The Catcher in the Rye - Happiness and Ethics
The Catcher in the Rye (1951)
Classic novel about teenager, Holden
Caulfield, written by the American, J.D. (Jerome David)
Salinger (1919-2010), pictured right.
- Holden Caulfield became a role model for many young people.
- Mark Chapman asked ex-Beatle John
Lennon (pictured right) to sign a copy of the book hours before killing him in 1980.
Holden Caulfield, tall (6 feet, 6 inches), skinny and shy 16-year-old American schoolboy and
the story’s narrator
Sally Hayes, his girlfriend
Phoebe Caulfield, his ten-year-old sister
Mr Antolini, his English teacher
The book is told in flashback by a 16-year-old boy, Holden Caulfield, to his psychoanalyst in a
mental hospital about the few days before Christmas after the end of term at his boarding school in 1950’s
Having been expelled for failing 4 out of 5 of his classes, Holden visits his elderly history teacher,
Mr Spencer, to say goodbye. But, he is annoyed when Spencer criticizes him for his poor academic
Holden then fights his roommate, Ward Stradlater, because he is dating his ex-girlfriend,
Jane Gallagher, whom Holden still likes. He questions him insistently about whether he tried to
have sex with her and attacks him after being teased.
This fight makes him determined to leave school early and go to Manhattan, New York City
where his family lives.
He arrives at a hotel there, after annoying the cab driver by asking him where the ducks in Central Park go in
In the opposite hotel wing, he sees a male guest dressing up as a woman, and a couple hysterically spitting
drinks at each other. He interprets this as sexual foreplay and is both aroused and annoyed by it.
He then calls Faith Cavendish, a friend’s acquaintance, whom he believes is a stripper and will
have sex with him. She agrees to see him the next day, but he backs out.
He goes down to the bar where he flirts and dances with three women in their 30’s and feels he is “half in love”
with the blonde one.
But they joke about his age and leave him to pay the bill. He remembers his ex-girlfriend, Jane
Gallagher, who allowed him to kiss her on her face but not on her lips.
A cab driver (whom he also asks about the ducks) takes him to Ernie’s
jazz club in Greenwich Village, where he critically observes the other
He meets Lillian Simmons, one of his older brother’s ex-girlfriends, who invites him to sit
with her and her date. But, feeling awkward, he says he has to meet someone and walks back to his hotel, lonely and
Maurice, the hotel elevator operator, offers to send a prostitute to Holden’s room for five
dollars and he agrees. A teenager, calling herself Sunny, arrives at his
She pulls off her dress but Holden feels “peculiar” and tries to make conversation with her. He claims he has
had recent back surgery and can’t have sex with her. But he pays her anyway.
She returns with Maurice, demanding another five dollars. When he refuses to pay, Maurice punches him in the
stomach and leaves him on the floor, while Sunny takes five dollars from his wallet.
The next morning (Sunday) he gives two nuns ten dollars at a sandwich bar and meets Sally
Hayes, an ex-girlfriend. They split up after Holden insults her and suggests they run away and live in a
He again fails to contact Jane and then calls Carl Luce, his old student adviser and now a
university student. They meet in a bar but Luce leaves in disgust after Holden makes some juvenile remarks about
homosexuals and Luce’s Chinese girlfriend.
Holden, now drunk, sneaks into his parents’ Manhattan apartment. He wakens his sister, Phoebe,
who is mad at him for being expelled. When he tries to explain why he hates school, she accuses him of not liking
He tells her his fantasy of being “the catcher in the rye” who catches little children as they
are about to fall off a cliff, while playing in a rye field.
He then calls his old English teacher, Mr Antolini, who invites him to his apartment. He
asks Holden about his expulsion and advises him to live humbly with realistic aims.
Holden falls asleep on his couch and awakens to find Antolini stroking his forehead. Thinking he is a
homosexual, he leaves abruptly and sleeps for a few hours on a bench at Grand Central Station.
The next day he goes to Phoebe’s school, sending her a note that he is moving out West and she should meet him
at the Museum of Natural History.
She arrives there, carrying a full suitcase of clothes, and asks him to take her with him. He refuses angrily
and so upsets her that he agrees not to leave home. He then happily watches her ride on a carousel at the zoo.
Holden finishes his story there, refusing to say how he went home and got “sick”. He plans to go to a new school
in the fall and is cautiously optimistic about his future.
What are its lessons for happiness and ethics?
1. Fight phoniness
- hates “phoniness” (being hypocritical, shallow, pretentious and dishonest)
- believes that you should live your own life (being true to yourself, your
principles and your uniqueness as an individual ,which is why he loves his red hunting hat).
- wants to rebel against his rich parents and their high expectations of him.
2. People aren’t perfect
Holden idealizes some people (like Phoebe) and ignores their weaknesses.
But, after his conversation with Mr Antolini, he begins to realize that people aren’t perfect and sometimes
“phony” (see point 1)
3. Live well and don't self-destruct
Mr. Antolini tells Holden that happiness is dependent on:
Holden must reject his self-destructive isolation that
results from his:
- belief that people are no good (see point
- idealization of girlfriends, like Jane Gallagher, who don't
live up to his high expectations
4. Face reality
The “Caul” in Holden’s surname is a membrane that covers the head of a foetus during
birth. This represents his constant running away from the emotional complexities of adult life like:
For example, he asks Sally to run away to a log cabin.
To avoid facing reality, he lives in a fantasy world, clinging on to the innocence of
So he wants to be a “catcher in the rye” who stops children falling off a cliff
(representing the perils of adulthood) after playing nearby in a field of rye (the idyll of
Mr. Spencer tells him that he must:
- accept the world for what it is.
- live by its rules (for example, acting responsibly and getting an education).
5. People make you happy
Holden is unhappy because he:
- runs away from meaningful relationships with other people (like his ex-girlfriend, Jane).
- isolates himself by being cynical and superior.
He is happiest when he feels close to others, as when his sister, Phoebe, is riding on the
carousel in the zoo.
He doesn't understand that happy relationships come from common interests.
6. Know yourself
Holden needs to:
- be more honest with himself.
- do something about these weaknesses.
But he must also give himself credit (and so self-respect) for his strengths, particularly his
kindness and sensitivity
For example, he gives to the nuns and refuses to use girls as sex objects.
7. Be kind
In contrast to the horrible elevator operator, Maurice, Mr Antolini is a hero, because
- gives Holden a bed in his New York apartment.
8. Life is change
Holden likes the unchanging displays at the Museum of Natural History, because he’s terrified by
change and loss (prompted by his beloved brother, Allie’s tragic death).
- learn that change, people’s unpredictability, and even conflict, can be
- accept the ending of childhood (but after childhood he wants to be a catcher in the
rye saving himself and other children from this inevitability)
9. Curiosity is cool
One of Holden’s strengths is his childlike curiosity.
He asks the New York cab drivers where the ducks in Central Park go in winter.
10. Make the most of your life
Mr Antolini is worried that Holden will end up doing a boring job, if he continues to be
rebellious and lazy.
11. Think for yourself
Holden is a better person when he
- finds the truth for himself.
For example, he:
- challenges his prejudice against homosexuality (after Mr
Antolini shows him that gays can be great people).
- questions the Bible (believing that Jesus was too kind to send Judas to hell).
- dislikes prejudice against people who are neither attractive nor socially
Key quotes on life
How do you know what you’re doing till you do it?, Holden Caulfield
Life is a game, boy. Life is a game one plays according to the rules, Mr. Spencer.
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