Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Alienation as a Form of Self-Protection
Throughout the novel, Holden seems to be excluded from and victimized by the world around him. As he says to Mr. Spencer, he feels trapped on “the other side” of life, and he continually attempts to find his way in a world in which he feels he doesn’t belong.
As the novel progresses, we begin to perceive that Holden’s alienation is his way of protecting himself. Just as he wears his hunting hat (see “Symbols,” below) to advertise his uniqueness, he uses his isolation as proof that he is better than everyone else around him and therefore above interacting with them. The truth is that interactions with other people usually confuse and overwhelm him, and his cynical sense of superiority serves as a type of self-protection. Thus, Holden’s alienation is the source of what little stability he has in his life.
As readers, we can see that Holden’s alienation is the cause of most of his pain. He never addresses his own emotions directly, nor does he attempt to discover the source of his troubles. He desperately needs human contact and love, but his protective wall of bitterness prevents him from looking for such interaction. Alienation is both the source of Holden’s strength and the source of his problems. For example, his loneliness propels him into his date with Sally Hayes, but his need for isolation causes him to insult her and drive her away. Similarly, he longs for the meaningful connection he once had with Jane Gallagher, but he is too frightened to make any real effort to contact her. He depends upon his alienation, but it destroys him.
The Painfulness of Growing Up
According to most analyses, The Catcher in the Rye is a bildungsroman, a novel about a young character’s growth into maturity. While it is appropriate to discuss the novel in such terms, Holden Caulfield is an unusual protagonist for a bildungsroman because his central goal is to resist the process of maturity itself. As his thoughts about the Museum of Natural History demonstrate, Holden fears change and is overwhelmed by complexity. He wants everything to be easily understandable and eternally fixed, like the statues of Eskimos and Indians in the museum. He is frightened because he is guilty of the sins he criticizes in others, and because he can’t understand everything around him. But he refuses to acknowledge this fear, expressing it only in a few instances—for example, when he talks about sex and admits that “[s]ex is something I just don’t understand. I swear to God I don’t” (Chapter 9).
Instead of acknowledging that adulthood scares and mystifies him, Holden invents a fantasy that adulthood is a world of superficiality and hypocrisy (“phoniness”), while childhood is a world of innocence, curiosity, and honesty. Nothing reveals his image of these two worlds better than his fantasy about the catcher in the rye: he imagines childhood as an idyllic field of rye in which children romp and play; adulthood, for the children of this world, is equivalent to death—a fatal fall over the edge of a cliff. His created understandings of childhood and adulthood allow Holden to cut himself off from the world by covering himself with a protective armor of cynicism. But as the book progresses, Holden’s experiences, particularly his encounters with Mr. Antolini and Phoebe, reveal the shallowness of his conceptions.
The Phoniness of the Adult World
“Phoniness,” which is probably the most famous phrase from The Catcher in the Rye, is one of Holden’s favorite concepts. It is his catch-all for describing the superficiality, hypocrisy, pretension, and shallowness that he encounters in the world around him. In Chapter 22, just before he reveals his fantasy of the catcher in the rye, Holden explains that adults are inevitably phonies, and, what’s worse, they can’t see their own phoniness. Phoniness, for Holden, stands as an emblem of everything that’s wrong in the world around him and provides an excuse for him to withdraw into his cynical isolation.
More main ideas from The Catcher in the Rye
What does Holden mean when he calls people around him “phonies”?
Answer: By “phony,” Holden means someone who is inauthentic and living on the surface as opposed to actually seeing the world clearly and living authentically, not selling out to artifice. Holden is deeply disappointed in those who cannot see beyond life's mundane duties and trivialities.
What is the significance of the novel’s title?
Answer: Holden holds onto a song about a catcher in the rye who catches all the children in his path just before they run off a cliff, rescuing them from doom. Holden himself either wants to be such a catcher, who rescues children, since he believes they are the only people who are genuine in the world, or he wants to be rescued by the catcher.
Why does Holden slug Stradlater at Pencey?
Answer: Holden is in love with Jane Gallagher, one of the few girls he has allowed himself to get close to. When he finds out that Stradlater had a date with her and treats the whole affair so casually, he cannot hold in his rage.
What is the significance of the red hunter's hat that Holden wears?
Answer: Both Phoebe and Allie had red hair, so Holden's red hunter's cap, with its childish echoes, is his way of bonding with both of them and retaining his innocence.
Why does Holden ultimately leave Pencey?
Answer: Holden is kicked out for failing too many classes, but he ultimately chooses to leave early to get away from all the phonies who are making him miserable. Specifically, he is fleeing Stradlater, who has co-opted the one and only girl he truly loves, Jane Gallagher.
What are some of the things that “kill” Holden, in his words?
Answer: In general, the things that make Holden feel emotional (“killing” him) involve children. When he reads Phoebe's notebook, or when he remembers Allie's foibles, he can't block the surging emotions that overflow his defenses.
Why does Holden cling to the innocence of children so deeply?
Answer: Holden has yet to recover from the stark cruelties of adulthood that so quickly stripped him of childhood innocence. Allie was taken from him cruelly, and then Holden immediately had to venture to school, where he was taunted by classmates. Holden can't see a way to regain his childhood innocence.
Why can't Holden force himself to sleep with the prostitute who comes to his motel room?
Answer: Holden simply wants the comfort of someone he can talk to. He cannot bring himself to numb the loneliness and pain long enough to sleep with someone. On top of this, he is a virgin, so it is quite evident he wants his first time to be special.
Why does Holden finally lash out at Sally Hawkins?
Answer: Though Sally is quite pretty and Holden enjoys having her on his arm, ultimately he cannot put up with her “phoniness.” Sally cares about appearances and the superficial trappings of status, but Holden cares only about having someone he can relate to. He would rather be lonely than have to engage with a phony.
Why does Holden ultimately capitulate and come back home with Phoebe at the end?
Answer: Holden wants to distance himself from people as far as possible so that he never has to experience the pain of loving someone and then losing them again. After Allie, he cannot take another heartbreak. He wants to spare himself the pain of possibly losing Phoebe or seeing her grow up by getting as far away from her as possible. But when she insists on accompanying him, Holden cannot bear to ruin her life, either by letting her come with him or by leaving without her.