Hooking Up With Holden: Exploring Sexuality in The Catcher in the Rye
“Sex is something I just don’t understand. I swear to God I don’t,” (Salinger, 63). It might take Holden Caulfield nine chapters to admit to this, but his sexual confusion is present from the first pages of J.D. Salinger’s famous novel The Catcher in The Rye. Stemming from the dichotomy of sexual openness in America, underlined by an immense sensitivity, and sprinkled with teenage confusion, Holden’s relationship with his sexuality is a turbulent one. Holden experiences a constant string of emotions concerning sexuality, spanning from excitement to guilt. All of these emotions are difficult, and are a pressing internal struggle for Holden. Holden Caulfield’s disconnection from his sexuality is a notable contributor to his social difficulties.Certainly the broadest cause of sexual issues in The Catcher in The Rye is Holden’s relationship to societal sexual expectations. America during this time features contrasting beliefs surrounding sex. For the older generation, which includes Holden’s distant parents, “most sex in America had been forced into the closet. Even masturbation was despised and thought to be the source of many physical and psychological ills. The only officially endorsed sexual behavior was monogamous heterosexual marriage,” (Ferguson, 2). Only private, vanilla-no-sprinkles-please sex was acceptable, and even this ultrabland intercourse was never spoken about. In a predictable reaction to this uptight sexual culture, the younger generation rebelled and embraced sex, which later partially motivated the sexual revolution. We see this open sexual excitement in Holden’s private school, Pencey Prep. Holden tells his reader that at Pencey “all you do is talk about girls and liquor and sex all day,” (Salinger, 131). While all of Holden’s friends are making out with girls, and then vividly retelling stories about said making out sessions, Holden can’t quite assimilate into that culture. A part of Holden does experience sexual excitement; he goes on dates regularly, comments on girl’s appearances, and is jealous of his roommate Stradlater’s sexually adventurous ways (Salinger, 43). But there is also an equally strong part of Holden that wants sex to be intimate and incredibly personal. Both perspectives are showcased as Holden reflects on an usual sexual scene observed outside his hotel room window; “I can even see how it might be quite a lot of fun, in a crumby way, and if you were both sort of drunk and all, to get a girl and squirt water or something all over each other’s face. The thing is, though, I don’t like the idea. It stinks, if you analyze it,” (Salinger, 62). On one hand Holden is excited, and at times overwhelmed, by sex. On the other, he is upset by and quietly sensitive to sexual energy. Holden is clearly confused about where he lands between these two opposing ends of the spectrum. Society is sending mixed signals to all young adults, and Holden is a prime example of the confusion that can ensue.The Catcher in The Rye is commonly known for its exploration of growing into adulthood, and the inevitable loss of innocence. Eero Helenius connects innocence and sexuality well- “With regard to sex and sexuality, then, Holden is primarily concerned with protecting the innocence of those — girls, in specific — yet untainted by its ever-pervasive influence,” (Helenius, 25). The themes of innocence and adulthood are closely related to, and supported by, a number of sexual examples. The clearest example of innocence lost to sex is found as Holden orders a prostitute to his hotel room. Immediately after confirming his room number with the elevator boy turned pimp, Holden starts to regret his decision (Salinger, 91). When the prostitute arrives, Holden is turned off by her childish appearance, noting that she “(…) was young as hell,” (Salinger, 94). The prostitute, who goes by Sunny, enters wearing a green dress and quickly takes it off. Holden’s obsession with innocence is clear as he reflects on this dress- “I took her dress over to the closet and hung it up for her. It was funny. It made me feel sort of sad when I hung it [the green dress] up for her. I thought of her going into a store and buying it, and nobody in the store knowing she was a prostitute and all. The salesman probably just thought she was a regular girl when she bought it. It made me feel sad as hell- I don’t know why exactly,” (Salinger, 95). Despite his lack of emotional intelligence, Holden expresses a deep pain in reaction to this innocent dress being used for prostitution. Holden may not know why he’s so sad about this dress, but readers do; witnessing an apparently regular, young girl turn to the impersonal world of sex work is heartbreaking for our innocence-obsessed narrator. Holden’s pained relationship with sexual innocence is also present, and even more personal, in his childhood friend and love interest Jane Gallagher. To Holden, Jane represents tender childhood memories and youthful beauty. Holden tells a story of when Jane and he are playing checkers, making a special note of how Jane keeps all of her kings in the back row through the game. This is of course a terrible strategy, but she “ (…) liked the way they looked (…),” (Salinger, 32). Much in the same way Holden has unrealistic but comforting tendencies, Jane puts the innocent desire of aesthetics above the adult goal of winning the game. Jane has a history of sexual adulteration, namely her “boozehound” father-in-law walking around their house naked. Jane’s father-in-law, a blatant symbol of harsh adult life, interrupts their checkers game to ask if they have any cigarettes, but Jane cannot meet his eye and begins to silently cry. (Salinger, 78). This exchange serves as evidence that Jane has been sexually abused by her father-in-law. Holden tries to comfort her, but lacks the proper communication skills. This tragic example of sexual adulteration sets the stage for another Jane-related pain for Holden. Stradlater, Holden’s super-sexual roommate, goes on a date with Jane. Holden, and readers, infer that Stradlater and Jane have sex, which is heartbreaking to Holden. Holden desperately tries to bring innocence back to the situation by asking Stradlater about Jane’s delicate back row of checkers, to no avail. As Eero Helenius puts it “Stradlater does not ‘even care if a girl kept all her kings in the back row’ (Salinger, 43), a detail about Jane’s character that means everything to Holden but nothing to Stradlater,” (Helenius, 24). This loss of sexual innocence is experienced as death for Holden: death of childhood, death of beauty, death of general innocence. Peter Shaw expands on this abstract death, writing that there are two parts of teenaged psychological development (Shaw, 101). The first is mourning death of innocence, and the second is experiencing love. According to Shaw, “If Holden is unable to move on from mourning [the death of innocence], he is equally unable to to commence the being-in-love portion of his maturation process. He is suffering through (…) ‘the prime danger of this age’: an excessively prolonged ‘moratorium’ on growing up.” Jane Gallagher stands as a beacon of youthful innocence throughout The Catcher in The Rye, and the combination of her father-in-law and Stradlater’s inconsiderate treatment of her are incredibly painful for Holden, holding him back from a more adult mindset. Holden Caulfield is famous for his hypocrisy. And concerning sexuality, Holden’s hypocritical ways do not falter. Holden tells us “In my mind I’m probably the biggest sex maniac you ever saw,” (Salinger, 62). However, only a few lines later, Holden also tells us that he feels guilty and dirty when he has sexual fantasies. Despite being interested and excited by sex, Holden does not take any legitimate actions towards have sex. And eventually, it is revealed that Holden has not yet had sex at all. “I’m a virgin. I really am. I’ve had quite a few opportunities to lose my virginity and all, but I’ve never got around to it. Something always happens,” (Salinger, 92). That certainly doesn’t sound like the “sex maniac” Holden had just described himself as. Holden’s sexual hypocrisy extends onto others too. As Holden dances with a few girls at a club, he comments on how dumb and simple-minded they are. However, he also notes how one “(…) when she turned around, her pretty little butt twitched so nice,” (Salinger, 73). Despite criticizing girl for not being intelligent enough, he also finds her attractive and tries to get the three girls to stay out with him. Holden experiences sexual excitement, but hypocritically fails to take the actions that would lead to intercourse. Holden Caulfield’s hypocrisy extends into the world of sexual fetishes, which he holds a restrained interested in. Although Holden again takes no actions to explore his fetishes, he clearly holds interest in certain socially divergent sexual practices. The first of these is a sexual interest in older women. This fetish arises as Holden flees from Pencey Prep to New York City. On his train to New York, Holden encounters Mrs. Morrow, the mother of Holden’s classmate Ernest Morrow. Holden tells us “She was about forty or forty-five, I guess, but she was very good looking,” (Salinger, 54). Holden is approximately sixteen during this interaction, placing Mrs. Morrow at nearly three times his age. Some social constraint is present in his language- Holden says “but she’s very good looking.” She is old but good looking; the word “but” characterizes her attractiveness unexpected, unusual. We can assume that if Holden was admiring a girl his own age, he would say “She is 16 years old and very good looking,” as a young girl’s attractiveness is far more accepted. The decision for Holden to write “but she’s very good looking,” shows that he knows she should not be considered attractive to him. As Holden settles into his hotel room, he reveals more of his atypical sexual interests. Just outside the window, Holden silently observes as two scenes unfold in a hotel next to his. The first is a grey-haired business man who adds a full outfit of women’s clothing, including silk stockings, heels, a bra, and even a corset. In the adjacent window, Holden observes a male-female couple spitting water on each others faces. Holden finds a special interest in this couple, writing “The trouble was that kind of junk is sort of fascinating to watch, even if you don’t want it to be,” (Salinger, 61). There is shame in Holden’s fetish interest; Holden describes his fascination as “trouble”, and openly states that he doesn’t want to be interested in it. Again we see hypocritical behavior, this time in a more explicit sexual manner. An interesting facet of Holden’s sexual disconnection is the possibility of homosexuality. The homosexual nods in The Catcher in The Rye are more subtle than the heterosexual ones, but are relevant nonetheless. The possibility of homosexuality would certainly contribute to Holden’s immense sexual confusion and disparity. The first, and most subtle, suggestion of homosexuality in Holden arises as he watches Stradlater walk to the bathroom- “He went out of the room with his toilet kit and towel under his arm. No shirt on or anything. He always walked around in his bare torso because he thought he had a damn good build. He did, too. I have to admit it,” (Salinger, 26). Again, some shame is present in his voice; he has to admit that he thinks Stradlater is well-built. The next nod towards homosexuality is Holden’s use of the word “flit”. The term was used as a derogatory term for queer and queer-appearing men during mid 20th century, and has since faded in popularity. Holden uses the term with a hateful tone to describe two men he spots at the end of a bar. Despite providing no basis for their homosexuality, Holden aggressively assumes their sexuality (Salinger, 142). During his meeting with Carl Luce, an old classmate notorious for sexual knowledge, Holden remarks that Luce knows “who every flit and lesbian in the United States was. All you had to do was mention somebody- anybody- and old Luce’d tell you if he was a flit or not,” (Salinger, 143) Holden then expresses an irrational fear that he himself would “turn into a flit or something.” A secretive interest with the alternative lifestyle of homosexuality was normal for American culture at this time, but Holden’s language shows a more emotionally charged reaction than interest. His fear of one day waking up a gay man reveals a deeper connection to homosexuality, or at the least bisexuality. We also see that Holden’s disconnection from his clearly homosexual interests creates an off-putting judgement of queer people, in particular other men. Fear of homosexuality arises, even more pronounced, when Holden stays with his old teacher Mr. Antolini. Mr. Antolini is welcoming of Holden, offering him a place to sleep in his apartment when Holden is in need. Holden falls asleep on Mr. Antolini’s couch, and awakens to Mr. Antolini petting his head. Mr. Antolini had been drinking heavily, blurring his sense of what is socially appropriate. The move is not entirely homoerotic; it could also be described as fatherly, concerned, or just drunken. But, keeping in mind that Holden is wearing only his underwear, and that Mr. Antolini had just told Holden “Goodnight, handsome,”, the interaction is undeniably homosexual to some extent (Salinger, 192). Holden flees the apartment, startled and upset by the move. Holden’s immense fear of a homosexual encounter with Mr. Antolini prevents him from seeing any of the fatherly, caring motivations that Mr. Antolini probably held. The act certainly is inappropriate according to American social norms. However, if Holden was more in touch with his homosexual interests and desires, his reaction would not have been so intensely negative. He still would have been startled, but perhaps later would have at least considered the kind, concerned motivations Mr. Antolini certainly held. Here Holden’s judgement of queerness cuts short any chance of a beneficial relationship with Mr. Antolini. All of these sexual tensions, misunderstandings, and disconnections lead to a very sexually confused Holden Caulfield. His confusion and disconnection lead to a number of socially inhibiting tendencies. The most clearly noted would be his infamous judgemental attitude. Holden constantly judges others, a habit frequently associated with insecurity. Another component of his social troubles is his rage, certainly fueled by judgmentalism. For example- in the beginning of the novel, before readers are acquainted with Holden and his lack of self-awareness, Holden enters a rageful fit, physically assaulting Stradlater (Salinger, 43).Holden’s rage, unsafe and juvenile, is triggered entirely by the thought of innocence lost to sexual intercourse. The move feels childish, both in its emotional immaturity and in Holden’s obvious physical disadvantage against the stronger, bigger Stradlater. This brings us to Holden’s last inhibiting trait; masochism. Before Stradlater and Jane go out, Jane is waiting outside of Holden’s dorm room. Jane- the lovely, kind, delicate character Holden adores- is alone, waiting just outside Holden’s dorm. Holden does not even step outside his dorm room, let alone go downstairs to speak with his childhood favorite. He then repeatedly contemplates calling her once he’s in New York, but can’t bring himself to go through with it. Holden’s inability to reach out to Jane despite his feelings is a prime example of his passivity and indecision. Despite having the opportunity to speak with Jane, Holden cuts himself off from this social interaction. The same goes for the previously explored fetishes Holden holds. He’s interested, excited, by sexual adventure. But he again cuts himself off from exploring these sexual activities that would bring him joy. Holden’s mixed drink, one part rage to two parts self-restriction, intoxicates him throughout the novel, leading directly to his depression. The narrative of The Catcher in The Rye occurs as Holden is experiencing peak sexual confusion. Readers witness Holden exploring intrigue, guilt, and discomfort. All of these are perfectly healthy during sexual development, but make emotional life quite difficult. Most readers of The Catcher in The Rye are just as young and impressionable as Holden is, making it important to analyze his developments. Holden is an angry, judgemental, and self-inhibiting character. These traits are not without good reason; Holden is lost not only in social identity formation, but in finding his sexual identity as well.
Works Cited Ferguson, Michael. “Book Review”. Journal of Homosexuality, Volume 57. Taylor & Francis Group, LLC. 2010. Helenius, Ero. “Socialization, Sexuality, and Innocence in The Catcher in the Rye”. University of Tampere School of Language, Translation and Literary Studies. May 2014.Salinger, J.D. The Catcher in The Rye. Little, Brown, and Company Edition. Warner Books. May 1991. United States of America.Shaw, Peter. “Love and Death in The Catcher in the Rye”. New Essays on Catcher in the Rye, edited by Jack Salzman. Cambridge University Press. 1991. The Pitt Building, Trumpington Street, Cambridge CB2 1RP.
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