The Catcher in the Rye and Phoniness

The consentient praise and admiration showered upon J.D. Salinger’s greatest masterpiece, The Catcher in the Rye, has but one primary shortcoming: instilling murderous rage within the hearts of marginalized white men. Yes, this means Mark David Chapman (and let us also not forget its place in the Mike White-written The Good Girl). Among the most prominent themes of the novel is phoniness, with specific regard to Holden Caulfield’s contempt for it. This obsession with fakeness in the average person is what spoke to Chapman, and drove him to center his aggressions on John Lennon. And yet, for as much as Holden despises phoniness, he himself–like Chapman–can’t help but fall prey to this seemingly congenital human flaw every now and again, particularly when it comes to his interactions with adults.

For instance, Mr. Spencer, one of the only teachers Holden can actually tolerate at Pencey Prep, tries to impart the wisdom, “Life is a game, boy. Life is a game that one plays according to the rules.” Holden, himself being a phony in his acquiescent agreement, responds, “Yes, sir. I know it is. I know it.” However, internally his monologue is: “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.”

Being phony with and dishonest to himself, Holden tries to deny that he would ever want to fit in among the so-called hot-shots of the world (your investment bankers, your lawyers–your “businessmen,” in essence). Yet so much of his discontent comes from being unable to jive with this type of ilk. He’s certainly not the sort of guy to have much luck with the ladies either, as evidenced when his roommate in the school’s dorm, Ward Stradlater, goes on a date with Jane Gallagher, a former crush of Holden’s. To add insult to injury, Holden agrees to write a paper for him while he goes out on the date. It’s little slights like these that all start to pile up, feeding on the ire Holden has for anything that falls under the umbrella of phony, which is most things when one takes even a cursory look at humanity.

His expulsion from Pencey Prep, a place he later explains to his sister, Phoebe, is a breeding ground for phonies of the future, leads him to go home to New York a few days early, or rather, avoid going to his actual home by spending some nights in a hotel before Wednesday when he returns to his parents. Naturally, they’re a duo he tries to come into contact with as little as possible.

While in the city, Holden sets about one specific task, apart from figuring out about where those ducks in Central Park go. That is, the innocence Salinger implements into his protagonist is heightened by his virginity. Though Holden claims he wants to have sex, his simultaneous disinterest in it–feeling as though it’s more of an obligation than a source of pleasure–indicates that no woman he engages with can ever live up to his impossible expectations. When he tries to go to a prostitute to avoid projecting his ideals onto a potential girlfriend, he explains, “The trouble was, I just didn’t want to do it. I felt more depressed than sexy, if you want to know the truth. She was depressing. Her green dress hanging in the closet and all. And besides, I don’t think I could ever do it with somebody that sits in a stupid movie all day long. I really don’t think I could.”

Ah yes, the cinema, too, represents the height of phoniness to Holden, who cites the actors’ blatant phoniness as reason enough to hate them, but worse still are the audiences who line up to see them, all eager to waste their time and buy into the myths of romance. Holden’s increasing sense of alienation throughout the novel reaches a doleful denouement that proves Holden’s mistrust of most when an old teacher, Mr. Antolini, makes a sexual advance toward him after he goes there to spend the night. With no one to turn to that he can trust besides Phoebe, Holden tells her his only hope is to move West and live as a recluse, where no one can bother him.

Where many readers of Mark David Chapman’s deranged bent seem to go wrong is in understanding that, by the end of the novel, when Holden experiences his twentieth century literature standard issue character arc is that he is an abettor of innocence, which means rather than hold on to the antipathy, he reconciles an openness to a change in attitude. As he tells Phoebe what he ideally wants to do with his life, he replies in earnest, “. . . 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.”

Summarily, Holden isn’t exactly an advocator of “disposing” of phonies à la Chapman, but rather, beginning at the source–children–to ensure that they feel comfortable enough with themselves to not feel obliged toward putting on a veneer. Hence his desired role as the keeper of their innocence.

When Holden comes to the end of his tale of woe, told with the advantage of perspective from the institution (at least it’s out West though–just like he wanted), he cautions his reader, “Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.” Perhaps Chapman feels the same way about Lennon.

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