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Is Holden Caulfield Still Relevant?

J.D. Salinger's classic anti-hero has aged surprisingly well.

By Hannah SmartPublished 6 years ago 4 min read

For Christmas, I received, among other gifts, a red hunting hat—something that fans of J.D. Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye recognize as a symbol of youthful rebellion and the reluctance to grow up. Salinger’s book has been pivotal in my own life, but the hat—which I’ve been wearing religiously—has raised some serious questions in my mind about the book’s continued relevance in modern society.

Let me begin by saying this: I first read The Catcher in the Rye when I was close to the same age as Holden is in the novel. To say that the time at which I discovered Holden was not a factor in my profound and continued love for his story would be willfully ignorant. However, I’m now three years older than Holden was at the time his story took place and two years older than he was at the time he told it, and even after reading the book several more times, I still find it funny, relatable, and inspiring.

Not everyone shares my appreciation of Holden, however. His language, mannerisms, and thought processes have frequently been the subject of criticism—criticism not only of Holden as a person, but also of the book as a whole, as if Holden’s clear shortcomings as a human being somehow take away from the objective quality of the novel. This particular article argues that Holden is sexist, while this one makes the case that Holden’s character, in this day and age, comes across as whiny and spoiled rather than troubled yet charming. As I’ve continued to read articles that portray him as a two-dimensional, once important but now outdated figure, I’ve become more and more discouraged. Was this to be Holden’s legacy? Was he doomed to be immortalized not as the embodiment of teenage angst and the emotional turmoil of adolescence but as a sexist, pretentious asshole? The short answer is no, but the long answer is a bit more complex than that.

Holden’s teenage years are set in postwar America, and the sentiments expressed throughout the novel reflect a lot of the sentiments felt by Americans at the time—frustration, isolation, and justified yet misplaced anger. No teenager today has lived through the horrors of World War II, but we’ve lived through several traumatic periods of history that have resulted in similar feelings of alienation and mistrust of society—the 9/11 attacks, the Iraq War, and the Great Recession.

Let us, for a minute, put ourselves in Holden’s shoes: not only did he grow up while World War II raged overseas, but he was also plagued by many personal problems. He lost his younger brother to leukemia and saw a classmate commit suicide. He was kicked out of school. In addition, he faced many of the same problems and questions that all adolescents face, and have faced, since the beginning of human existence—he questioned his religion, experienced unrequited love, and felt unable to connect with the adult class of “phonies” to which he feared he would soon belong. It is these universal sentiments that make Holden’s character so relatable, even though most of us, myself included, have never actually attended a private boarding school or wandered the streets of New York alone.

So what is Holden’s solution to all of this? Simple, it is to direct his anger towards everyone and everything. However, a blanket hatred of every aspect of humanity, not surprisingly, goes against his human nature. As a result, he is essentially a walking contradiction. He claims he is a pacifist (pg 52) after provoking a fistfight with his roommate. He asks a girl to run away with him (pg 146) after insulting almost every aspect of her character, from her intelligence to her family, just pages earlier. He claims he will retreat into hiding and pretend to be a “deaf-mute” so that he will no longer have to interact with other people (pg 218), but even after making that bold assertion, he reaches out to his sister, as he has reached out to others throughout the book, in the hopes that someone—anyone—will just listen to what he has to say. He frequently mentions that he ought to give Jane Gallagher, his ex-girlfriend and longtime romantic interest, a call, but he never goes through with it. Why? Because beneath his angsty, rebellious persona is an insecure teenage boy with a deep-seated fear of rejection. His resulting characterization is that of someone who truly has no idea what he wants or whom he wishes to be.

Holden is not a noble character. He does not represent the paradigm of heroism or someone we should all strive to emulate. But he is someone we’ve all emulated at one point or another, whether or not we like to admit it. The bottom line is this: growing up is hard. It’s confusing. It’s further complicated by historically notorious events that call into question the legitimacy of not only the world around us but also the very foundations upon which society is built. Holden knew this, and he embodied it more accurately than any other character in fiction. If you want continue your lamentations about the poor example Holden supposedly sets—as if you expect teenagers to be perfect all the time—you may do so on your own time. I’ll simply put on my red hunting hat and call you a phony.


About the Creator

Hannah Smart

Middlebury College class of 2019. Amateur musician and writer.

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