In which I come to the defense of Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye.
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As I mentioned previously, I went into The Catcher in the Rye extremely prejudiced against Holden Caulfield, because I had heard so many negative things about him.
It certainly doesn’t help that he is immediately defensive. The fact that the novel’s first sentence starts with “If you really want to hear about it” and ends with “if you want to know the truth” is just about the most classic example of distancing language I can think of.
And when someone uses a lot of distancing language, it can make us start to feel defensive, because when someone’s distancing as much as Holden does, it’s possible that they’re lying. However, it could be the opposite: this person is about to tell an incredibly vulnerable truth about themselves, and they’re taking emotional precautions.
And that is exactly what is going on with Holden.
You continue to see this distancing as you read on. Not only does he do it with these repeated little phrases that create distance, but also by mentioning some pretty important stuff in a very casual, offhand manner. For example, he says he got “pretty run-down,” but since he’s recovering in what appears to be a psychiatric institution, I’d say that’s an understatement!
There are a few times in the novel when he tells heartrendingly painful stories in this matter-of-fact way that absolutely destroyed me. One example is the story about James Castle, a boy at one of his previous schools who was bullied to the point of jumping out a window and killing himself. Holden was among the students who rushed outside when they heard the noise and found his body in a horrible state. Everyone just stood around gawking for a while, no one being willing to go near the body. Finally, Mr. Antolini covered him up with his coat and carried him inside.
This is significant, not just because of how traumatising that would be, but also because earlier in the book, Holden says:
I felt like jumping out the window. I probably would have done it, too, if I’d been sure somebody’d cover me up as soon as I landed. I didn’t want a bunch of stupid rubbernecks looking at me when I was all gory. (pg. 136)
(All page numbers are taken from the 2010 Back Bay Books paperback edition, by the way).
When you read about the James Castle incident later on, not only does that quote suddenly make sense, but you can see that, despite the fact that Holden relates this incident very dispassionately, it actually had a huge impact on him.
But even more painful than these casual stories are the short little offhand remarks that he uses to deliver devastating information. After telling this really sweet story about his brother Allie writing poems on his baseball mitt so he could read them in the outfield, he says what is probably the most painful three-word sentence I have ever read:
He’s dead now.
The pain that is contained in those words is just inexpressible. The fact that he BROKE HIS OWN HAND punching out windows after his brother died gives us some idea, though.
Anyway, that was a little bit of a digression. What I’m trying to say is this: I’ve heard a lot about Holden Caulfield being an unlikeable character, and I think the way he distances himself and pushes the reader away is partially responsible for that.
In my opinion, however, that doesn’t make him an unlikeable character. I believe that, when you read between the lines and realise where he’s coming from, he’s actually an incredibly sympathetic character.
Judgement Coupled With Empathy
My initial impression was that Holden is extremely judgemental. It is true that, while his observations about others are often very astute, they’re also not very nice, and after a while it builds up to the point where he sounds like kind of a jerk.
Here’s the thing about it though: in his mind, he’s being fair. An example is when he talks about inferiority complexes. As Holden talks about this, it’s clear he feels that, unlike girls (and he believes all girls are guilty of this, “Even smart girls”), he is a good judge of who really has an inferiority complex and who is just a mean person.
So yes, he’s definitely judgemental, but the important thing to realise is that he doesn’t think of himself that way. He thinks of himself as one of the only people who can see right through the phoniness of the adult world and call it what it is.
And the defense that I have for him is that he’s also incredibly empathetic. Way more empathetic than your average person. When I went looking for instances of his empathy to share with you, I found them all over the book, in almost all of his interactions. So I’ll just share a few.
“I Felt Sorry”
When he writes his teacher a note so he won’t feel bad about flunking him.
When he decides Mrs. Morrow looks sharp enough to have some idea of what a jerk her son is, but, because he likes her, tells her a bunch of really nice, untrue stuff about her son anyway.
I’m glad I shot it for a while, though […] I’ll bet, after all the crap I shot, Mrs. Morrow’ll keep thinking of him now as this very shy, modest guy that wouldn’t let us nominate him for president. She might. You can’t tell. Mothers aren’t too sharp about that stuff. (pg. 74)
For a teenage boy to recognise that mothers are predisposed to think the best of their children, and to allow this woman to do that—that’s pretty remarkable.
When he checks into a hotel with a 65 year old bellboy.
Anyway, what a gorgeous job for a guy around sixty-five years old. Carrying people’s suitcases and waiting around for a tip. I suppose he wasn’t too intelligent or anything, but it was terrible anyway. (pg. 80)
Obviously, that quote is pretty judgemental and unkind (supposing this man isn’t intelligent because he has a menial job). Underlying that, though, Holden is angry because he doesn’t think someone that old should have a job he sees as demeaning. It’s terrible to him. And he spends all of this time thinking about a man most of the hotel’s guests probably take no notice of.
The multiple times he feels sorry for people because of his harsh judgements of them, for example:
You could tell the waiter didn’t like her much, you could tell even the Navy guy didn’t like her much, even though he was dating her. And I didn’t like her much. Nobody did. You had to feel sort of sorry for her, in a way. (pg. 113)
When he tells the story about how he was rooming with a guy named Slagle whose suitcases weren’t as good as his, and he got really depressed about it and “kept wanting to throw mine out or something, or even trade with him.” Eventually, he hid his suitcases under the bed so Slagle wouldn’t feel inferior.
The thing is, it’s really hard to be roommates with people if your suitcases are much better than theirs—if yours are really good ones and theirs aren’t. You think if they’re intelligent and all, the other person, and they have a good sense of humor, that they don’t give a damn whose suitcases are better, but they do. They really do.(pg. 142)
I doubt many of the other boys he went to school with put that much thought into whether their suitcases were making someone else feel bad.
One of the most touching, though, which I’ve saved for last ( and not just because these are all in chronological order) is when he’s in the park and he’s got hunks of ice in his hair and thinks he’s going to die of pneumonia.
I felt sorry as hell for my mother and father. Especially my mother, because she still isn’t over my brother Allie yet. I kept picturing her not knowing what to do with all my suits and athletic equipment and all. The only good thing, I knew she wouldn’t let old Phoebe come to my goddam funeral because she was only a little kid. That was the only good part. (pg. 201)
He’s not thinking about himself. He’s thinking about his parents. He’s remembering what they went through when his brother died. He doesn’t want them to go through that again. And he definitely doesn’t want his little sister at his funeral.
No Double Standard
The other defense I have for him is that he’s at least as hard on himself as he is on others. Here are just a couple of examples.
I also say “Boy!” quite a lot. Partly because I have a lousy vocabulary and partly because I act quite young for my age sometimes. I was sixteen then, and I’m seventeen now, and sometimes I act like I’m about thirteen. (pg. 13)
First of all, the most accurate description of being a teenager ever. Second of all, he makes some pretty unflattering statements about himself right there, and he makes no attempt to sugar coat them. It’s not like he is trying to paint himself in a better light than everyone else.
As a matter of fact, I’m the only dumb one in the family. My brother D.B.’s a writer and all, and my brother Allie, the one that died, that I told you about, was a wizard. I’m the only really dumb one. (pg. 88)
The sad thing about that is that Holden isn’t dumb at all. He makes some incredibly perceptive observations in the book, and his teachers seem to agree that his real problem isn’t lack of intelligence, it’s the fact that he doesn’t apply himself—an idea that is repeated over and over and over in the course of the novel. But when he’s talking about how great his siblings are and repeating twice that he’s the dumb one, you can tell he really believes that’s true. He’s not affecting some kind of false modesty here. He’s trying to tell you, the reader, about how much he likes his sister Phoebe. And in expressing his high regard for his sister, he betrays his low opinion of himself.
Throughout the book he calls himself yellow and childish and stupid and crazy—especially crazy. He swears how crazy he is over and over. And when he says these things, it’s not in a self-pity-laden manner. It’s in the most matter-of-fact way possible. As though it’s something he truly believes and accepts.
So, is Holden judgemental? Absolutely. But he judges himself just as harshly. And layered with his judgements, there is that incredible empathy that is remarkable and rare.
There’s a solid reason why Holden is especially deserving of the same empathy from us as that which he extends to others: He is not in a good place mentally and emotionally.
Although the events of the novel happen to a sixteen-year-old Holden, our narrator is seventeen-year-old Holden, who is recovering in an institution, and who is going to tell us this story:
I’ll just tell you about this madman stuff that happened to me around last Christmas just before I got pretty run-down and had to come out her and take it easy. (pg. 3)
Let’s just make that really clear: he is telling us the events that culminated in his being sent to a psychiatric institution. Meaning this: we can’t really judge him too forcefully on the basis of what he says or does or thinks in this novel. Because in this novel, he is not fully himself. The Holden Caulfield we know is a “pretty run-down” version of Holden Caulfield.
Throughout the novel, Holden swears to us again and again that he’s “crazy” and “a madman.” Unfortunately, all of his cries for help, both subtle and direct, go unheard. Which is a pretty big theme in the novel: the idea of being listened to, and more often, not being listened to.
Early on, he says “People never believe you.” (pg. 58) He throws around a lot of these little absolutes throughout the novel. But this one in particular strikes me as poignant. By “you,” he of course means himself, in that deflective way of his. This is his experience. People have probably failed to believe him about some pretty important stuff in his life. Which speaks to his constant “If you want to know the truth,” and “It really did,” etc. He just wants to be listened to. To be heard, and to be believed.
In nearly every interaction Holden has in the novel, he tries to have a meaningful conversation and is rejected.
For example, when he’s telling Sally how much he hates everything, she interrupts him with this telling request:
“Don’t shout, please,” old Sally said. Which was very funny, because I wasn’t even shouting. (pg. 169)
What she really means is, “Stop talking. Shut up. Be quiet. I don’t want to listen.” Politeness stops her from saying any of those things to her date, so instead, she begs him not to shout, even though he isn’t shouting. It’s not about the intensity of his volume. It’s about the intensity of what he’s saying.
On another occasion, he seeks out Luce, a former schoolmate. He’s three years older than Holden, and very intellectual. Seemingly, a person Holden could have a conversation with. But Luce is very, very rude to Holden and makes it clear that he has a more important engagement shortly. As he’s starting to leave, Holden begs him to stay for one more drink, and makes what is probably the most direct call for help he makes in the novel:
“Please. I’m lonesome as hell. No kidding.” (pg. 193)
His plea is rejected. Luce leaves anyway.
So we have Holden, slowly unravelling and denied the meaningful connections he’s looking for. And then he starts imagining something that he had also imagined earlier, at another vulnerable moment:
I started that stupid business with the bullet in my guts again […] I kept putting my hand under my jacket, on my stomach and all, to keep the blood from dripping all over the place. I didn’t want anybody to know I was even wounded. (pg. 195)
The symbolism there is pretty clear. He’s pretending to be physically wounded to distract himself from his emotional wounds. And just like he doesn’t want anyone to know that he is wounded in his fantasy, he uses all of that distancing to hide his emotional wounds in real life.
“You Don’t Stop Liking Them”
What has wounded Holden so much? While it’s most likely a combination of things, one of the largest pieces of it is his brother’s death, which he is still grieving over.
Every time Holden is particularly vulnerable, the subject of his brother comes up. For instance, when he’s depressed at the hotel, he remembers a very typical sibling incident that plagues him with guilt now that Allie is dead, and he talks aloud, saying the things he wishes he’d said to Allie that day. In the park when he’s concerned about dying of pneumonia, he ends up reflecting on Allie’s funeral. And towards the end, when he’s reached a very, very low point mentally and emotionally and develops this irrational panic that he’ll disappear while crossing the street, he talks aloud to his brother, begging him not to let him disappear, then thanking him when he reaches the sidewalk.
But Holden doesn’t really express his grief very openly. He tells us about his brother and the extreme, window-smashing, hand-breaking grief he felt after he died in a very dispassionate and guarded way. However, there are two points in the novel, one near the beginning, and one near the end, that I see as sort of mile-markers because of the very different responses Holden gets when he tries to open up.
The first time is when he writes the composition about the baseball glove for Stradlater. He says, “I sort of liked writing about it.” It feels good to get this really important detail about his brother down on paper. But of course, it doesn’t go over very well, because Stradlater gets angry that it isn’t about a room and is very harsh about it. Holden tears the composition up.
Towards the end, though, Holden opens up again, and has a more positive experience. When he and Phoebe are talking, she accuses him of not liking anything. (Which is a pretty fair thing to say, because of all the things Holden has expressed distaste for by this point in the novel, from schools to movies, from Ernest Hemingway to acquaintances, from actors who know they’re good to New York City itself.) And at first, Holden can’t answer her by naming even one thing he likes.
Until finally, he says that he likes Allie. Phoebe replies that he’s dead. And Holden says:
“I know he’s dead! Don’t you think I know that? I can still like him, though, can’t I? Just because somebody’s dead, you don’t just stop liking them, for God’s sake—especially if they were about a thousand times nicer than the people you know that’re alive and all.” (pg. 223)
In that outburst of emotion, we find none of his distancing techniques. He finally reveals what’s inside of him and eating away at him. He likes his brother. In the present tense. The loss of him will never go away.
How does Phoebe react? She doesn’t say anything. She listens. As Holden said a few pages earlier:
She always listens when you tell her something. And the funny part is she knows, half the time, what the hell you’re talking about. She really does. (pg. 218)
In other words, she listens, and she understands.
And that’s all Holden really wants.
Unfortunately, I won’t be able to say everything I wanted to say in this post; it’s already too long. But I think that’s a good place to end up. I think that perhaps the best way to read The Catcher in the Rye is to just listen. That’s our role, after all, as set up from page one. All Holden promises us is to tell us about what happened to him over the course of a couple of days about a year prior. And when you think of it that way, to judge him too harshly is a little unfair.
I have a lot of other things I’d love to say about The Catcher in the Rye, so this definitely won’t be my last post on the topic. I’d love to hear your thoughts below, and you’re more than welcome to disagree with me.
Have a lovely day!
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