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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The phony and the whiney: Defending Holden Caulfield

If a singular event could symbolize the low points of high school, reading “The Catcher in the Rye” in English class would be second to none. Name-dropping the main character, Holden Caulfield, has become an inside joke between my high school friends. We bonded over the collective trauma as we were forced to hear Holden Caulfield complain about everything and everyone he encountered. Meandering through New York City, Holden pervasively emits a cloud of cynicism and self-pity, dismissing any positivity in life with its contagious sense of gloom and doom. 

And all of this made me want to smash my head into a wall. Moreover, repetitive language patterns and attacks on people as “phonies” combined with a stubborn obsession with ducks — yes, ducks — grated away at my sanity. Repeatedly asking where the ducks would go when the Central Park pond freezes over, Holden vexes a taxi driver, who responds with, “How the hell should I know a stupid thing like that?” The taxi driver’s irritation mirrored my own; the constant sense of “Why am I even here?” while drowning in Holden’s pessimistic ramblings is easily applicable as an extended metaphor for a majority of high school burnouts. This is not helped by the fact that so many people would gladly be in Holden’s place — with financial stability, parents who care about him, access to elite education and so on. While Holden’s life isn’t perfect, his privileged position undermines his angst as it becomes harder to pinpoint a specific reason that causes him such misery and hostility towards society at large. 

And yet, Holden is so close to us. Thinking back now, I think Holden’s angst and hopelessness come from his inability to peel his eyes away from death. He is hyper-focused on the real, visceral and maybe even existential question: if the point of living is growing closer to death, and everyone ends up dying, then what’s the point of living? 

He constantly thinks about death, more specifically, the death of his younger brother Allie. In contrast, Harry Potter is not haunted by the death of his parents, who live on through the fond memories and their love for Harry; Katniss Everdeen encounters many deaths, but she is not crushed by them such that she becomes permanently disillusioned, self-destructive and suicidal. The thoughts of death do not devour Harry and Katniss, but Allie’s passing gobbles up Holden’s entire existence. Holden’s immediate response to this trauma is rage. He cannot escape a world without his brother. As if his brother was life itself, all the meaning and joy from Holden’s life is gone when Allie disappears. This grief instills enough anger and despair in thirteen-year-old Holden that he punches through all the windows in the garage, permanently ruining his fist. He cannot accept the fact that children grow up just to end up dying. 

Conversing with his aging history professor Mr. Spencer reminds Holden of his repulsion for death. Mr. Spencer lectures, “Life is a game, boy. Life is a game that one plays according to the rules.” Holden echoes him obediently, “Yes, sir. I know it is. I know it,” but voices his protests in thought: “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.” The other side is the direct opposite of life; it nullifies all meaning and purpose, thus making it impossible for any “game” or “hot-shots” to be sustained. It is where all the meaning in existence — in Holden’s view — is forever invalidated. In other words, the other side is where Allie is and it is death. Fixation with the tragedy of laboring to construct an existence and purpose in life just to lose that existence and purpose is what tortures Holden. 

Throughout Holden’s endeavors in New York City, he tries to define himself by putting on a red hunting hat that both protects him and alienates him from everyone else. In parallel, Holden often reaches for memories of Allie and fond memories of childhood, calling Allie a protector, particularly when he is depressed. In this sense, Holden hides in his red hat and his memories to escape from a perceived harsh reality of not just phoniness but faked existences. Power, fame and religion — things Holden thinks are pretentious — are the benchmarks of a good life by conventional social standards, and Holden sees these values as rendered worthless in the face of death. Following this line of logic, his anger is not directed at privileged classes but rather at anyone arrogant and ignorant enough to think that they can outsmart death by constructing these false existences. In Holden’s worldview, nothing in life can outweigh the meaninglessness caused by death.

And suddenly, the title The Catcher in the Rye starts to make sense. Holden does not want kids to grow up, but this isn’t because he purely idolizes childhood innocence as opposed to adult phony society. Rather, he cannot accept a world where children are growing toward the ultimate suffering and meaninglessness brought on by death: 

“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.”

While Holden’s fame first came largely due to his relatability, fewer and fewer youths actually think he’s a relatable anti-hero. Despite his dwindling popularity, the ghost of Caulfield still lingers in my high school English classroom and my circle of friends. The biggest difference between Holden and me is that he stares death in the eye, and I don’t. He represents what was, and perhaps more importantly, what may be. 

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