Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye: Character & Analysis

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  • 0:03 A Privileged Young Man
  • 0:32 Who Is Holden Caulfield?
  • 1:52 Analysis of Holden Caulfield
  • 4:17 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kerry Gray

Kerry has been a teacher and an administrator for more than twenty years. She has a Master of Education degree.

Holden Caulfield is the main character and the narrator of the J.D. Salinger novel 'The Catcher in the Rye.' In this lesson, we'll learn more about Holden and the three days he spent in New York City.

A Privileged Young Man

Holden Caulfield, the narrator and protagonist from the J.D. Salinger novel, The Catcher in the Rye, comes from a privileged background with a father who is a well-to-do attorney in New York City. His family sends him to the best schools, provides him with the nicest things, and spends beautiful summers relaxing in a vacation home in Maine. So why can't Holden seem to get it together? In this lesson, we learn more about Holden Caulfield.

Who Is Holden Caulfield?

Holden has been expelled from four high schools by the time he is sixteen years old for academic failure. Holden is a great writer, but his idealism creates some issues for him. If he doesn't like a subject, or a teacher, or an approach to learning, he refuses to participate. Holden tries to explain it to his date, Sally:

'You ought to go to a boys' school sometime. Try it sometime,' I said. 'It's full of phonies, and all you do is study so that you can learn enough to be smart enough to be able to buy a goddam Cadillac some day, and you have to keep making believe you give a damn if the football team loses, and all you do is talk about girls and liquor and sex all day, and everybody sticks together in these dirty little goddam cliques.'

Holden hates people he considers to be 'phonies' and tends to idealize people like James Castle, the kid that jumped out of a window to avoid taking it back after calling another boy 'conceited.' Many people have tried to tell Holden that he needs to learn to play the game and learn from other people, but Holden prefers the fight. This could be read as Holden's way of pushing people away from him.

Holden has a tendency to isolate himself and make bad decisions that push him further into a pit of loneliness and depression. Throughout the story, Holden frequently wishes himself dead or decides he already is dying from something:

'I felt so lonesome, all of a sudden. I almost wished I was dead.'

Analysis of Holden Caulfield

But the question remains: why does Holden have such a hard time fitting in? Holden's issues appear to begin with the loss of his little brother, Allie. Allie was only 11 years old when he died of leukemia while in Maine for the summer. Holden, who was two years older, exploded with rage on the night that Allie died. Adding to Holden's grief, his mother has difficulty coping with the loss of her youngest son and becomes nervous and edgy. Is it just the loss, or is there more? What Holden keeps to himself is a memory of the time when Allie wanted to play with Holden and his friend, but Holden would not let him. Holden wishes he could go back in time and change that conversation. The guilt Holden feels is what haunts him.

Holden also seems to be afraid of growing up. Does he think that moving on with his life means forgetting about Allie? As he puts it:

'Certain things, they should stay the way they are. You ought to be able to stick them in one of those big glass cases and just leave them alone.'

Holden knows that the exact same experience seems different if the circumstances change. It's pretty clear that he is afraid that if he changes, his memory of Allie will change.

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