The Catcher in the Rye: Childhood vs Adulthood
J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is written through the eyes of the protagonist, Holden Caulfield. It revolves around Holden’s turbulent transition into adulthood and his take on mature life. Though he is not yet a grownup, he embarks on a journey that makes him brush shoulders with the reality of adult life.
His infamous adventure leads him to resent adulthood and as a result, he tries to avoid it as much as possible. Salinger’s novel therefore highlights two things: the dangers of embracing childhood for long and not letting go; and the dangers of rushing into adulthood before the right age.
Holden’s life basically is an interaction of the two scenarios, which makes him a special case. In the first instance, he strives to be young forever. He does not want to be an adult, because he equates adulthood with “phoniness”. In contrast, he sees children as innocent, gentle and pure. The characters he is particularly fond of are children.
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There is Allie- his deceased brother, Phoebe- his younger sister and a boy who sings the song “catcher in the rye” in New York. Since he does want to be “phony” like the adults, he is desperately looking for ways to stay young. For a person who loathes work and responsibilities, it is quite absurd that the only thing he wants to do is to keep all the children from growing up. He says,
“I keep picturing 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. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff- I mean, if they’re running and they don’t know where they’re going.”
To him, maturity is so severe and painful that he likens it to falling over the cliff. Holden therefore wishes to be the guardian who protects kids from descending into adulthood. He has a fondness for the status quo and wants life to be the way it was when he was a child. He wants life to be fun just like when he was a kid.
The thought of responsibilities scare him and as a result he loathes being considered a young adult. He tries his level best to avoid hard work and responsibilities. A good example of his carefree attitude is when he flunks all his courses, except English and he is subsequently expelled from school. He also does not want to face problems and thinks running away from them would solve them. So, instead of going home to his parents to inform them of his discontinuation from school, he runs to New York to indulge in activities that are detrimental to his wellbeing.
He passionately hates work, because it is an activity of the adults. He equates his brother’s job to prostitution because he has no regard whatsoever for work or responsibilities. The fact that his brother D.B is a successful Hollywood script writer does not entice him in the least bit about the opportunities that adulthood offers.
He is only fixated on the fact that his elder brother only visits once a week, which does not impress him. Holden obviously misses the trips they used to go together with his older brother in New York. Another person whom Holden dislikes and calls a “phony slob” is Dr. Thurmer, the Pencey Prep headmaster.
This unwarranted hatred towards his principal is attributed to the fact that the headmaster represents what Holden hates. Dr. Thurmer is the direct opposite of Holden stands for. While Holden wants to keep children from growing up, Dr. Thurmer is molding them to become adults.
He also transfers this animosity to his peers, because they are embracing adulthood with zest. He does not want to participate in any activity with them, including sports. During the school’s annual football game against Saxon Hall, he does not attend like everyone else. Instead he chooses to go visit his former history teacher, Mr. Spencer.
Being the manager of the school’s fencing team, he was expected to meet them in New York. However, due to his carelessness, the team’s equipment is lost on the subway and everyone is forced to return early. He has no regrets, nor is he apologetic. He just feels amused he jeopardized the team’s plans.
There are several factors about Holden that ruin his adult life experience, which eventually lead him to hate adulthood completely. First of all, he cannot connect with adults well like he does with children. When it comes to men, he cannot have a proper conversation with them without coming out as a child, which infuriates them.
For instance, when he tries to talk to the taxi drivers about ducks, they are infuriated by his childish questions. Even his friend Carl Luce cannot tolerate his immature conversations and leaves him to wallow in his loneliness. As for the women, he just comes off desperate for their attention and they completely avoid him.
He naturally has a way of putting people off, because of his unconventional ways. Therefore, everyone seems to keep their distance from him, excluding his family members. As a result, Holden is very lonely and has no one in his peer group that he considers a close confidante. In fact, he only attracts friends who are considered bottom of the social hierarchy just like him.
For instance, Robert Ackley is too weird for even Holden’s standards and Luce is too effeminate that it irks Holden to be around him. Ward Stradlater is probably the only person he associates with that is in the “cool clique” and this is purely based on Stradlater being his roommate and the fact that he uses Holden to do his assignments, as he goes on dates. Jane Gallagher is among the few people he loves very much, but she does return his phone calls.
Secondly, he lacks accountability. Since he believes in his mind that he is still a child, he wants to be given the benefit of doubt in whatever he does. But life in general does not work that way. There are no second chances in adulthood and everybody has to be accountable for their actions. In adult life, things do not seem to go the way he wants them to and this frustrates him.
For instance, when Stradlater refuses to share the details concerning his date with Jane, Holden becomes angry and hurls insults at him. Stradlater is forced to beat him and Holden is left bleeding on his face. He is also assaulted by Maurice, the elevator operator when he declines to pay the full amount to a prostitute, even though they do nothing together.
Furthermore, his approach to adulthood is really misguided. His adult adventure is nothing, but a desperate attempt to have sexual relations with women. He is particularly affected by the relationship between Stradlater and his first love, Jane Gallagher. He therefore goes to New York with the hope of meeting someone, who will rescue him from his loneliness.
Unfortunately, he is not able to attract all the women he comes across, because of his anger fits and perpetual lies which reveal his desperation. Since he has been basking in a bubble of solitude all his life, he does not interact with so many people to realize that disappointments are part of life. Betrayal and rejection are therefore severe to him that he drowns in alcohol and smokes himself to a stupor.
With a future that seems bleak to him, due to the humiliation he get from the wrong adults, he embraces the beautiful memories of his past. For instance, he remembers gladly the days he used to play with his friends until nightfall, something that he cannot bring himself to do now. Furthermore, he still holds on to the memories of his dear brother, Allie, who died of leukemia. He is unable to get over his death.
Another person he admits to liking is James Castle, who committed suicide because other boys were tormenting him. He also loves the memories of Jane and him holding hands and how great he felt being near her. All the people he holds dear are either dead or not with him. He therefore seeks affection and attention from adults, but they just do not understand him. This frustrates him and he therefore has no one else to look up to but to his younger sister Phoebe.
While in New York, he tries to relieve the sweet memories of his childhood. He goes to the museum and is appalled by the fact that his life is changing, but the museum is still as it was when he was a child. He even goes to see ducks, a past time activity they used to do with his brother D.B.
He also takes Phoebe to the zoo and persuades her to ride the carousel, which has the same song it played when he was still a kid. Therefore, Holden prefers childhood to adulthood, because it is accommodative of his behavior. In adulthood, he is lonely and isolated and as a result, he is depressed.
As Holden’s life reveals, nothing good can come out of trying to live on terms that are unconventionally both socially and biologically. His idea that childhood is perfect is nothing but a flawed excuse to live in the past. More times than not, the past is looked at with nostalgia and is believe to be perfect. However, that is not always the case, especially for people from broken families. Living in the past has its weaknesses. For instance, it limits present and future prosperity.
On the flip side, Holden also gives us a glimpse of the dangers of rushing life. He is still a young boy in prep school going on an adventure of alcohol binges and sexual indulgences with prostitutes. His mind and body are not yet ready for such things, but he nonetheless indulges in them. As a result, he gets a skewed notion of what adulthood is.
There are dangers associated with kids who skip stages and just rush into adulthood. They are rarely stable mentally. Due to lack of planning, they are introduced to a life of struggles and misery, which affects their perception of life. Their lives are full of sadness and regrets, which may lead to severe health complications, like in the case of Holden who is forced to go to a rest home due to a nervous breakdown.