Holden’s Attempt to Prevent Adulthood in Catcher in The Rye

April 28, 2022 by Essay Writer

J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye: Holden’s Self Sabotage

Salinger’s novel, Catcher in the Rye’s protagonist Holden Caulfield is struggling with maturing into an adult. Holden’s mental and emotional maturation process began when he was 13 and had to deal with the burden of losing his younger brother and later on with the death of his friend James Castle. Holden chooses not to share the burdens of these deaths with anyone else and because of this he struggles with maturation. Because of his own struggles with of children, so that they do not grow up. Holden’s desire to prevent the maturation of children is also a desire for himself. He shows many behaviors through his actions and interactions with other characters, throughout his journey in Pencey and New York, which shows he is trying to prevent himself from growing up. Holden Caulfield attempts to sabotage his future by isolating himself, and by not applying himself to his education or to his future career, so that he does not confront the inevitable process of maturing into an adult.

Holden’s story, which begins taking place on the top of the hill looking at the football field (Salinger 3), he is alone. In this scene he is characterized as someone who chooses isolation as shown by the fact that he chooses to spend his time alone and, “despite the blasé attitude he affects, the scene stresses that Holden at sixteen is a practiced outsider, having already faced a lifetime of upheavals” (Everston).The scene at the hill also determines the rest of Holden’s story, ” he experiences his last weekend at the school without enough companionship to soften his depression” (Hockman and Mueller) leading to his own personal destructive journey to New York. Although this is one scene, it reflects that Holden never chooses to find companionship which leads to his lack of maturity. His beginning is crucial to characterizing Holden as someone who chooses isolation and therefore actively refuses to find companionship and help in others. Throughout his high school education, Holden consciously does not apply himself and as a result continually fails out of school. At Pencey Prep, he is being dismissed for not applying himself. In his own introspection on the hill he reflects to a time when his principal and parents tried to intervene he says, “They gave me frequent warnings to start applying myself… but I didn’t do it. So I got the ax” (Salinger 4). This incident at Pencey Prep has also happened at the other private, prep schools where Holden has attended. His tone towards failing out seems so relaxed even though there is the possibility of not doing well in life, he shows that he does not care about his future. This pattern of failing out shows, Holden is extremely self-aware of his failure academically, but does not actively try to change, most likely because if he chose a practical career in life he would be submitting into becoming an adult. Holden will not apply himself into planning a practical career or doing well in school because by doing that he would be maturing and preparing for a future as an adult. Holden not applying himself shows that he is not looking towards the future and he is not attempting to move on with his life.

The conversation with Old Spencer, someone who may be Holden’s only trusted advisor at Pencey, reveals a dialogue of sabotage in his relationship. He refuses to confide in someone who obviously cares for him and tries to set him in the right direction. In this Holden’s most common response to a possibility of improvement is to leave, he says, “All of the sudden, I wanted to get… out of the room. I could feel a terrible lecture coming on” (Salinger 10). Spencer is not able to help unless Holden opens up to him. The only thing he knows about Holden is that Holden is failing in school and he is trying to help him, but since Holden unwilling to reveal his pain, he is avoiding the possibility of getting better. His refusal to form a relationship with Mr. Spencer shows he isolates himself because it is clear that Mr. Spencer wants to help him, but Holden does not want help.

His dialogue with Mr. Spencer also characterizes what he thinks of his school work; that he should not be bothered by it. When the professor asked why he failed at the Elkon, he denies failing saying simply that he has quit. By saying he has quit, he shows no dedication to doing well in life. This attitude about education is similar to his attitude about his career. When the conversation becomes about his career, he is shown to have no aspirations (Salinger 14). He is shown to be not maturing because he refuses to take on the responsibility of school work and career planning. This is characteristic of Holden’s behavior towards growing up. He does not apply himself in school and simply “quits”. By doing this he does not have to move on to the next stage of his life, he will stay in high school forever.

Holden can control himself, his decisions to sabotage his own life are conscious. Throughout his narration, Holden is conscious of his issues and he is in control of himself, as seen in the scene where Holden talks about wanting to know when he leaves a place (Salinger 28). Holden leaving Pencey is significant because, “Holden expresses a desire to control his exile, to stage his exit, and to take his leave on his own terms” (Everston). His capability of sabotage is apparent in his take-off and the way he controls himself. He takes off when he is frustrated and when is angry at the people who are around him. His unhappiness drives him to the city, but he does not go home, “Instead Holden will try to construct a home built towards his own comfort and control; his sparse and lonely hotel room, however, proves a poor domestic space, and the denizens of New York night life provide little in the way of ‘family’” (Everston). By not going home or to visit someone he trusts, Holden is showing that he is not trying to solve his own personal issues or to reach out to others. His lack of personal connections will ultimately lead to an end which he has orchestrated.

Holden’s isolation even applies to his relationships with women. The first woman which he has an affinity for is Jane Gallagher. His attraction to her stems from his memories of his childhood which is why he always associates Jane with the fact she kept her kings in the back row (Salinger 31). He hesitates to call her, “Then I thought of giving Jane Gallagher’s mother a buzz and find out when Jane’s vacation started, but I didn’t feel like it” (Salinger 59). This reluctance and the fact that he ultimately never calls Jane might be out of his attempts to isolate himself. By getting to know Jane Gallagher it would break him away from isolation, and he could move on from the idea of her and actually get to know her. She could be someone who Holden could open himself up to. However, he is still trying to prevent his maturity, he ruins his chance at having human connection by not even attempting to interact with her.

As Holden wanders through the city, he becomes more burdened by his thoughts and issues. He seeks out people who will provide temporary companionship, as shown by his association with the three blonde women and Sunny. He pursues them because he wants companionship, but they do not provide him with the help that he needs to relieve himself of his burden. By seeking shelter in temporary companions, Holden is still isolating himself because he is not revealing himself to people who can actually help him. This is shown in his treatment of Lillian Simmons. As he begins to encounter someone he knows intimately, like Lillian (Salinger 87), he excuses himself dreading spending the night with someone who knows him, he again makes the excuse of leaving, so that he will not have any adult which he knows talk to him. His lack of appropriate companionship is a form of isolation because he is not talking to anyone who can help him move on. He talks to people who have a temporary presence in his life and who cannot help him because he has no desire to resolve his burdens.

Sally Hayes serves as the main example of poor companionship to him. Holden is fully aware of her nature and how she is as a person, but chooses to open up to her. He chooses her because she is superficial and not a significant person in his life. Her companionship to him is just for appearances and fun and therefore she is not an appropriate emotional outlet like Jane could be. When he opens up to her, he says, “I don’t get hardly anything out of anything. I’m in bad shape. I’m in lousy shape” (Salinger 131). Sally’s response is dismissive and she shows no concern for Holden, proving that she is unsuitable to serve as someone who can help him. This is again sabotage because Holden shows a pattern of confiding in someone who is unable to help him, similar to his pattern of confiding to strangers in New York.

By the end, Mr. Antolini serves as the only possible salvation for Holden. He has a personal connection with Holden having checked in with him after he left Elkon Hills and being the only character who has observed Holden (Salinger 181). Mr. Antolini is the clearest advisor Holden finds on his journey, “his attempt to guide and mentor the troubled teenager seem to reach to the very core of Holden’s conflicts” (Hochman and Mueller). Yet even though he has offered refuge to Holden, there is still no chance of Holden opening up to him, even if he had not scared Holden away. Holden resists finding help. When Mr. Antolini gives him a lecture he blocks it out Holden recalls, “It was nice of him to go to all that trouble…The thing was, though, I didn’t feel much like concentrating. Boy, I felt so damn tired all of the sudden” (Salinger 188). He shuts down to the possibility of getting help from Mr. Antolini. Holden’s immediate response it to Mr. Antolini’s companionship and genuine help is to block it out. Mr. Antolini is unable to provide a support line which will help Holden break his isolation, “Antolini sees to the heart of the matter and gives saving advice, but Holden’s ‘impossible absolute standards’ reject it and thus ‘his mental break down commences” (Marks). This scene is instrumental into showing how Holden’s desire to preserve his solitude is damaging his chances of healing, moving on, and growing up. In this case, he shows that if he is with people who know him intimately he refuses to open up.

Phoebe’s purpose in the novel is to serve as the one that Holden can open up to because she is a child (Bryan). Even if she is a child and she cannot offer help, she is the one who gets through to Holden in his isolation. She is the one who temporarily stops his self-sabotage, for example, when Holden is thinking about hitchhiking to the West he stops, so that he can say good-bye to Phoebe (Salinger 198). She is the one who furthermore shows that all his unrealistic plans for the future will not work and that maturation is inevitable.

Phoebe is a representation of Holden’s driving force in his endeavors to prevent his own maturing process. Holden’s career goals are unrealistic and idealistic; they represent his want for preserving youth and to protect childhood. He wants to be “the catcher in the rye”. He wants to protect her like he is trying to protect himself, which is why he delays all his own personal career goals to become the catcher in the rye. When he sneaks into his apartment and talks to her, Phoebe points out that he is being unrealistic when he says, “Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around-nobody big…what I would have to do, I have to catch if they start to go over the cliff….I’d just be the catcher in the rye” ( Salinger 173). Phoebe keeps repeating “Daddy’s going to kill you” (Salinger 169-174) because she knows his goal is unrealistic. Holden is so fixated on becoming the “catcher in the rye” and therefore shows that he does not care about anything else. When they go to the carousel, he insists that Phoebe should ride, even though she insists that she is too old. This is where Holden’s realization begins and Holden has official been broken, “He notices the children trying to grab for a gold ring and finally comes to realize that just as he can’t rub out all the [obscene] signs in the world, he must allow children to reach for the ring even though they might fall off their horses… it is a necessary part of the maturation process” (Pettino). He realizes that he had tried to preserve his own youth, but Phoebe is growing up and there is nothing to stop her on her path to becoming an adult. His efforts are futile and his idea, “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” (Salinger 122). He is unable to keep Phoebe from and he realizes that the inevitable will happen to him as well, and he is powerless to stopping adulthood.

The novel’s introduction shows that Holden needed professional help in his maturation process. The beginning’s setting is a mental institution Holden is sent after having a mental break down. He still refuses to talk to professionals as portrayed in the opening, “you’ll probably want to know is…what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me…” (Salinger 1). He shows a little bit of vulnerability by talking about his parental neglect, but does not go further in talking about his parents. Holden does not show any desire to return to normalcy because he refuses to open up to the professionals. This is one of the ways in which Holden delays his maturation.

Holden shows that he does not want to disclose sensitive information about his life to anyone, even to medical professionals, so he has no healthy way of talking about the burdens he holds on to. At the ending of the novel, the reader is returned to the mental institution in which he refuses to tell the story outside of his journey from Pencey through New York by refusing to talk about coming home and being sent to the institution (Salinger 213). The ending is similar to the beginning, he refuses to open himself up and therefore he will not get better. “He is by his own admission, sick. So his refusal to talk about his childhood signifies that he will remain ill, so does the chilling advice ‘don’t ever tell anybody anything’ at the end of the novel” (Edwards). Even though Holden had broken down when he realized he could not prevent Phoebe from growing up, he is still determined in one goal: to prevent his own maturation. Holden sabotages his process of maturation by not applying himself to his education and career, and by isolating himself from people who can help him. Throughout his journey in New York and at Pencey, Holden’s interactions with the people he is close to shows a pattern of isolation in which he closes himself off to others and only reveals parts of himself to temporary people in his life. He is never able to relieve himself of the burdens of the death of his brother and his friend. He also does not plan to move on in life, as shown by the way that he does not apply himself in his education and does not make any other career plans other than “the catcher in the rye”. His isolation and lack of effort in future planning have prevented him from moving on physically and emotionally. Even though he realizes that he is unable to preserve the youth of children such as his sister Phoebe, he continues to follow the path of solitude in order in hopes that he can stop himself from maturing.


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