Phoniness in The Catcher in the Rye

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  • 0:00 Holden Caulfield
  • 1:10 School Officials
  • 2:15 Entertainment Professionals
  • 2:55 Girls & Most Other People
  • 4:33 Holden's Rules for Phonies
  • 5:29 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.

'The Catcher in the Rye' by J.D. Salinger is a novel about a boy who is falling apart as he clings to his childhood. Not wanting to grow up to be a phony, Holden Caulfield tries to avoid growing up at all. In this lesson, we'll learn more about phoniness according to Holden.

Holden Caulfield

Have you ever known someone who criticizes everyone around them? In The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, Holden Caulfield, the protagonist, disapproves of most people, which most likely has more to do with how he feels about himself as he's growing up.

Holden is at an age where he is trying to define himself, while at the same time, fearing that his memories of his deceased little brother, Allie, will change as he grows up. As Holden struggles against conformity, people who are conformists constantly disappoint him. If Holden doesn't like someone, it's usually because he thinks he or she is a phony. Technically speaking, a phony is a fake. Holden expands his definition of phony to include anyone who is not 100% genuine at all times or that he doesn't like. People who are charismatic, wealthy, attractive, friendly to others, or superficial are phonies according to Holden.

The word 'phony' appears in The Catcher in the Rye about 35 times. To Holden, being a phony is about the worst thing people can be and he is surrounded by them! Let's look at some of the people Holden calls 'phony.'

School Officials

Some of the phoniest people Holden knows are the adults he has met through school. Could that be the reason Holden has been kicked out of four different boarding schools for academic failure?

  • Holden likes Selma Thurmer, the daughter of the headmaster of Pencey Prep, but he thinks her father, Dr. Thurmer, is a 'phony slob.' After meeting Holden's parents, Dr. Thurmer calls them 'grand people.' Holden hates the word 'grand.' According to Holden, 'It's a phony. I could puke every time I hear it.'
  • Mr. Haas, the headmaster at Elkton Hills, is even worse. 'Mr. Haas, that was the phoniest bastard I ever met in my life,' says Holden. Mr. Haas made a big show of shaking hands and being charming with parents that came to visit, but if a parent didn't have the right look, he offers them a superficial greeting and then goes to talk to someone else.
  • Ossenburger is a former Pencey student who donates money to the school after making a fortune as an undertaker. When he visits the school, he tells 'corny jokes' and speaks at chapel about having a constant dialogue with God. 'I just see the big phony bastard shifting into first gear and asking Jesus to send him a few more stiffs,' thinks Holden.

Entertainment Professionals

According to Holden, nearly everyone in the entertainment industry and the people who enjoy the entertainment industry are phonies.

  • Holden hates the movies and thinks all actors are phonies. He declines to be in a movie short because he doesn't want to be a phony. But Holden feels conflicted because while he thinks highly of his brother, D.B., he also thinks D.B. has sold out because he moved to Hollywood to write movie scripts.
  • Ernie, a fabulous piano player, is wasting his talent according to Holden, because he panders to the crowd.
  • Love stories in magazines that have handsome men and women who want to serve them are also phony.
  • The lady who cries in the movie theater, but refuses to take her kid to the bathroom is a phony.

Girls & Most Other People

While Holden has a great deal of respect for his sister Phoebe and Jane Gallagher, he views most girls as phonies. However, Holden sometimes acts phony when he is with them.

  • Sally Hayes, who is superficially beautiful, but doesn't have much depth to her, is a phony. Even her letters inviting Holden to come over for Christmas Eve seem phony. Sally also uses the word 'grand,' which Holden hates. However, it doesn't stop Holden from asking her out on dates and making out with her.
  • Anne Louise Sherman, a girl Holden made out with once, is a phony, as is Lilian Simmons, a girl who talks to Holden because she wants to know more about his big brother, D.B.

Holden's friends, most career oriented people, and just about everyone Holden meets falls into the phony category.

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