recent posts

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

ESSAY: J.D.Salinger The Catcher in the Rye (1951): Failure of the American Dream?

What I admire most about Holden Caulfield is his spontaneity, his ability to speak his mind, without fear or favour. He is an ‘all-licensed fool’ who condemns the values and institutions of post World War 2 America from the vantage point of his mental hospital window. Yet arguably, his rebellion is apolitical and is rather a response to his inability to cope with the death of his brother Allie and his fear of growing up and accepting responsibility for his actions. This discussion will examine the extent to which Salinger's highly influential novel is a representation of rebellion and the failure of the American Dream.

The concept of the American Dream was expressed by James Truslow Adams in 1931 in his book Epic of America: ‘The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to ability and achievement… It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth of position.’
In other words, according to Adams the American Dream was not originally about attaining wealth and property but about maximizing an individual's potentials.

Holden Caulfield is a stunted boy in many ways who experiences many difficulties fitting in. Although he is from a rich middle class family, he hates material values and his approaching physical ‘fall’ is symbolic of his spiritual decay. In the context of the disintegration of Western values following the mass slaughter during World War 2, including the Holocaust, the dropping of atomic bombs on civilian populations and the advent of the Cold War, Holden is a teenager trying to make sense of it all.


Pencey Prep is the fourth private high school Holden has been kicked out because of his inadequate effort. He has been given frequent warnings to apply himself but he usually comes to class unprepared and makes no effort at all. He admits to his history teacher old Spencer that he had ‘sort of glanced’ through his textbook ‘a couple of times.’ He is easily bored and has difficulty concentrating. Pressed by Spencer, Holden concedes that he has ‘not too much’ concern for his future and suggests that ‘I’m just going through a phase right now.’

Spencer tries to instill in Holden the notion that life is a game and that ‘you should play it according to the rules.’ He readily agrees with his teacher, but in his thoughts he is disdainful, dismissive of this idea and sides with the underdog:

'Game my ass. Some game. If you get on the side where all the hot-shots are, then it’s a game, all right- I’ll admit that. But if you get on the other side, where there aren’t any hot-shots, then what’s a game about it? Nothing. No game'.

We discover later the underlying reasons why Holden is struggling at school. His rebellion is not out of mischief or indifference. He is failing at school because he has not learnt to cope with the death of his younger brother Allie from leukemia and he has yet to accept that his life is changing and he will have to accept the responsibilities which come with adulthood.

Ivy League Bastards

Holden’s father is a corporate lawyer who wants him to attend ‘Yale, or maybe Princeton’ when he finishes high school. Holden insists that he ‘wouldn’t go to one of those Ivy League colleges if I was dying.’ He hates their ‘tired, snobby voices.' He is nauseated by their ‘goddam checkered vests’ and phony egotistical conversations. He takes considerable delight in telling an anecdote about ‘this Joe Yale-looking guy’ at Ernie’s jazz club. The guy tries to feel up his girlfriend under the table while telling her about some guy in his dorm who tried to kill himself by swallowing a whole bottle of aspirin. If these phonies' lives were the pinnacle of success, why would the 'flit' want to top himself?


Holden seeks authenticity in a phony world. He sees phoniness everywhere. He is repulsed by phoniness- people who big-note themselves and who treat ordinary people with contempt. He calls his headmaster Mr Haas ‘the phoniest bastard I ever met in my life’ because of his duplicity in judging parents by their appearance. He mocks the local undertaker Mr Ossenburger who has donated money to Pencey and has had a dorm named after him:

He said he talked to Jesus all the time. Even when he was driving the car. That killed me. I can just see the big phony bastard shifting into first gear and asking Jesus to send him a few more stiffs.

He tells his sister Phoebe that Pencey is ‘full of phonies.’ He ‘damn near puked’ listening to his dorm mate Stradlater putting on a fake ‘Abraham Lincoln, sincere voice’ trying to crack on to Jane in the back seat of coach Ed Banky’s car. What he dislikes about Ernie the piano player is that ‘when he plays, he sounds like the kind of guy that won’t talk to you unless you’re a big-shot.’ In the Wicker Bar, he expresses his disgust at the bartender who ‘didn’t talk to you at all hardly, unless you were a big-shot or celebrity or something.’

Holden’s basic problem is that he fails to see his own phoniness. He frequently lives in the fantasy world in his head and constantly lies about his identity and the events in his life. He is obviously deeply confused and depressed and often impulsively responds to situations by crying. After he is smacked by the pimp Maurice, he feels like jumping out the window and imagines ‘rubbernecks’ gawking at his dead body on the ground. Later, after he accidentally drops and smashes the vinyl record he has bought for Phoebe, he visualizes ‘millions of jerks’ attending his funeral.

Holden is too traumatized to understand his own hypocrisy. He is clearly deluded and instead of taking concrete steps to ease his transition from youth to adulthood, he desires to escape from it all. In an important conversation with Sally Hayes as they stroll home from the skating rink, Holden tells her they could leave tomorrow for Massachusetts and Vermont:

We’ll stay in these cabins and stuff like that till the dough runs out. Then, when the dough runs out, I could get a job somewhere and we could live somewhere with a brook and all and, later on, we could get married or something.’

Sally is astonished and knows it won’t work: ‘You can’t just do something like that…in the first place, we’re both practically children.’

Holden’s desire to escape the responsibilities of growing up reach a climax after he visits his ex-teacher Mr Antolini and his family. As he walks up Fifth Avenue, Holden feels like he is disappearing and he makes believe that he is talking to his deceased brother Allie to help hold his sanity together. He pleads with him ‘don’t let me disappear.’ He decides that he needs to leave. To hitchhike out west:

I figured I could get a job at a filing station somewhere, putting gas and oil in people’s cars. I didn’t care what kind of job it was, though. Just so people didn’t know me and I didn’t know anybody. I thought what I’d do was, I’d pretend I was one of those deaf-mutes. That way I wouldn’t have to have any goddamn stupid useless conversations with anybody.

He goes on to explain how he’d build himself a cabin near the woods and grow and cook his own food, and later perhaps, how he’d meet a beautiful deaf-mute girl and marry her and how they would communicate through messages on scraps of paper.

This is fanciful, deluded stuff. His desire to drop out and escape from the pressures of modern living is ill-founded and more a response to his confusion and mental fatigue than to a genuine rebellion.


Arriving at the Lavender Room, Holden is given a ‘lousy table way in the back’ and says ‘in New York, boy, money really talks- I’m not kidding.’ His grandmother provides Holden with most of his pocket money and the casual way he throws it around creates the impression that he does not really appreciate the value of it. Although he accepts that everything he had ‘was bourgeois as hell’ including his posh fountain pen and suitcase, he is naïve in appreciating how really privileged his life is materially. After donating ten dollars to the nun’s charity, Holden is annoyed that he running low on cash and needs to save a few bucks so he can take Sally out to a movie, ‘Goddamn money. It always ends up making you blue as hell.’ From his upper middle class white perspective, he clearly has no clue how the poor struggle to survive from week to week.

In a concerted plea for help Holden strongly expresses to Sally his disgust for city life:

'I hate living in New York. Taxicabs, and Madison Avenue buses, with the drivers and all always yelling at you to get out at the rear door.’ He shifts to a vitriolic rant to people’s obsession with cars:

Take most people, they’re crazy about cars. They worry if they get a little scratch on them, and they’re always talking about how many miles they get to the gallon, and if they get a brand-new car already they start thinking about trading it in for one that’s even newer. I don’t even like old cars. I mean they don’t even interest me. I’d rather have a goddam horse.’

Sally is hugely puzzled, she has no idea what Holden is trying to explain to her, ‘I don’t know what you’re even talking about.’

Holden takes care to sum up his angst to her. His hatred of boarding school, of early 1950s American values:

'You ought to go to a boy’s school sometime. It’s full of phonies, and all you do is study so that you can learn enough to be able to buy a goddam Cadillac some day, and you have to keep making believe you give a damn if the football team loses, and all you do is talk about girls and liquor and sex all day, and everybody sticks together in these dirty little goddam cliques.’

Holden’s anger largely stems from his inability to fit in, to conform, to get anything significant out of life. He admits he is in ‘lousy shape’ and his discussion with Sally tweaks his desire to finally escape New York City. He imagines a life of conformity. It is a life full of amusements and distractions, but overall, a life with little substance or meaning:

'I’d be working in some office, making a lot of dough, and riding to work in cabs and Madison Avenue buses, and reading newspapers, and playing bridge all the time, and going to the movies and seeing a lot of stupid shorts and coming attractions and newsreels. Newsreels. Christ almighty. There’s always a dumb horse race, and some dame breaking a bottle over a ship, and some chimpanzee riding a goddam bicycle with pants on'.

This is as close as Holden’s rebellion gets. He is a dissatisfied with his life and the phoniness of everybody and everything but rather than challenge society head-on he seeks to escape from it. His rebellion is unfocussed and self-destructive. Like thousands of other dysfunctional teenagers in the shadow of the bomb and the paranoia of the Cold War, he is lost. Mockingly, he is glad that the atomic bomb was invented because he can make good use to it:

'I’m sort of glad they’ve got the atomic bomb invented. If there’s ever another war, I’m going to sit right the hell on top of it, I’ll volunteer for it, I swear to God I will.’

The Catcher in the Rye

Holden’s real concern is the need to preserve his innocence and that of children against the assault of the corrupting influences of society. While waiting for Sally in a leather couch at her private school he considers the fate of girls who are about to finish school:

'You figured most of them would probably marry dopey guys. Guys that always talk about how many miles they get to a gallon in their goddam cars. Guys that get sore and childish as hell if you beat them at golf, or even just some stupid game like ping-pong. Guys that are very mean. Guys that never read books. Guys that are very boring'.

Further to this incident while talking to Phoebe in their parent’s apartment, Holden expresses a strong desire to be ‘a catcher in the rye’ after he leaves school:

'I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around- nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be'.

In an important scene when Holden visits Phoebe at her school to say goodbye, he sees the word ‘Fuck you’ on a wall and rubs it out to protect her and other young students from the base profanity. He soon spots another, this time scratched into the wall by a knife, and in a moment of epiphany, he realizes his impotence in protecting the young, ‘If you had a million years to do it in, you couldn’t rub out even half the ‘Fuck you’ signs in the world. It’s impossible.’

The Museum of Natural History
He hops into a cab and heads for Biltmore.

Holden is curious about where the ducks in Central Park go in winter because the uncertainty and wild flux in his own life. In thinking about the ducks he is symbolically thinking about what direction his own life will take. He loves the museum because it represents a sense of permanence and order in contrast to his own world which is spinning totally out of control:

'The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move…nobody’d be different. The only thing that would be different would be you'.

He reaches the museum, and significantly, it no longer holds an appeal to him, ‘I wouldn’t have gone inside for a million bucks.’ He hops into a cab and heads for Biltmore.


Holden rejects traditional notions of organized religion and does not attend Church. Although he considers himself as ‘a sort of atheist,’ he likes Jesus, but he ‘doesn’t care too much for most of the stuff in the Bible.’ What he admires about Jesus is his life of self sacrifice and devotion for the poor as exemplified by the nuns he meets at Grand Central Station, ‘What I liked about those nuns. You could tell, for one thing, that they never went anywhere swanky for lunch.’ In contrast, he hates the fake pomp of the sermons delivered by the ‘Holy Joe voices’ of the ministers, ‘I don’t see why the hell they can’t talk in their natural voice. They sound so phony when they talk.’ Holden also despises the superficial images associated with Christmas. When he sees a Christmas tree being unloaded from the back of a truck after visiting Mr Antolini, he feels like laughing and then vomiting. When he hears a bunch of Christians singing ‘come All Ye Faithful’ and carrying crucifixes for Radio City he quips, ‘Jesus probably would’ve puked if He could see it- all those fancy costumes and all. He is also sacra-religious in mentioning his brother Allie’s soul is ‘in heaven and all that crap.’


In the course of the novel Holden Caulfield expresses many rebellious views in relation to school, materialism, war, religion and the phoniness of community leaders, but ironically, he wishes for a world which stays the same. Salinger’s perspective on Cold War American society often hits home, particularly in terms of the alienation of disenfranchised middle class youth in the face of atomic destruction. In the end, Mr Antolini advises that Holden’s ‘first move will to apply yourself at school.’ The writing of this novel from the point of view of the asylum is ‘a record of his troubles’ for others to learn from.

See also my reviews of the following biographies on Salinger:

Kenneth Slawenski J.D. Salinger: A Life Raised High (2010)