J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is perhaps his most famous work, and the protagonist, Holden Caulfield, has been analyzed by a multitude of critics over a span of generations. Holden Caulfield is a symbolic character who to many represents an archetype of adolescence. The struggles of Holden Caulfield hits a sensitive nerve among people and they are able to connect with him on a personal level, which is part of the reason as to why The Catcher in the Rye is still a popular book even today. The complexities of Holden Caulfield have attracted a great deal of attention form literary critics.
The interpretations these critics give vary greatly but it is widely accepted that the adventure within the book is Caulfield’s reaction to the “real world,” in other words, the world of adults. Holden Caulfield is unable to come to terms with the world of adults, that much is certain, but how he approaches the problem is disagreed upon. The two most prominent critical interpretations see Caulfield as either an idealist or a person whose inability to come to terms with reality has left him emotionally unstable. The idealist approach sees Caulfield as the underdog who wants to protect those who have yet to be tainted by the dark world of adults. The proof of this desire lies within his sister Phoebe, who he dotes on through the entire book. Critics also point out the naivety of Caulfield, as evidenced in his ignorance of sex and his focus on the ducks in the pond. The other spectrum of critics take a psychoanalytical approach towards discovering the character of Holden Caulfield. These critics focus on Holden’s word choice and in it they see negative stress. Holden’s negativity is suicidal at points, which leads to the conclusion of him having a deteriorating mind state that some have interpreted to be sexual repression towards men or even his sister Phoebe. Interestingly enough these two conflicting approaches focus on the same passages from the book, but draw different conclusions about Holden’s character by emphasizing different words and phrases.
My paper will further explore these two interpretations with intentions to find the similarities and differences between them. By highlighting these similarities I hope to find insight into Holden’s adventure through New York City, and how his character changes throughout his trip. In the beginning he criticizes human nature, but at the same time feels sorry for the people he criticizes. He confronts the world, but then tries to run away from it only to stay in the end through a revelation he earns watching his sister on the carousal. While some see his reactions as an idealism that is almost religious and others as a mental breakdown of sorts, I will argue that the novel is a mixture of the two. I will magnify the similarities between the arguments, and stress that Caulfield is an adolescent who is struggling to find his way in the world, and he does so through a mixture of approaches, rather than one identifiable interpretation.