The Catcher in the Rye: Theme Analysis
J. D. Salinger presents an image of an atypical adolescent boy in The Catcher in the Rye. Holden is much more than a troubled teen going through "a phase." Indeed Holden is a very special boy with special needs. He doesn’t understand and doesn’t wish to understand the world around him. In fact most of the book details his guilty admissions of all the knowledge he knows but wishes he didn’t. Though his innocence regarding issues of school, money, and sexuality has already been lost, he still hopes to protect others from knowing about these adult subjects.
Holden, unlike the usual fictional teenager, doesn’t express normal rebellion. He distrusts his teachers and parents not because he wants to separate himself from them, but because he can’t understand them. In fact there is little in the world that he does understand. The only people he trusts and respects are Allie, his deceased brother, and Phoebe, his younger sister. Everyone else is a phony of some sort. Holden uses the word phony to identify everything in the world which he rejects. He rejects his roommate Stradlater because Stradlater doesn’t value the memories so dear to Holden (Allie’s baseball glove and Jane’s kings in the back row). Even Ernie, the piano player, is phony because he’s too skillful. Holden automatically associates skill with arrogance (from past experiences no doubt) and thus can’t separate the two. Even Holden’s most trusted teacher, Mr. Antolini, proves to be a phony when he attempts to fondle Holden. Thus the poor boy is left with a cluster of memories, some good but most bad.
Yet because of these memories, Holden has developed the unique ability to speak candidly (though not articulately) about the people he meets. Though he seems very skeptical about the world, he is really just bewildered. His vocabulary often makes him seem hard, but in fact he is a very weak-willed individual. Holden has no concept of pain, and often likes to see himself as a martyr for a worthy cause. This is proven after the fight with Maurice, after which he imagines his guts spilling out on the floor.
The end of the book demonstrates significant growth on the part of Holden. Although at first Holden is quick to condemn those around him as phony (like Stradlater and Ackley), his more recent encounters with others prove that he is becoming more tolerant and less judgmental. This is evidenced after the ordeal with Mr. Antolini, where Holden is determined not to make any conclusions about his teacher. This growth contributes to Holden’s fantasy of being a catcher in the rye. Despite his inability and fear of becoming an adult, he has found his role in keeping the innocence of other children protected. This is shown when he tries to scratch out the obscenities at Phoebe’s elementary school. He imagines himself on a cliff, catching innocent children (like himself at one time) who accidently fall off the cliff, bridging the gap between childhood and adulthood.
Holden, like the typical banana-fish, simply absorbs all experiences, good and bad, adding them to his own knowledge base. Really the poor teenager is so confused about what he should do, he simply regresses socially, hoping to escape the tough choices of adulthood by keeping others from them.