Holden Caulfield

I have read The Catcher In The Rye more than I have any other work of fiction and it shows when looking at my worn copy of the novel.  When I first picked it up and read it I could not stop laughing.  The story has always reminded me of one long, profane episode of Seinfeld.  There is a strange attraction that I feel towards the book and more specifically towards the main character Holden Caulfield.  It wasn’t long before I realized why this attraction exists and I think it is based in a common fear shared by many men, the fear of growing up.

Holden is a student at Pency, a prep school for boys, a school that he hates filled with people that he tells himself are all “phonies.”  This is not the first school that Holden has attended nor will it be his last as he drops out mid-year and decides to go out on his own for a while before returning home to tell his parents that he has failed and quit yet another school.

Holden’s ventures take him from Pency to an old girlfriend’s house, from a museum he visited as a child to a hotel meeting with a prostitute and her pimp, from an elderly professor’s house to even sneaking into his own home while his family sleeps.  Throughout the story he shares his thoughts on every topic that comes to mind.

There are at least two points in the book in which Holden, whether he realizes or not, bares his most foundational fear, and the focus of this post.  The first is when he explains a dream, based on a Robert Burns poem and the source for the title of the novel.  Holden explains:

Anyway, 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. I know it’s crazy.

The second is when he makes a trip to a museum he visited as a child,

The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move. You could go there a hundred times, and that Eskimo would still be just finished catching those two fish, the birds would still be on their way south, the deers would still be drinking out of that water hole, with their pretty antlers and their pretty, skinny legs, and that squaw with the naked bosom would still be weaving that same blanket. Nobody’d be different. The only thing that would be different would be you.

and again referring to the museum,

Certain things they should stay the way they are. You ought to be able to stick them in one of those big glass cases and just leave them alone. I know that’s impossible, but it’s too bad anyway.

So it is pretty clear that Holden is at least scared to grow up and most likely resisting it all together.  He wants to have relationships but gives up once the other party tires of his egocentric tirades.  He wants a girlfriend but settles for a prostitute, who he ends up not sleeping with.  He is intelligent, or at least he thinks he is, yet he flunks out of school (not suggesting that performance in school is evidence of intelligence or lack thereof, but that Holden could have succeeded in academia).  He wants everything to stay the same, to remain as they were when he was a child, when his brother was still alive (a main topic throughout the book) and, as shown in the dream, he desperately wants to preserve the state of other people, including his younger sister.

I think that Holden typifies male culture today.  We are settling too often on the quick fix, video games (which I should note are not categorically wrong), porn, drugs, alcohol abuse, and sexual activity outside of marriage or even a real relationship (have a look at the Philip Zimbardo TED talk we posted Sunday night).  We start acting this way as teenagers and we are delaying maturity as long as possible.  We desire for a change but we are too lazy, too scared or too cynical to actually make that change.  We are what Mark Driscoll calls “boys that shave”

we are left with indefinite adolescence and a Peter Pan Syndrome epidemic where men want to remain boys forever.

I have to be honest; I would love to remain a boy forever.  Life was easier when I was younger, no bills, and no complicated relationships.  No worries about family, jobs, finances, or future.  But we can’t remain in perpetual adolescence, eventually we have to actually achieve something, do something, love someone, put ourselves out there to other people, take risks.  I also like to talk about “the good ol days” as much as the next guy, high school, baseball, and running around our old neighborhood, but we often look back so much and long for the “good ol days” to such an extent that we ignore reality and try to remain in those days.  We cannot let complacency and nostalgia ruin our futures.

In the last paragraph of The Catcher In The Rye Holden comes to realize that he may in fact have been wrong all along (or is he yet again trying to revert back to an earlier stage in his life and avoiding change?), he says,

About all I know is, I sort of miss everybody I told about. Even old Stradlater and Ackley, for instance. I think I even miss that goddam* Maurice (a pimp that beat him up).  It’s funny. Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.

We have a choice to make.  We can be Holden Caulfield and continue to drift through our lives, avoiding responsibility, being non-committal, never risking anything in our relationships, and thinking that everyone but ourselves are in the wrong.  Or we can grow up, take responsibility for our own actions, open up to others in our relationships, and live with a purpose.  I think that if we live life in the latter fashion we will live with fewer regrets, if we live like Holden we may end our story with the same conclusion as the The Catcher In The Rye, wishing that we had done things differently.

A book of the magnitude of The Catcher In The Rye requires a much more thorough discussion than the one offered here.  Go acquire a copy, read it, and think about what it has to say to our current culture.  Then maybe come back and comment below.  If you have already read the book you can skip the first two steps and go right to thinking and commenting.

*Last time I quoted a profanity I got in trouble with a few people.  Just know that I quote it solely to accurately depict the book and for no other reason.  We do not promote the use of profanity at TTAF.  Learn to use words other than profanities gentlemen.  The more a man cusses the more I think that he is too dumb to think of another adjective.

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