Themes the Catcher in the Rye Major Theme Alienation Within a Society



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THEMES

The Catcher in the RyeThe Catcher in the Rye Major Theme

Alienation Within a Society

The major theme in The Catcher in the Rye is that of alienation within a society that is increasingly sacrificing its value system for the sake of monetary gain. It is also that of alienation within a society that is conformist, where no one has the courage to be true, honest, and different. Holden Caulfield is a solitary rebel who is alienated because he cannot conform. Holden perceives his loneliness and isolation and wants to break the confines of his seclusion by making some form of human connection. Unfortunately, all the people he reaches out to are unable to accept him. Holden is faced with denial and rejection from all quarters. Throughout the book, Salinger stresses the need for interaction and communication, which seem to be disappearing in the postwar America.


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Minor Themes


Corruption of Society

Salinger highlights the increasing degree of corruption that is an aspect of modern day existence. This corruption of society is represented by characters, such as Maurice, who lie, cheat, and bully to get what they want. There is also a horde of nameless people who seem take perverse pleasure in things like filling public walls with profane graffiti.



The Difficulty of Growing Up

Another theme that Salinger develops is the difficulty of adolescence. Growing up is often intolerable in a society that does not provide stability and values to the youth on the verge of adulthood. This is a recurring theme in Salinger’s novels.



Phoniness in Life

Finally, Salinger paints a clear picture of the phoniness in life, where artists sacrifice their art for fame and mothers cry fake tears in movies. Holden Caulfield is totally disgusted at the phonies that people the world. Through Holden, Salinger is trying to make the reader see the need for honesty and integrity in the modern world.



MOOD

The mood in The Catcher In The Rye is dark, bleak, gloomy, and depressing. Holden is a troubled, searching, frustrated, and alienated youth; since he is the narrator of the story, his personal mood colors everything in the novel. There is even a sense of impending danger, doom, and death throughout the plot since everything around him seems to confirm Holden’s troubled state of mind.



LITERARY ELEMENTS


SETTING

The novel is framed by the first and last Chapters, which take place somewhere in California in a psychiatric rest home. The main action of the novel takes place first at a boarding school in Agerstown, Pennsylvania and then mainly in New York City. The narrative is evocative of Manhattan in the 1950’s, taking place at and around the various landmarks of New York City, such as Grand Central Station, Greenwich Village, Radio City Music Hall, and the famous Central Park.

 

LIST OF CHARACTERS


Major Characters



Holden Caulfield

The sixteen year-old narrator whose experiences form the action of the novel. He seems to have a history of expulsion and failure at various prep schools because of his inability to adjust to institutional life and the world in general. His recent expulsion from Pencey Prep and a series of other harrowing experiences lead him to an inevitable emotional breakdown.



Phoebe

Holden’s younger sister, whom he loves and respects completely. She is ten, but very clever and passionate. Throughout the book, Holden thinks Phoebe is the only person in the world who 2understands and loves him completely. Towards the end of the plot, he is disappointed that Phoebe scolds him for being expelled from school and questions what he is going to do with his life. She makes it up to him, however, when she packs her suitcase and wants to run away with him.



Minor Characters


Allie

Holden’s younger brother who died of leukemia on July 18, 1946. Allie was extremely close to Holden, and Holden believes that Allie was "about fifty times as intelligent" as anyone Holden has ever known. Allie had a fielder’s mitt that he had written poems all over in green ink, to give him something to read when he was in the outfield all alone. Holden keeps the fielder’s mitt with him wherever he goes.



D.B.

Holden’s older brother, a writer who once published a collection called ‘The Secret Goldfish’. D.B. is now employed as a scriptwriter in Hollywood. This occupation, in Holden’s eyes, is equivalent to prostitution. Holden speaks mostly of D.B.’s "selling out" to Hollywood.






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Mr. and Mrs. Caulfield

Holden’s parents who are unable to provide him with the parental understanding that he needs. Mr. Caulfield is a corporation lawyer, and Mrs. Caulfield is a housewife. Very little is revealed about these two characters, and only Mrs. Caulfield is ever seen, and then only briefly.



Mr. Antolini

Holden’s English teacher from Elkton Hills who is now teaching at New York University. Holden holds him in the highest regard and believes him to be a guardian of morality. In his hour of need, Holden goes to Mr. Antolini for help. Mr. Antolini is a sensitive man, about D.B.’s age, married to a wealthy older woman.



Mrs. Antolini

Mr. Antolini’s wife, who is both more wealthy and older than her husband.



Jane Gallagher

Holden’s childhood friend. Though they never actually dated, they used to hold hands. Jane is best remembered by Holden for the way she used to keep all her kings in the back row during checkers. She is never actually present in a scene, but is constantly in Holden’s thoughts and memories. Holden seems to feel tremendous respect and affection for Jane, and holds her up as a pure and spotless friend and person.



Sally Hayes

A girl that Holden sometimes dates, though he thinks she is a "pain in the ass". She is sensible, practical, boring, and, in Holden’s words, "phony as hell".



Ward Stradlater

Holden’s roommate at Pencey Prep who is fairly conceited. He is a good-looking prep school athlete with a notorious history of having sex with girls. He has a date with Jane Gallagher in the beginning of the novel and fights with Holden when he returns from that date.



Robert Ackley

A boy who stays in the room next to Holden’s at Pencey Prep. He is, according to Holden, a "terrific bore" and a "slob" in personal hygiene. However, Holden is in his own way quite sympathetic toward Ackley and at times even seeks his company.



Carl Luce

Holden’s academic advisor from Whooton. He is the first person to introduce Holden to sex education . Holden considers him an "intellectual" and seeks his companionship while in New York even though he does not much care for him.



Maurice

The elevator operator at the hotel in which Holden stays. He also functions as a "pimp" and a bully.



Sunny

The young prostitute that Maurice sends to Holden room. Though she seems very young, she is very businesslike and hardened.



Mrs. Morrow

The mother of a fellow boarder, Ernest Morrow. Holden meets her on the train to New York and has a conversation with her.



The two nuns

Holden meets two nuns at a cafeteria in Grand Central. They have come from Chicago to teach in a school in New York . One of them is an English teacher and talks with Holden about Romeo and Juliet.



Mr. Spencer

Holden’s history teacher from Pencey Prep. He shows a great deal of concern for Holden’s future, but Holden thinks he is too old and pathetic.



Lillian Simmons

A woman D.B. used to date. She is a typical phony, who loves to attract attention.



James Castle

A student at Elkton Hills who committed suicide.



Mal Brossard

Holden’s friend at Pencey Prep.



George Something

A friend of Sally Hayes from Andover.



Rudolf Schmidt

The janitor in Holden’s dorm.

Many other names are mentioned in the narrative, but they are minor characters without much significance in an analysis.

CONFLICT


Protagonist

Holden Caulfield is the protagonist and narrator of the novel, and all the events in the plot revolve around him. He is a sixteen-year-old boy who has trouble fitting in and finding a place for himself in life. There is nothing heroic about Holden, and he is often considered an anti-hero.



Antagonist

Holden’s antagonist is his inability to fit into society. Throughout the novel, he is pitted against different characters, social situations, educational environments, technology, and the world in general. But Holden is really fighting himself, and until he learns who he is and finds a place for himself he the world, he cannot be at peace.



Climax

This is a novel of progressive climax, where one high point in the plot leads up to the next, as follows:



Climax One

The first climax is reached when Holden ends up lying on the floor with a bleeding nose after his roommate Stradlater has beaten him a fight that Holden started. Holden has lost his first battle against the world and escapes form Pencey.



Climax Two

When Holden has been beaten by the pimp Maurice at the end of Chapter Fourteen, he is once again lying on the floor incapacitated with the pain from the impact. His second direct confrontation has ended in defeat. With no where to go, he heads to Grand Central Station.






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Climax Three

In his search for human connection, Holden gathers his courage, places a phone call to Sally, and sets a date with her for the afternoon. He tells her about his plan to run away out West and suggests that she join him. She scoffs at his foolishness and walks out, leaving him again rejected and in isolation.



Climax Four

The fourth climax occurs when Holden faces rejection from the one little person upon whom all his hopes are anchored--Phoebe. This has the most shattering impact on Holden, and he is forced to search elsewhere for understanding. Hence he goes to Mr. Antolini for help.



Climax Five

The fourth climax occurs when Holden is rejected by Mr. Antolini, the last person he has to turn to for help. He is sure that this man, above all others, will be able to understand his needs and accept him. To his horror, Mr. Antolini gives Holden an academic lecture about scholastic performance. Then he approaches Holden in the middle of the night, touching his on the forehead. Holden interprets he gesture as a sexual advance.

The actual climax is never viewed in the course of the novel, only foreshadowed by the mini-climaxes and proven by Holden’s stay at a psychiatric hospital. Sometime after the close of action in the book, life amongst the "phonies" gets to be too much for Holden. The reader is forced to imagine the inevitable outcome of this story - the total mental breakdown of the protagonist, Holden Caulfield.

Outcome

The novel ends in tragedy for Holden when he finally realizes he cannot win his battle. He returns home to his parents and is obviously sent to a psychiatric hospital to "rest" before retiring to the world that has defeated him.



CHAPTER SUMMARIES WITH NOTES


CHAPTER 1



Summary

The novel opens with the first-person narrator, Holden Caulfield, speaking directly to a psychoanalyst or psychologist. Because he has had a complete mental breakdown, Holden has been sent to this "rest home" for treatment. As he talks, his mind frequently wanders and, therefore, his story is often filled with digressions. The first digression is about D.B., Holden’s older brother who is a writer. He feels that D. B. has "sold-out" in his literary career, for he is now in Hollywood writing screenplays, like a "prostitute".

Holden quickly establishes the time frame which he wants to discuss, beginning with the day he leaves Pencey Prep, one of the many schools from which he has been expelled. The remainder of the Chapter is a flashback to the time of his expulsion; it is a Saturday just a few days before Christmas vacation. In the flashback, Holden is going to visit his history teacher. Before he reaches the teacher’s house, Holden stands on a hill overlooking Pencey, searching for a sense of closure; he wants to have one positive farewell thought. He then recalls an early evening football game with two friends. Satisfied that the memory is a pleasant one with which he can leave, he continues on his way to the history professor’s home.


Notes



The Catcher in the Rye
is structured as a first person narrative that makes use of direct address, flashback, and digression. An example of the narrator’s direct address is found in the opening line of the novel when Holden says, "If you really want to hear about it. . ." Holden is actually speaking to the psychoanalyst in the story, but at the same time, he appears to be directly addressing the reader. In this first Chapter, Holden also employs the technique of flashback, where he quickly shifts to a time in the past. As he speaks to the therapist, Holden begins to tell about the day he left Pencey Prep, just a few days before Christmas. Holden is also guilty of digression in this opening Chapter, as seen in his references to his brother D. B. Throughout the novel, Holden, as the narrator, will employ direct address, flashback, and digression, sometimes rather erratically, to tell his story. The effect of the constant use of these techniques is an air of confusion, reflective of Holden’s tormented state of mind. His life, and what is happening to him, does not make sense; therefore, Holden is incapable of sorting things out and telling them in a strictly chronological or orderly way.

This first Chapter clearly establishes the youth of Holden Caulfield. He is a young man who has just been kicked out of another prep school. As the narrator, he speaks a typical teenage language, filled with exaggeration, slang, and curse words. This authentic language helps to establish Holden’s personality and voice. It also helps to establish him as a credible narrator, for the story is about a troubled teenager.

Holden also has many individualized characteristics in his speech. He constantly substitutes nouns for adjectives, as in the phrase, "David Copperfield kind of crap". He is often unable to find precise words for many of his thoughts, so he awkwardly stops in mid-thought and hesitates. These tendencies, coupled with the fact that Holden ends many of his sentences with phrases like "and all," indicate that the speaker is confused and self-conscious. In fact, his narration becomes almost a stream-of-consciousness narrative, where things happen inside the narrator’s head and then appear to be quickly written down.

In this Chapter, Holden makes it clear that he is not in the hospital because of poor physical health, but because of a nervous breakdown. This information is important, for it helps to establish the mood and point of view of the narrator. The fact that Holden is in a psychiatric hospital certainly influences the way the story is told, read, and understood. In other words, the setting in this first Chapter, which serves as the front-end of a frame narrative, is extremely important.

It is important to notice that when Holden flashes back to the day he left Pencey Prep, he is pictured alone, standing on top of a hill. He has risen above the pettiness of Pencey and looks down on it, both literally and figuratively. He wants to leave town with a positive thought about the school, even though he has been expelled. He thinks hard to come up with a pleasant memory and recalls an evening football game with friends. He is satisfied that this recollection is positive enough. As a result, he can proceed on this wait to call on his history teacher.

CHAPTER SUMMARIES AND ANALYSIS


CHAPTER 2



Summary

Holden visits Mr. Spencer, and their conversation inevitably turns to Holden’s failure in school and his pitiful career as a student. As the visit progresses, Holden grows increasingly impatient and annoyed with old Mr. Spencer for pointing out all of his shortcomings. Mr. Spencer forces Holden to listen as he reads aloud from one of Holden’s most recent papers, which is a shoddily written, half-done report on mummies. Mr. Spencer then reads the note that Holden has written on the bottom of the report, apologizing for his failure to perform well on the paper. In the note, Holden reassures the professor that he is not a bad teacher. The failure rests in Holden alone. Nonetheless, Holden is mortified by what has transpired at this meeting. He feels worse than when he came and cannot wait to escape Mr. Spencer’s house.




Notes

Much is learned about Holden in this chapter. First, he expresses admiration for the elderly teacher, who "if you thought about him just enough and not too much, you could figure it out that he wasn’t doing too bad for himself". Evidently he respects the old man enough to pay him a visit on a Saturday night. While visiting with the teacher, it is apparent that Holden is simply not a student. The teacher criticizes his lack of effort and even reads from one of Holden’s reports, which is unacceptably completed. It is significant that Holden himself writes a note on the bottom of the work, which reveals his sensitive side. He apologizes for not doing well on the report and confirms that he to blame for his failure, not the teacher. In other words, Holden is very aware of his own lack of effort, but does nothing to correct it. In schoolwork, like in life, Holden seems bored and unchallenged.

In a stream-of-consciousness manner, Holden’s mind begins to wander in this scene. Instead of concentrating on Spencer’s words, he begins thinking about where the ducks in Central Park go when the water freezes. The imagery is symbolic, because Holden can identify himself with the ducks--hemmed in and freezing. His wandering thoughts are also an effort to avoid Spencer’s questions, especially when he asks, "How do you feel about all this?" The truth of the matter is that Holden, even though he is constantly thinking, is trying desperately not to feel anything. This avoidance is the first foreshadowing that Holden is heading toward a breakdown. He does not want to feel, because it hurts too much; but running from his feelings creates desperation and resolves nothing.

This scene marks the first of many in the novel where Holden becomes disillusioned with someone. Many of the people whom Holden has once admired, such as Spencer, become suddenly pathetic and phony to him. To indicate Holden’s negative attitude toward Spencer, the boy notices, as if for the first time, that the teacher is aging and ill; he is also filled with unpleasant smells and sounds, an image of death and destruction approaching. Holden is suddenly repulsed by and alienated from Spencer. The rest of the book will be filled with similar images of Holden’s sense of repulsion, alienation, and doom.



CHAPTER SUMMARY WITH NOTES


CHAPTER 3



Summary

The chapter opens with Holden giving a few details about Mr. Ossenburger. He is a former student of Pencey who became an undertaker; Holden’s dormitory is named after him. Then Holden turns his attention to his own reading habits and lists his favorite authors. His brother D.B. tops the list, followed by Ring Lardner, Isak Dineson, and Thomas Hardy. His literary thoughts lead him into another flashback. As he is settling down to read, a dorm neighbor, Robert Ackley, interrupts Holden. Although Holden drops several hints that he wants the boy to leave, Ackley is blind to Holden’s subtleties. Ward Stradlater, Holden’s athletic roommate, enters the room to get ready for a date and interrupts the half-hearted conversation between Holden and Ackley. Ackley, who is always uncomfortable around Stradlater, quickly leaves.




Notes

The chapter opens with Holden’s startling confession that he is a liar. This statement is interesting in that it causes the reader to question the credibility of the narrative even further. First, it was learned that Holden is in a psychiatric hospital; now he admits that he is not truthful. There is a paradox in this latest revelation. If Holden is honest in saying he is a liar, perhaps the reader should not believe the narrative because it is full of lies. On the other hand, if Holden is a liar, but honestly confesses it, perhaps he is a very honest narrator, who plans to tell the truth throughout the story. The reader is left to form his own opinion.

Holden’s love of reading and his list of favorite authors are also revealing. There is irony in the fact that Holden considers himself uneducated, almost illiterate, but he loves to read, which is the antidote to a lack of education. His choice of authors is very significant. He places his own brother at the top of the list, but in the first chapter he states that D.B. has "sold-out" to Hollywood as a writer. The second on his list, Ring Lardner, is a pessimistic and cynical twentieth century writer of short stories, which criticize the average person for being stupid, cruel, and dull. Isak Dineson and Thomas Hardy are equally pessimistic. Holden, therefore, chooses reading material to match his own pathetic state of mind and outlook on life.

In the flashback to Pencey, Holden reveals that he is intolerant and impatient. Holden is annoyed at Ackley’s entry into his room and rudely hints that he should leave. Like Holden, Ackley is portrayed as an alienated young man, who is liked by no one. Holden paints a particularly bleak picture of his neighbor. "He was one of those very, very tall, round-shouldered guys. . .about six four with lousy teeth. . .I never once saw him brush his teeth. They always looked mossy and awful. . .Besides that he had a lot of pimples." Ackley seems even more pathetic than Holden, for his shabby physical appearance intensifies his isolation. Unlike Holden, Ackley wants to belong and constantly tries to gain acceptance, even from Holden. By contrast, Holden is self-alienated, purposely distancing himself from others and preferring his own thoughts to conversation.

In this chapter, Holden again refers to "phonies," who are the objects of his scorn and disgust. Even though Holden admires the strong, athletic build of his roommate Stradlater, he judges that he is a "phony kind of friendly." It would seem that Holden’s entire world is littered with "phonies;" in truth, he uses this expression as a catch-all phrase for everyone from whom he wants to distance himself.

It is important to notice Holden’s emphasis on Ossenburger as an undertaker. Since Holden’s dormitory at Pencey is named after this man, it becomes yet another symbol of death and doom, foreshadowing Holden’s miserable existence and breakdown and intensifying the dark and gloomy mood.




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