Who is Holden Caulfield?


wiseGEEK Writing Contest

Holden Caulfield is one of the most popular protagonists in classic novels. Readers have identified with the complexities of his character, even his self-destructing patterns. He is a bruiting teenager, sarcastic and cynical about life in general, and he stews frequently in his discontent. Readers emulate his character and become enraptured by his way of life – his independence as well as his wry sense of humor Holden comes from a very affluent background; he has been surrounded by middle-class wealth and privilege all his life. He has everything a child could ever want, including two parents who like each other and their children; unfortunately, none of these things are enough to stave off death and the changes which an inexplicable illness in a young person are sure to bring. Someone once said that the death of a child is like an explosion within a family; those who are left standing are never the same again. This is certainly the case with our main character, Holden Caulfield himself. After his brother’s death, Holden’s view of the world is bleak; he believes everyone is inherently evil and dishonest. His whole goal in life is to survive and to change the ways of the world in order to keep his little sister, Phoebe, and other children like her from ever having to be exposed to the world of evil. When asked what he would like to be one day, Holden answers ‘a catcher in the rye’….this is based on a fantasy he has that he is watching a group of children play near a cliff and he must be the one to save them if they wander too close to the edge and are in danger of falling. The sadness of Holden’s wish, of course, is the unspoken realization that he wants to save the children because he was unable to save his own brother, Ally. Another sad and sober realization is that a part of Holden also understands that he is unable to save himself. The dichotomy of Holden’s character, however, is his interest and involvement in mankind. Throughout the book, he is interested in people, in his family, in the ducks in Central Park, in everything; and it is this latter characteristic which makes him one of the most beloved and unforgettable characters in the history of literature. He is funny and genuinely wants never to hurt another person’s feelings; one of the opening chapters in the book where he interacts with Mr. Spencer shows this clearly. Holden is kind to the old professor and tells him goodbye when he is about to leave Pencey Prep. Probably never in the history of novels has there been a situation in a book where so much of the protagonist’s character is influenced by another character whom the reader never meets. Holden’s entire life changed when his brother, Ally, died of leukemia; it was the turning point in his life and it was an event which would change him forever. One of the most poignant parts of J.D. Sallinger’s The Catcher in the Rye comes during the part where Holden is told of his brother’s death. Holden breaks all the windows and tries to break the car windows as well; this is prevented by the fact that he has broken his own hand by this time. He says he doesn’t really know why he did these things, but ‘you didn’t know him. And it’s not as if I’m going to be a brain surgeon or an artist or anything anyway’. He says he isn’t ever going to be much anymore, and the sadness of this brilliant boy’s discarding his own life is both compelling and overwhelmingly heartbreaking. As Holden struggles to deal with Ally’s death, he faces other problems. He is no longer interested in his existence and has no motivation to study or get good grades. He loves his sister, Phoebe, and worries about setting a bad example for her; but his older brother, D.B., is more of a threat to Holden’s mental health. D. B. is a successful Hollywood writer—and even though Holden dislikes his brother’s career, he is threatened by D.B.’s success and seems to constantly be concerned about how his brother will view him. This is an added pressure which Holden really doesn’t need in his struggle to regain an interest in living. Though Holden is ultimately institutionalized for depression, he does not have, in my opinion, any kind of typical mental illness. He is simply unable to come to terms with his younger brother’s death; it seems inexplicable and outrageous to him and this causes him to mistrust everyone around him and even makes him question life itself. He becomes trapped in a circle of anger and sadness; yet his loneliness comes through in every scene of the book. Holden’s worry over where the ducks in Central Park will go in the winter is a wonderful example of this; his invitation to the cab driver who has been rude to him to ‘come and have a drink’ is another. The major factor showing Holden’s desire to get better and to recapture his own life, however, is probably best shown in his fascination with the young girl, Jane. He remembers odd little quirky things about her, such as her tendency to keep all her kings on the back row of the checkerboard, and wants to see or talk to her all throughout the book. He is obsessively jealous when he finds out that Stradlater has a date with Jane, yet cannot bring himself to go down and talk to her himself when he has the opportunity. This shows a classic sign of depression; Holden is terrified that a person he still likes and respects will let him down in the same way every other person in his life has. Other than his younger sister, Phoebe, Jane represents the strongest alliance Holden still feels with the people in his life. This shows that he has an overwhelming sadness and fear more than mental illness; when he panics on a New York street, he prays to Ally for help to get him through it. His own intelligence and his inability to lie about his own fragility and deceits almost become factors which prevent him from recover; he refuses to make excuses and has an almost palpable misery and loneliness. If I were in charge of Holden’s life, the first thing I would do would be to stop sending him off to private schools. Until his motivation and interest in living return, he will only fail at school anyway, and these failures will become nails in the coffin of his own self hatred eventually. Instead of sending him off, I would make sure he was constantly surrounded by his family, especially Phoebe. The strongest sense of hope in the entire book comes during the scene where Holden has made plans to run away and Phoebe finds out and tries to come with him. Holden soothes her and then takes her to the park where she rides a carousel in the rain; it is a part of the book where the reader almost can reach out and touch the happiness and hope Holden feels as he watches Phoebe. He describes how she looks with her hair streaming back and laughing and says to the reader, ‘I just wish you could have seen her’. Holden has promised Phoebe that he will not go off and leave her as she rides the merry-go-round, and he keeps this promise. The relief and hope Holden feels as he starts to see that his little sister is counting on him and that he has the ability to help her…..and, even more importantly, that he still has value and a purpose in life….are the strongest part of So I would keep Holden at home and I would encourage him to talk openly with his parents and Phoebe about Ally and how he feels about Ally’s death. Then the healing can begin and only in this way can it begin. Total strangers can never understand or empathize with you; people who also loved Ally can start you on your way to a cure, simply because they are in the exact same place of sadness and anger you are. The prognosis for Holden in the book seems very grim. His concluding statements still ring with a strong sense of hopelessness and sadness; he talks of his brother, D.B., coming to see him, but doesn’t seem very interested in either his brother or the chance of going home. And this is hardly surprising, since Holden has not been able to get to the root of his anger and despair, which is the overwhelming rage he feels over Ally’s death. Everything in the story supports this, everything – from Holden’s desire to be a catcher in the rye, saving small children, to his fury at Stradlater for belittling the essay about Ally’s green-inked baseball glove. Even when Holden runs around frenetically to piano bars and movies, he almost walks in an invisible cocoon of hopelessness. He needs his family, but he also needs an interest. Another thing I would do in treating Holden would be to get in touch with Jane and attempt to set up a meeting between her and Holden. She is a person who has known great difficulty herself, she would be capable of understanding what has happened to him. Plus, they already have a relationship and a friendship; the best thing in the world for Holden would be to re-kindle this interest. More than any pill or therapy technique, Holden needs two essential things: a belief that life still holds good and interesting people, and a realization that he will one day be able to both feel joy again and will come to terms with his sadness and rage over Ally’s death. He needs to see that there is light at the end of the tunnel; no stranger in a fancy prep school can hope to give him these essential things.

This submission was not accepted into the wiseGEEK Writing Contest because it answers a question already answered on wiseGEEK.

submitted by Katie Jordan