an honest and direct way, without any sense of phoniness. His love of reading, then, is simply another expression of his sense of loneliness and alienation and his quest for authenticity.

Holden is also a critic of film and music, delivering his opinions in ways that sometimes make him seem like a teenage predecessor to Patrick Bateman, the psychotic stock broker at the center of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (1991), who constantly delivers capsule reviews of various items in American culture (when he’s not committing, or at least imagining grisly murders). For example, at one point early in his Manhattan adventure, Holden comes upon a family walking down the sidewalk. His somewhat condescending description of them indicates his privileged perspective: “They looked sort of poor. The father had on one of those pearl-gray hats that poor guys wear a lot when they want to look sharp” (117). Holden is, however, impressed by the joyful singing of the family’s young son, perhaps showing his own tendency to romanticize poverty and the “simple pleasures of the poor.” The boy’s delivery, in short, is sincere and uncalculated, like the singing of Estelle Fletcher, suggesting that Holden applies many of the same stereotypes both to the poor and to the nonwhite. Meanwhile, the boy, according to Holden, is singing “If a body catch a body coming through the rye,” a line that Holden, in fact, repeats twice in relating this incident, thus emphasizing that this is the way he (mis)heard the lyric (118).

Later, when Holden slips into his family’s apartment and talks with Phoebe, he brings up this song again: “You know that song ‘If a body catch a body comin’ through the rye’? I’d like—”  Phoebe, however, immediately corrects him: “It’s ‘If a body meet a body coming through the rye’!” old Phoebe said. “It’s a poem. By Robert Burns.” Holden acknowledges her identification of the source of the song, which had by this time been recorded several times (most recently by Marian Anderson in 1944) and was quite well known: “I know it’s a poem by Robert Burns,” he tells Phoebe. He then continues his narration: “She was right, though. It is ‘If a body meet a body coming through the rye.’ I didn’t know it then, though. ‘I thought it was ‘If a body catch a body,’’” I said. Holden then explains why the song is so significant to him (and why it supplies the title of the novel): “Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around—nobody big, I mean—except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff—I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy” (175–76).

While critics have disagreed about Holden, some seeing him as narcissistic or even dangerous, it would seem here that one of his central fantasies is the noble one of saving endangered children—though you could argue that to wish to be in such a savior situation is itself narcissistic. Near the end of the text, however, we see Holden in a real-world situation that would seem to be a toned-down version of his catcher-in-the-rye fantasy. As Phoebe rides on the carousel in Central Park, she and the other kids on the ride attempt the slightly dangerous maneuver of grabbing for the “gold” ring, and Holden is at first concerned for Phoebe’s safety. He decides, however, not to intervene, realizing that kids have to have room to grow and try things for themselves:

“All the kids kept trying to grab for the gold ring, and so was old Phoebe, and I was sort of afraid she’d fall off the goddam horse, but I didn’t say anything or do anything. The thing with kids is, if they want to grab for the gold ring, you have to let them do it, and not say anything. If they fall off, they fall off, but it’s bad if you say anything to them” (213–14).

Traditional carousels feature dispensers that offer a number of iron rings and one brass ring (gold in color) that riders can attempt to grab as they go past. Getting the brass ring is considered a sign of victory in this game. Few carousels have this feature today, for the safety reasons that Holden recognizes. At the same time, this phenomenon has remained a part of our daily figurative language. The expression “to grab for the brass ring” is still used metaphorically to indicate a situation in which someone decides to attempt a risky maneuver that could potentially have a high reward. Holden’s recognition that Phoebe needs to be allowed to grab for the “gold ring” has much the same symbolic meaning: he recognizes that children need to be allowed to take risks and to try things in order to develop, grow, and fulfill their potential. In his case, though, one could also argue that, given his clear dissatisfaction with his current life, he has a sense of not having been allowed to develop as he would have liked. In addition, in his current psychological state, Holden no doubt feels inadequate as a savior for Phoebe, just as he had been unable to save Allie.

Grabbing for the brass ring on a carousel.

The Politics of The Catcher in the Rye

How one sees Holden as a character does a great deal to determine how one reads the political implications of The Catcher in the Rye. Critics such as Susan Mizruchi, for example, are very sympathetic to Holden. She sees Holden as a very spiritual character who points the way to a better world. For her, “the ideal world Holden imagines, of mutual obligation, empathy for suffering, and diminished social distinctions, is one we would all readily accept” (35). At the same time, he is the victim of impulses within American society that tend to lead to religious extremism, placing him in a precarious position. On a similar positive note, Kinane sees Holden’s loneliness as a commentary on an American society that has a strong tendency toward producing lonely, alienated individuals such as Holden but is not very good at offering ways to overcome loneliness. For Kinane, in particular, Salinger’s notorious isolation itself can serve as a commentary on this issue: “By forcing the reader to view the world through Holden’s eyes, Salinger’s text becomes a platform for each individual to acknowledge the threat of social isolation, and the loss of the individual entity within a society that, as a whole, concerns itself with the collective. Salinger’s infamous silence, then, is—as Denis Jonnes frames it—“a silence which continues to speak of precisely what it cannot say” (97)—the incommunicability of loneliness in a society that refuses to recognize it” (131).

Other critics have been much less sympathetic, seeing Holden basically as immature, spoiled, and self-centered, rejecting the society that has given him so much, simply because it doesn’t conform to his expectation that he should be at the center of the universe. Holden is, after all, sometimes given to declarations that might make him even seem potentially dangerous, though probably more so today than he would have in 1951. Still, his take on the Cold War, delivered just after his declaration of love for The Great Gatsby, does seem highly problematic: “Anyway, I’m sort of glad they’ve got the atomic bomb invented. If there’s ever another war, I’m going to sit right the hell on top of it. I’ll volunteer for it, I swear to God I will” (143).

Kinane, continuing his defense of Holden, argues that Holden’s detractors have often been motivated by a conservative political agenda that would see them as opposed to any sort of rebellion against conventional authority. Kinane argues that conservative educators in the U.S. have tried to

“encourage as little receptivity as possible by their pupils with the anti-nationalist counter-ideologies espoused in Holden’s narrative: J. Opland notes that students ought to ‘be careful not to identify with Holden’s opinions and reactions . . . however persuasive and beguiling a talker he may be’ (13); … Nigel Tookey is critical of Holden’s tendency to be ‘very sarcastic about the school and its claims to ‘mould’ students into valuable members of society’ (68). … It is quite apparent that schoolchildren of Holden’s age are not encouraged to relate to Holden’s viewpoint, which thus continues to render his experiences (and the experiences of his contemporaries) incommunicable or in some way in need of ‘translation’ for modern readers of his narrative” (130).

Kinane, though, suggests that the text has continued to appeal to young readers, perhaps precisely because of the anti-authoritarian stance that conservative critics and teachers have warned against. One thing that is clear is that The Catcher in the Rye appeared at the beginning of a burgeoning teen culture in the United States in the 1950s, riding the beginning of a wave of works designed to appeal to American teens, often by expressing their own frustrations with the adult world they saw around them. And, while television remained largely locked in the grip of conformist conservatism through the decade, many other works of the culture expressed this new sense of teen rebelliousness, perhaps most importantly in the rise of rock and roll music, but also in the popularity of films such as Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause (1955), the very title of which suggested the sometimes ill-defined nature of the youth rebellion that was budding in the decade. The sensibility of this new culture is perhaps best encapsulated in a single moment in László Benedek’s film The Wild One (1953) in which a girl asks Marlon Brando’s Johnny what he is rebelling against. “Whaddaya got?” Johnny simply asks in response[4].

Of course, the rebellion of narrator and protagonist Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Eye consists of neglecting his schoolwork, getting kicked out of school, and then spending a weekend on the lam, smoking and drinking and waiting to face the music. It is a rather ineffectual sort of rebellion that is not designed to lead to any sort of social change. It is, however, precisely the sort of rebellion that one might expect from a 16-year-old. Holden comes from a wealthy white Christian family and is thus very centrally placed in American society. But that centrality itself is a problem, threatening to drag him into the heart of a commodified conformist society he regards as utterly “phony.”[5] Holden is extremely privileged, but his alienation from this society is clear, despite his social position. He is, after all, a teenager, and he experiences all the normal adolescent feelings. The Catcher in the Rye is thus important both because it addresses so many issues that were topical in American society at the time and because it addresses certain adolescent experiences that have made the book and enduring favorite on younger readers[6]. In addition, The Catcher in the Rye was also important because it was extremely innovative in a literary sense, with Holden functioning not just as a highly effective character but also as a complex and interesting narrator in a technical sense.

Holden, though, is much more complex as a character and as a narrator than he first appears to be. For example, while he spends much of the book expressing his disdain for the adults around him, he spends most of this crucial weekend essentially attempting to imitate those very adults. His adventures include drinking, smoking, going to bars, and even having a prostitute sent to his hotel room. Holden is a typical teenager in that he feels that no one understands him; in fact, he doesn’t even understand himself as he battles against the adolescent changes that move him closer and closer to the phoniness of adult bourgeois conformity. Thus, Holden spends most of the weekend spanned by the book on the run in Manhattan, avoiding his status-conscious parents, who must eventually be told that he has been expelled from still another school, where he has once again been unable to adjust to the routine or to get motivated to apply himself to his academic work. Meanwhile, he concocts a variety of unrealistic schemes for escaping his looming bourgeois fate altogether, imagining various scenarios through which he might run away to pursue a nonstandard life that escapes routinization, including going away to live in the woods in a vague imitation of Thoreau. In the end, of course, Holden returns home and takes his medicine, which includes an apparent stay in some sort of institution for the obligatory 1950s course of psychoanalysis, a procedure apparently designed to help snap him back into conformity.

Psychoanalysis, in fact, functions quite frequently in the culture of the 1950s as an emblem of conformism, apparently based on the notion that there must be something wrong anyone who doesn’t fit in with the society around them. Such maladjusted individuals then need to “fixed,” so that they can function as cooperative and productive members of society. Little wonder, then, that novels set in the period in which mental health institutions play a key role—such as Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962) and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (1963)—often portray these institutions in a negative (or even sinister) light. Holden, too, dismisses the therapy as useless because the psychiatrist keeps asking him whether he is going to “apply” himself in the next school term, even though Holden is so alienated from himself he has no idea what he is going to do. The talking cure has no appeal for Holden, only helping to convince the alienated youngster that one shouldn’t “ever tell anybody anything” (216).

How one reads this ending is crucial to the way one sees the political implications of the book. One possible reading is that Holden is so deeply disturbed that he genuinely needs medical help. According to this reading, Holden’s parents and the society of which they are a part are simply trying to help him overcome his mental health issues so that he can have a happy and successful future. One could also conclude that Holden’s clueless parents have sent him to a facility that will have no impact on him because he will simply tune them out. A very different—and very dystopian—reading is also available. According to this view, the purpose of Holden’s incarceration at the end of the novel is simply to suppress his individuality and attempt to ensure that he will conform to the dominant values in the society around him, successfully taking his place in that society’s wealthy white male ruling elite.

Relevant here is Erving Goffman’s Asylums (1961), a chilling account of the suppression of individuality by impersonal institutions in the 1950s. Goffman focuses on “total institutions,” such as mental hospitals and prisons, the inmates of which are completely in the control of institutional authority. Importantly, Goffman’s characterization of total institutions is consistently accompanied by subtle suggestions that these institutions are not extreme cases, but are in fact representative of life in the highly regimented corporate culture of modern America. Among other things, Goffman’s focus on mental hospitals is indicative of the growing preoccupation, in the America of the 1950s, with mental illness and with psychoanalysis as a technique for separating “normal,” mentally healthy (and thus reliable) citizens from those who were mentally ill, and thus were abnormal and unreliable. Freud became a virtual icon of American popular culture in the 1950s, and the language and images of psychoanalysis became very much a part of the popular jargon and imagination. Meanwhile, mental illness became a major public health issue as never before—witness the campaign to promote awareness of mental health that lies at the center of the depiction of the advertising industry in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955), one of the signature novels of the decade.

The different ways it is possible to read the ending of The Catcher in the Rye are indicative of the multiple interpretations available throughout the novel, despite the fact that it appears to be so simple. Ironically, one reason why so many readers have loved this novel is that it seems so candid and straightforward, while one reason it has continued to interest professional literary critics is that it is so complex and ambiguous. This situation might seem contradictory, but it also might be appropriate: Holden Caulfield lives in a world full of contradictions. Perhaps, in the final analysis, his narrative reflects that fact most of all.

Works Cited

Benson, Josef. J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Eye: A Cultural History. Rowman and Littlefield, 2018.

Ciocia, Stefania. “‘The World Loves an Underdog,’ or the Continuing Appeal of the Adolescent Rebel Narrative: A Comparative Reading of Vernon God Little, The Catcher in the Rye and Huckleberry Finn.” Children’s Literature in Education, vol. 49, 2018, pp. 196–215.

Doherty, Thomas. Teenagers and Teenpics: The Juvenilization of American Movies in the 1950s. Unwin Hyman, 1988.

Esckilsen, Erik. “Smell Like Teen Spirit: The Catcher in the Rye and the Young-Adult (YA) Canon.” J. D. Salinger. Edited by Peter J. Bailey, Salem Press, 2022, pp. 15–40.

Evans, Robert C. “J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye: Early Responses in the Popular Press.” J. D. Salinger. Edited by Peter J. Bailey, Salem Press, 2022, pp. 15–40.

Kinane, Ian. “‘Phonies’ and Phone Calls: Social Isolation, the Problem of Language, and J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Arizona Quarterly, vol. 73, no.4, Winter 2017, pp. 117–32.

Mizruchi, Susan. “The School of Martyrdom: Culture and Class in Catcher in the Rye.” Religion & Literature, vol. 47, no. 2, Summer 2015, pp. 23–40.

Opland, J. Notes on Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. London: Methuen, 1976.

Salinger, J. D. The Catcher in the Rye. Little, Brown, 1951.

Tookey, Nigel. The Catcher in the Rye: J.D. Salinger. York Press, 2003.


[1] See Evans for a discussion of the (mostly positive) early reviews of The Catcher in the Rye in the contemporary press. For a more extensive history of the novel as a cultural phenomenon, see Benson.

[2] Huckleberry Finn has often been identified as an important predecessor to The Catcher in the Rye. For example, see Ciocia for a discussion of these two novels (plus D.B.C. Pierre’s 2003 novel Vernon God Little) as examples of the “adolescent rebel narrative.”

[3] In particular, D. B. is not at all sure that the American military was preferable to the Nazis (142). This kind of attitude was surprisingly common in postwar America, though it would eventually be made untenable by the pressures of the Cold War. For example, Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead (1948), one of the greatest of all World War II novels, expresses extreme skepticism about the good vs. evil rhetoric of the war, a rhetoric that would ultimately be transferred to the Cold War.

[4] For a discussion of the attempts of the American film industry to appeal to teen audiences in the 1950s (partly as a way of competing with television), see Doherty.

[5] Nadel notes that Holden’s vigilant search for phonies echoes the paranoid political climate of the Cold War (71–89). However, the phonies of the book are not communists but conformist, mainstream Americans.

[6] On the status of the novel as a Young Adult classic, see Esckilsen.