The adult world expects many things of its inhabitants—a job, a family, taxes, sex, and much more. Unfortunately, most young adults feel as though they will be crushed under this strange new world. Holden Caulfield is no different. When we meet Holden and when we leave him at the end of the novel he is in a mental hospital because of a recent break down. J. D Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is Holden’s reflection on the events that led to this mental break down. He is a young adult still trying to hold on to the world of children for as long as he can. The child world is a place with very few things to worry about.
It is a place of innocence and a time when anything is possible. The adult world could not be more different. As Holden is starting to see, the world of adults is cold, uncaring, and unfair. When people make the transition from children to adults they change forever—they become what society believes acceptable adults to be. Holden is reluctant to make the transition and conform to the adult world because he believes that in conforming he would lose his innocence and disappear. Holden is reluctant to leave his childhood behind because that would mean conforming to the public opinion of what adults should be.
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There are very few examples of adults in this novel for Holden to see what an exemplary adult is and does. One of the few adults we meet is Mr. Spencer. Even if Holden doesn’t fully respect Mr. Spencer he does like the man enough to go and see him before leaving Pency Prep. During that visit Mr. Spencer tells Holden that “life is a game that one plays according to the rules” if they want to survive in this world (Salinger 8). The problem is Holden has no desire to follow anybody’s rules just because some one tells him he has to—there is no reason for Holden to learn faulty and unnecessary rules.
Holden believes that life is only a game for the people who are winning. The winners only believe in the rules because they work for them. Holden, according to Mr. Spencer, is not one of the winners because he won’t shut up and do what the adults tell him to do. The thing is, Holden doesn’t fully understand what the rules are because Holden doesn’t truly understand the world of adults. A side effect of this, as Peter Shaw points out, is that Holden is “most reliable when dealing with the world of children, and less reliable when addressing the adult world” (Shaw 124).
Holden doesn’t want to understand the world of adults; he doesn’t ever intend to enter the game so why should he learn the rules? Holden scoffs at the “phonies” who have succumbed to life’s rules. He only hates these phonies because he is afraid of turning into one himself. All throughout the novel, Holden is reluctant to join the world of adults because he is afraid of changing into something he’s not. Literary critic Alsen agrees by saying that Holden is afraid that he is going to turn into a phony of he is forced to live around them in the near future (Alsen 3).
He is out on a date with the queen of phonies Sally Hayes when he reveals how he believes he can escape the adult world. It is then that he shows us how he believes he is going to escape the adult world; he says he’s going to live in a cabin “with a brook and all” where he would pretend to be a deaf-mute so he wouldn’t have to deal with anybody (Salinger 132). This way, Holden avoids all of the things that would force him to grow up such as a job and relationships with people such as friends and family—in short, society.
That, however, wouldn’t solve anything because he knows deep down that would never happen. Sally points out that his plan is not practical. Holden wouldn’t be able to keep himself alive for longer than a week if he just packed up and moved to the wilderness. And he would still need to communicate with adults to get the supplies he wanted even if he did pretend to be a deaf-mute. Sally’s flat out refusal of the plan shows the qualities of a sure thinking adult, and that is why he calls her the queen of phonies—because she’s already acting like an adult.
Physiologists say that girls mature faster than boys do so it would make sense that Holden is avoiding the adult world instead or embracing it like Sally. But Holden already knew Sally’s personality from previous encounters. Jane, however, he is not too sure about. Another thing that Holden is afraid might have changed is Jane Gallagher. Throughout the novel Holden is searching for a person to call and almost calls her but time after time he puts it off by saying that he’s “not in the mood” (Salinger 59). Holden doesn’t want to call Jane and find out that she has changed since the last time they were together.
Holden would rather live with a memory of a girl who won’t move the last row of checkers than get to know Jane all over again. Holden doesn’t want to face it, but his world is losing its innocence—Sally, Jane, and even Holden are maturing, even if it is at different rates. Holden is dimly aware that in the process of losing his innocence he is being dragged into the adult world whether he likes it or not. This losing of innocence has been happening gradually over time and it’s impossible to stop mostly because Holden didn’t realize it until it was too late.
One point in the novel where Holden becomes aware of this is when he is at Mr. Antolini’s house. Holden believes that Mr. Antolini is “being perverty” by making a pass at him when he wakes up to find Mr. Antolini stroking his hair. Holden is at a kind of limbo in his life where he is mature enough to know what a sexual pass is but immature enough to not be able to differentiate that from a warm gesture of caring love (Salinger 192). Holden is scared and confused by this; he is actively trying to prevent himself from growing up but the losing of innocence happens with the passage of time and cannot be prevented.
The imbalance of maturity and innocence inside of Holden is dangerous and Mr. Antolini can see that; that’s why he tries to help him. But then Holden misreads Mr. Antolini’s intentions and flees his house in an even more desperate state than which he came. Another way his departing innocence is made know to Holden is when he goes to his sister’s school and the history museum after quitting Mr. Antolini’s house. He goes inside his sister’s school—his old school—when he sees the worlds “Fuck you” on the wall (Salinger 201).
After he wipes them off the wall he realize that even if he spent his whole life rubbing Holden’s life where he realizes that evil exists in the world and he can’t get rid of it nor protect people from it. The adult world is a nasty place and no one can change that. Then he goes to the museum and once inside he heads for the mummies’ tombs. These are the final resting places of some ancient and highly respected people—it is supposed to be a place of peace. However, Holden sees another “Fuck you” sign written there (Salinger 204).
This enforces his revelation he had at the school; that there is no escaping the bitterness of the world no matter where he goes. Even though Holden is just realizing these things now, his real changing point is when he saw James Castle lying dead on the ground after his fatal jump. During the talk Holden has with Mr. Antolini we see some parallels drawn between Holden and James Castle. Mr. Antolini says that he can see Holden “dying nobly […] for a highly unworthy cause,” which is exactly what James Castle did (Salinger 188). James died protecting something he said because he believed it to be true, but his death didn’t change anything.
If Holden carries on like he is he’s going the come to the same end James did—suicide. Antolini also lays out a new meaning for maturity that Holden might be able to live with; he says that an immature man is one who dies “nobly for a cause” rather than a mature man who is willing to “live humbly for one” (Salinger 188). Holden, however, doesn’t fully understand what Antolini is saying and just assumes that, like everybody else, Mr. Antolini is trying to turn Holden into something that he’s not. Holden can’t envision himself living in the adult worlds and as a result, he feels as though he is fading away, soon to be lost forever.
A strong moment where Holden is afraid he is going to disappear I when he is talking a walk in New York. He feels as though once he steps off of the ledge he’s “never going to get to the other side of the street [and] go down, down, down, and no one would ever see [him] again” (Salinger 197). Whenever this happens he prays to Allie, his strongest link to the world of children, that he won’t disappear. Allie is symbolic or Holden’s childhood because Allie is never going to mature—he’s dead. Also, Allie died when Holden was at a tender young age, “only thirteen,” which is the time when puberty is supposed to start (Salinger 38).
That is part of the reason why Holden misses Allie so much; it’s because Holden’s childhoods disappeared along with Allie. Even the structure of the end of the novel lends evidence to Holden’s predicament. At the end of the novel we don’t know if Holden is going to be ok, or what he is going to become in future years—in short, we don’t know any more than Holden does. Holden’s problem is that he has been trying to change the world to fit him, while everybody else is saying that he needs to shape himself to fit the world. Even though Holden ends up in a mental hospital doesn’t mean he is crazy.
Carl Luce, one of Holden’s friends from the many schools he has attended, is the first person in the novel that suggests that Holden gets Psychoanalyzed which, as Trowbridge points out, suggests that the world will not change to Holden’s needs, but that he needs to tune his mind to the world (Trowbridge 25). This is exactly what Holden is afraid of—the whole reason why he is avoiding the adult world is because he wants to stay true to himself. The thing he doesn’t realize is that he can do both. There is a way to adapt to the changing world and still remain Holden Caulfield.
We, however, never find out if Holden learns this crucial lesson. We do know that as long as Holden remains in New York he will remain confused about the adult world. Holden is baffled by the world that surrounds him when he is in New York because New York is symbolic of the adult world. As Robert P. Moore points out, the vulgarity of the story comes not from Holden but from his surroundings (Moore 159). Seeing as how Holden spends most of the novel in the adult world, Moore backs up Holden’s belief that the world of adults is a vile place not fit for the innocent.
Another thing that enforces that belief is when Holden is in the hotel and he is watching the people on other floors play these weird sex games like the guy and girl spitting water on each other or the man dressing up in women’s clothing. Holden frightened of the adult world because he believes that the adult world destroys the beautiful. This harsh world destroys the beautifully simplistic things in life like a short story about a boy and his goldfish or a perfectly formed snowball. Holden is afraid of his journey from childhood to adulthood because he doesn’t want to conform to society, disappear, or lose his innocence.
The problem is, the process has already begun. Holden is becoming more aware of the adult world and he does not like what he sees. Holden is being forced into a cruel world that consumes child after child. So, predictably, Holden is trying to run away from the unpleasantness like any scared and misguided person would. Holden is unaccustomed to dealing with the complexities of adult life, and he therefore tries to cling to the simplistic life of a child, simply because he can’t deal with this strange new world.
And Holden is not alone in his feelings of helplessness and melancholy—most every child has felt this way before, at varying degrees. Holden is just has extremely passionate feelings so naturally he feel very strongly about this. Holden believes that the only person he can count on one hundred percent of the time is himself. He doesn’t trust people too easily and is an accomplished liar. So naturally he doesn’t trust the few people who actually try to help him to ease his way into the adult world, like Mr. Antolini.
All Holden sees is a bunch of adults trying to squish him into the mold of a mature, respectable adult. Any young adult would be wary of people trying to impose their will onto them—adolescents hate structures that try to stifle their individuality and will do almost anything within their power to actively avoid them. Many people find it strange that children can’t wait to grow up but adults spend an eternity trying to regain their youth, but both the children and the adults want the same thing—freedom to do what they want when they want.
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