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Essay: The Catcher In The Rye: Holden Caulfield’s Fear Of Growing Up

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  • Published: 1 April 2019*
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  • Words: 1,935 (approx)
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J.D Salinger’s novel, The Catcher In The Rye, perfectly captures the angst, confusion, and disillusionment that teenagers struggle with as they try to find their purpose in life. Holden Caulfield, the narrator and protagonist, is a troubled 17 year old who wanders through life physically present, but mentally absent. That is because he is stuck between the stage of adolescence and adulthood. Holden has gerontophobia: the fear of growing up. As a result, he clings onto his childhood; remembering it as a time of happiness, stability, and most importantly, innocence. However, this mentality makes him extremely cynical of the outside world. Holden believes that people are most virtuous when they are children. Their views of the outside world are yet to be tainted by the reality of life. On the other side of the spectrum, he sees adults as “phonies” and “morons” because he does not agree with the way they cope with the burdens of adulthood. This reluctance to change formed such a powerful barrier between himself and others. But Holden fails to realize that his commentary of the outside world is really a projection of his own fear about the uncertainty of the future.

In the beginning of the novel, Holden is proud of his childlike tendencies. He is adamant that he wants to stay like that. But is he as content as he claims? It does not appear that way because Holden constantly lies, even if it is for the most minuscule thing. This was the first sign that he wanted to preserve his innocence. Holden lies because he does not want anyone to discover his true identity— a boy who is cynical about everything and everyone in his life based on the traumatic events of his past. However, this reason separates into two smaller categories. One category is that Holden is not happy with himself. For example, he conveniently forgets to mention that he was getting expelled from Pencey Prep until later on in Chapter 1. When he has the chance to divulge further into the reasons why, he is very vague about it and simply says that when school becomes difficult, he gives up. Another category is that he is bored. For example, he said “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” (23). Yes, this is a hypothetical scenario, but with each interaction, he probably convinces himself that the truth is not entertaining enough to reveal. He lies so much that it eventually became a habit. Another reason Holden lies is because he is afraid of hurting other people’s feelings. His thoughts and observations are very blunt and harsh. However, when he interacts with other people, he often changes or mends his responses in order to appease them. For example, Holden lied to his history teacher, Mr. Spencer, when Mr. Spencer said, “I doubt very much if you opened your textbook even once the whole term” (16). Holden could tell that Mr. Spencer felt bad about failing him, so he wanted to take that burden away from him. He continued to lie when he wanted to leave Mr. Spencer’s house. Like a child, Holden often turns to lying in order to save himself.

Holden attempts to keep his innocence, but the pent up frustration, anger, and sadness makes it a difficult task. The main reason that Holden is full of disdain is because he struggles between being asocial and being outgoing. With each interaction, he wonders: is it worth it? When he puts himself out there, it usually does not work out because he is still misunderstood by the “phonies” and “morons” around him. It is apparent that although he is lonely, the trauma from past experiences prevents him from removing the defense mechanism. Holden does not have any friends at Pencey Prep. Initially, it appeared that the other people did not include Holden in social activities. But as the story progressed, it was blatantly clear that Holden contributed to his isolation as well. For example, there was a big football game. Holden says that “practically the whole school except me was there” (6). The feeling of loneliness was kind of subtle until this point: “Anyway, it was the Saturday of the football game with Saxon Hall. The game with Saxon Hall was supposed to be a very big deal around Pencey. It was the last game of the year, and you were supposed to commit suicide or something if old Pencey didn’t win. I remember around three o’clock that afternoon I was standing way the hell up on top of Thomsen Hill, right next to this crazy cannon that was in the Revolutionary War and all. You could see the whole field from there, and you could see the two teams bashing each other all over the place. You couldn’t see the grandstand too hot, but you could hear them all yelling, deep and terrific on the Pencey side” (6). This image is significant because it physically showed the separation between Holden and the outside world. However, this moment also revealed that Holden chose not to socialize; making this one of the many times Holden was being a hypocrite. Another example is when Holden was coming back from New York with his fencing team. He states that “The whole team ostracized me the whole way back on the train” (7). Although people usually joke with each other to show comfort and familiarity, Holden did not feel included in the joke. However, these jokes came from the fact that like a child, Holden was being irresponsible and lost the gear on the train. He was the manager of the fencing team, but did not act accordingly. Another example is how Holden treats the people he does interact with: his acquaintance Ackley and his roommate Stradlater. Although Ackley cares about Holden, the feeling is not mutual. Holden thinks that Ackley is “dirty” and “annoying,” but when he was worried about Stradlater’s date with Jean Gallagher, he said: “For once in my stupid life, I was really glad to see him. He took my mind off the other stuff” (43). I personally believe that Holden should treat Ackley better. As for Stradlater, Holden only speaks to him out of courtesy and should treat him even worse. Holden reveals that his brother died of leukemia and the significance of the baseball mitt. When Stradlater practically coerced Holden into writing his composition, Stradlater dismissed his efforts and hurt Holden (even though Stradlater did not know about the significance of the mitt). Their tension grew until they physically fought over Jean Gallagher and Holden was left bloody and swollen. In this moment, Holden was probably convinced that he should not get close to anyone. Holden is not perfect and I personally would have dealt with certain situations differently. But his contempt is justifiable. It is difficult to reflect on the consequences of his actions and properly move on from his past; especially when someone still has the mindset of a child.

Holden is a lost and immature teenage boy. Because of this, his opinion of women is based on the limited experiences he had thus far— these experiences not representing women in  a very positive light. As a result, he avoids dating, sex, and falling in love; another indication that he wants to keep his innocence intact. He believes that women are unintelligent, vapid, and superficial. But he also believes that women are people and should not be objectified. For example, when Holden arrives at the hotel and sees the couple squirting water at each other, he is fascinated yet disgusted at the same time. He says, “The thing is, though, I don’t like the idea. It stinks, if you analyze it. I think if you don’t really like a girl, you shouldn’t horse around with her at all, and if you do like her, then you’re supposed to like her face, and if you like her face, you ought to be careful about doing crumby stuff to it, like squirting water all over it” (77). However, Holden says that he called a woman who “wasn’t exactly a whore or anything but that didn’t mind doing it once in a while” (78) simply because another man advertised her promiscuity. These two contradicting moments show that even though he possesses some generalizations about women, he is subconsciously trying to break away from those beliefs and find the exception to the rule. Two women that he regards highly thus far are his younger sister Phoebe and his childhood crush Jane Gallagher. Phoebe was the only person Holden constantly thought about calling when he left Pencey Prep. He believes that she is “Somebody with sense and all” (83) and that “You never saw a little kid so pretty and smart in your whole life” (83). As for Jane Gallagher, he is still distressed with all the things Stradlater might have said and done to her in order to charm her. To Holden, “Jane was different” (97) and he “liked the way she looked” (95). Jane was also “the only one, outside my family, that I ever showed Allie’s baseball mitt to, with all the poems written on it. She’d never met Allie or anything, because that was her first summer in Maine—before that, she went to Cape Cod—but I told her quite a lot about him. She was interested in that kind of stuff” (95). The struggle between his preconceived notions and the women he respects contribute to his inner battle.

The title of the novel reveals exactly why Holden wants to preserve his innocence. Earlier on, Phoebe asked Holden why is he afraid of growing up. He says, “ How would you know you weren’t being a phony? The trouble is, you wouldn’t” (204) Initially, it appears that Holden does not like adults, but this conversation paired with Holden and Phoebe’s discussion of a poem by Robert Burns reveals a deeper meaning. Holden says, “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” (204). Holden wants to preserve his childhood innocence because he wants to save other children from the evils of the adult world. The true evil of the adult world is living passively. Holden lives by his own rules. He is afraid of growing up because he does not want to conform to society’s standards, he wants to continue living for his own satisfaction. To him, that is a detrimental sacrifice. However, erasing some vulgar words on the wall or preventing himself from dating is not going to stop the inevitable. Holden eventually realized that he could not escape time. Once he accepted that reality, he overcame his fear of growing up.

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