Study Guide

The Catcher in the Rye Lies and Deceit

By J. D. Salinger

Lies and Deceit

Chapter 2
Holden Caulfield

One of the biggest reasons I left Elkton Hills was because I was surrounded by phonies. That's all. They were coming in the goddam window. For instance, they had this headmaster, Mr. Haas, that was the phoniest bastard I ever met in my life. Ten times worse than old Thurmer. On Sundays, for instance, old Haas went around shaking hands with everybody's parents when they drove up to school. He'd be charming as hell and all. Except if some boy had little old funny-looking parents. You should've seen the way he did with my roommate's parents. I mean if a boy's mother was sort of fat or corny-looking or something, and if somebody's father was one of those guys that wear those suits with very big shoulders and corny black-and-white shoes, then old Haas would just shake hands with them and give them a phony smile and then he'd go talk, for maybe a half an hour, with somebody else's parents. I can't stand that stuff. It drives me crazy. It makes me so depressed I go crazy. I hated that goddam Elkton Hills. (2.60)

Welcome to Holden's obsession with "phonies." This seems to be the source of much of his dissatisfaction with the world around him—to be fair, it does sound like he’s surrounded by them. We don’t much like this Haas guy, either.

Chapter 4
Holden Caulfield

You remember I said before that Ackley was a slob in his personal habits? Well, so was Stradlater, but in a different way. Stradlater was more of a secret slob. He always looked all right, Stradlater, but for instance, you should've seen the razor he shaved himself with. It was always rusty as hell and full of lather and hairs and crap. He never cleaned it or anything. He always looked good when he was finished fixing himself up, but he was a secret slob anyway, if you knew him the way I did. (4.2)

Because Stradlater puts on a front, he's a hypocrite. Oh, and also a phony. The question is, does Holden follow his own rules? Or is he also constantly pretending to be someone he’s not?

Chapter 8
Holden Caulfield

"Oh, how lovely! Perhaps you know my son, then, Ernest Morrow? He goes to Pencey."

"Yes, I do. He's in my class."

Her son was doubtless the biggest bastard that ever went to Pencey, in the whole crumby history of the school. He was always going down the corridor, after he'd had a shower, snapping his soggy old wet towel at people's asses. That's exactly the kind of a guy he was.

"Oh, how nice!" the lady said. But not corny. She was just nice and all. "I must tell Ernest we met," she said. "May I ask your name, dear?"

"Rudolf Schmidt," I told her. I didn't feel like giving her my whole life history. Rudolf Schmidt was the name of the janitor of our dorm. (8.9-13)

There’s literally no reason for Holden to lie here: he’s not in trouble (exactly), he’s not running away from school—he just doesn’t “feel” like telling the truth. So, why isn’t this phony?

Mrs. Morrow

She had a terrifically nice smile. She really did. Most people have hardly any smile at all, or a lousy one. "Ernest's father and I sometimes worry about him," she said. "We sometimes feel he's not a terribly good mixer."

"How do you mean?"

"Well. He's a very sensitive boy. He's really never been a terribly good mixer with other boys. Perhaps he takes things a little more seriously than he should at his age."

Sensitive. That killed me. That guy Morrow was about as sensitive as a goddam toilet seat. (8.9-23)

Holden knows Ernest is a jerk, but he indulges Mrs. Morrow anyway. She’s deceiving herself; he’s letting her deceive herself; and he’s, well, deceiving her. And he’s doing it just to be nice. Important lesson: sometimes you have to lie to be nice. Is this part of why Holden seems to hate everything so much—because either you’re an honest jerk or a lying nice boy?

Chapter 17
Holden Caulfield

At the end of the first act we went out with all the other jerks for a cigarette. What a deal that was. You never saw so many phonies in all your life, everybody smoking their ears off and talking about the play so that everybody could hear and know how sharp they were. Some dopey movie actor was standing near us, having a cigarette. […] He was with some gorgeous blonde, and the two of them were trying to be very blasé and all, like as if he didn't even know people were looking at him. Modest as hell. I got a big bang out of it. (17.14)

Oh, yeah, Holden is practically ROFLing with how funny he finds this. It’s like he’s trying to find all the phoniness amusing, but the bitterness just keeps seeping through.

Then all of a sudden, she saw some jerk she knew on the other side of the lobby. Some guy in one of those very dark gray flannel suits and one of those checkered vests. Strictly Ivy League. Big deal. […] Finally, though, the jerk noticed her and came over and said hello. You should've seen the way they said hello. You'd have thought they hadn't seen each other in twenty years. […] The funny part was, they probably met each other just once, at some phony party. (17.14)

Speaking of parties, Holden sounds like he’d be really fun at one. Not. What we want to know is—why does he care so much whether this dumb guy is being phony?

"Hello?" I said. I made my voice quite deep so that she wouldn't suspect my age or anything. I have a pretty deep voice anyway. (9.19)

Holden must have the worst fake I.D. ever, because he’s constantly trying to fool people about his age and failing. For someone obsessed with childhood, he sure is eager to seem older.

[…] You should've seen him when old Sally asked him how he liked the play. He was the kind of a phony that have to give themselves room when they answer somebody's question. He stepped back, and stepped right on the lady's foot behind him. He probably broke every toe in her body. […] Then he and old Sally started talking about a lot of people they both knew. It was the phoniest conversation you ever heard in your life. They both kept thinking of places as fast as they could, then they'd think of somebody that lived there and mention their name. I was all set to puke when it was time to go sit down again. I really was. (17.14)

Holden has this puking problem a lot: every time someone’s particularly phony, he feels like puking. Sure, it’s partly a figure of speech. But it’s also part of his actual physical aversion to life—life literally makes him sick.