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A young man going through puberty, not knowing what he is doing or where he is headed, becoming increasingly insane, in a world in which he feels he doesn't belong in, and around a bunch of "phonies." This would describe the position of Holden Caulfield, the controversial protagonist and main character in The Catcher In The Rye (1951) written by J.D. Salinger.
The book, all narrated by Holden in first person, in its very unique and humorous style, is about Holden, and all the troubles he has encountered through school, family, friends, and basically life. Holden has been expelled from a private school in Pennsylvania because of failing four classes, and decides to go to New York for three days before going home to his disappointed parents.
At the beginning of the novel, Holden seems to be like any other 16-year-old young man. But the novel progressively displays through various examples of symbolism that Holden has many problems coping with the world around him. These symbols represent Salinger's ideas and concepts.
Holden likes to reminisce about his childhood and visiting the Museum of Natural History in Central Park. He loved to visit the museum, for many reasons, and he even said that he got very happy when he thought about the museum. He tells us of the symbolic details in the museum, by saying, "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"(121). Holden likes this kind of world, and wishes that he lived in it. He wishes things would stay unchanged and simple. Holden is almost scared by change, and can't handle the conflicts in his life.
Another very symbolic example in the book is the title itself. On the first night of his three-night excursion, Holden decides to sneak into his house and visit his sister, Phoebe, who he adores very much. Phoebe asks Holden what he would like to do with his life. Holden ponders the question and tells Phoebe about the poem, "Comin' Through The Rye" by Robert Burns. He tells Phoebe," 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.
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"Holden's Mentality in J.D. Salinger's The Catcher In The Rye." 123HelpMe.com. 28 Feb 2020
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Holden is a very unique individual. He thinks he is different than everyone else he meets, and he is quick to point out how phony everybody else is. While in New York, Holden buys a red hunting hat. It was a very odd hat to wear out in public, especially at a prep school, and the other kids were always giving him a hard time for wearing it. Holden describes it, "It was this red hunting hat, with one of those very, very long peaks. It only cost me a buck. The way I wore it, I swung the old peak way around to the back-- very corny, I'll admit, but I liked it that way"(18). Holden is always proud that he is different than everybody around him, and he sees that hat as a part of his independence. He always likes to think that he is not a "phony" himself, and will do anything possible to show how different he is than all the other "phonies."
Another thing Holden likes to recollect is the lagoon in Central Park, and the ducks that occupied it. He ponders," I was wondering if it would be frozen over when I got home, and if it was, where did the ducks go. I was wondering where the ducks went when the lagoon got all icy and frozen over"(13). Knowing it or not, Holden is curious about the ducks in the lagoon, because he himself doesn't know where he is going, or how he is going to get there. He has been kicked out of numerous schools, and he needs a scapegoat such as the lagoon freezing over in order to find out where it is he is going.
Holden shows the reader how disgusted and disturbed he is by this adult world in which he is growing into. He wishes to stay young, and keep everything simple, and to keep away from all the "phonies" out there. After recalling all the people he has met, and admitting how sick he is, Holden realizes that he is just as phony as everybody else. He ends the story, adding," Don't ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody"(214).