Study Guide

The Catcher in the Rye Sexuality and Sexual Identity

By J. D. Salinger

Sexuality and Sexual Identity

Chapter 4
Holden Caulfield

"She's a dancer," I said. "Ballet and all. She used to practice about two hours every day, right in the middle of the hottest weather and all. She was worried that it might make her legs lousy—all thick and all. I used to play checkers with her all the time."

"You used to play what with her all the time?"

"Checkers."

"Checkers, for Chrissake!"

"Yeah. She wouldn't move any of her kings. What she'd do, when she'd get a king, she wouldn't move it. She'd just leave it in the back row. She'd get them all lined up in the back row. Then she'd never use them. She just liked the way they looked when they were all in the back row." Stradlater didn't say anything. That kind of stuff doesn't interest most people. (4.44-48)

Holden appreciates Jane as a person, whereas Stradlater seems to view her as a sexual object for him to impress (he doesn't care about the stuff Holden's telling him, and is distracted by his own appearance). No wonder Holden is uncomfortable at the thought of Stradlater and Jane together.

"Her mother and father were divorced. Her mother was married again to some booze hound," I said. "Skinny guy with hairy legs. I remember him. He wore shorts all the time. Jane said he was supposed to be a playwright or some goddam thing, but all I ever saw him do was booze all the time and listen to every single goddam mystery program on the radio. And run around the goddam house, naked. With Jane around, and all."

"Yeah?" Stradlater said. That really interested him. About the booze hound running around the house naked, with Jane around. Stradlater was a very sexy bastard.

"She had a lousy childhood. I'm not kidding."

That didn't interest Stradlater, though. Only very sexy stuff interested him. (4.50-53)

We wonder if Jane and her "lousy childhood" serves as some sort of connection between her and Holden. After all, he later reveals that he, too, has had some "perverty" stuff happen to him "about twenty times since [he] was a kid."

"Her mother belonged to the same club we did," I said. "I used to caddy once in a while, just to make some dough. I caddy'd for her mother a couple of times. She went around in about a hundred and seventy, for nine holes."

Stradlater wasn't hardly listening. He was combing his gorgeous locks.

"I oughta go down and at least say hello to her," I said.

"Why don'tcha?"

"I will, in a minute." He started parting his hair all over again. It took him about an hour to comb his hair.

[…]

"Jane Gallagher. Jesus ... I couldn't get her off my mind. I really couldn't. "I oughta go down and say hello to her, at least."

"Why the hell don'tcha, instead of keep saying it?" Stradlater said.

I walked over to the window, but you couldn't see out of it, it was so steamy from all the heat in the can.. "I'm not in the mood right now," I said. I wasn't, either. You have to be in the mood for those things. […] I walked around the can for a little while. I didn't have anything else to do. (4.49-57)

Here begins a desire-inaction pattern with regards to Jane that will continue for most of The Catcher in the Rye. Holden says he ought to go say hello, but can't get himself to follow through and actually do it. We see this again and again as he merely contemplates calling Jane. Admittedly, Holden is a coward, but his passivity here is a real indication of his genuine feelings for this girl.

Chapter 6
Holden Caulfield

"If you didn't go to New York, where'd ya go with her?" I asked him, after a little while. I could hardly keep my voice from shaking all over the place. Boy, was I getting nervous. I just had a feeling something had gone funny.

[…]

Stradlater kept taking these shadow punches down at my shoulder. He had his toothbrush in his hand, and he put it in his mouth. "What'd you do?" I said. "Give her the time in Ed Banky's goddam car?" My voice was shaking something awful.

[…]

This next part I don't remember so hot. All I know is I got up from the bed, like I was going down to the can or something, and then I tried to sock him, with all my might, right smack in the toothbrush, so it would split his goddam throat open. (6.26-35)

Holden is so angered by the thought of Stradlater and Jane because she's the only girl, as far as we can tell, that he has genuine feelings for. Since he can't reconcile respect for a girl with lusting after her, anything sex-related means she's being disrespected. Then again, it's Stradlater, so what are the odds that there is any respect in the first place.

Chapter 7

I kept laying there in the dark anyway, though, trying not to think about old Jane and Stradlater in that goddam Ed Banky's car. But it was almost impossible. The trouble was, I knew that guy Stradlater's technique. That made it even worse. We once double-dated, in Ed Banky's car, and Stradlater was in the back, with his date, and I was in the front with mine. What a technique that guy had. What he'd do was, he'd start snowing his date in this very quiet, sincere voice – like as if he wasn't only a very handsome guy but a nice, sincere guy, too. I damn near puked, listening to him. His date kept saying, "No – please. Please, don't. Please." But old Stradlater kept snowing her in this Abraham Lincoln, sincere voice, and finally there'd be this terrific silence in the back of the car. It was really embarrassing. I don't think he gave that girl the time that night – but damn near. Damn near. (7.40)

Quick: name one positive sexual experience that Holden describes. We’ll wait.

[…]

You can’t do it, right? His entire experience of sex is like this: coercion, convincing, and possible molestation.

Most guys at Pencey just talked about having sexual intercourse with girls all the time – like Ackley, for instance – but old Stradlater really did it. I was personally acquainted with at least two girls he gave the time to. That's the truth. (7.32)

Because Holden’s still uncomfortable with his own sexuality, he’s fascinated (and frankly kind of grossed out by) a guy who’s so obviously comfortable being with women. (Maybe a little too comfortable, if you ask us.)

Chapter 8
Holden Caulfield

"Would you care for a cigarette?" I asked her.

She looked all around. "I don't believe this is a smoker, Rudolf," she said. Rudolf. That killed me.

"That's all right. We can smoke till they start screaming at us," I said. She took a cigarette off me, and I gave her a light.

She looked nice, smoking. She inhaled and all, but she didn't wolf the smoke down, the way most women around her age do. She had a lot of charm. She had quite a lot of sex appeal, too, if you really want to know. (8.24-27)

For being a sexually insecure sixteen-year-old, Holden has guts. We might need to think twice before writing him off as a socially inept kid.

All of a sudden, this lady got on at Trenton and sat down next to me. Practically the whole car was empty, because it was pretty late and all, but she sat down next to me, instead of an empty seat, because she had this big bag with her and I was sitting in the front seat. She stuck the bag right out in the middle of the aisle, where the conductor and everybody could trip over it. She had these orchids on, like she'd just been to a big party or something. She was around forty or forty-five, I guess, but she was very good looking. Women kill me. They really do. I don't mean I'm oversexed or anything like that – although I am quite sexy. I just like them, I mean. They're always leaving their goddam bags out in the middle of the aisle. (8.4)

It's interesting to see what Holden identifies as sexy, feminine attributes—like leaving bags in out in the middle of the aisle. His observations can actually be quite incisive, lending some weight to the argument that, actually, Holden is quite beyond his years (at least in some ways).

Chapter 9

The trouble was, that kind of junk is sort of fascinating to watch, even if you don't want it to be. For instance, that girl that was getting water squirted all over her face, she was pretty good-looking. I mean that's my big trouble. In my mind, I'm probably the biggest sex maniac you ever saw. Sometimes I can think of very crumby stuff I wouldn't mind doing if the opportunity came up. I can even see how it might be quite a lot of fun, in a crumby way, and if you were both sort of drunk and all, to get a girl and squirt water or something all over each other's face. The thing is, though, I don't like the idea. It stinks, if you analyze it. I think if you don't really like a girl, you shouldn't horse around with her at all, and if you do like her, then you're supposed to like her face, and if you like her face, you ought to be careful about doing crumby stuff to it, like squirting water all over it. It's really too bad that so much crumby stuff is a lot of fun sometimes. Girls aren't too much help, either, when you start trying not to get too crumby, when you start trying not to spoil anything really good. I knew this one girl, a couple of years ago, that was even crumbier than I was. Boy, was she crumby! We had a lot of fun, though, for a while, in a crumby way. Sex is something I really don't understand too hot. You never know where the hell you are. I keep making up these sex rules for myself, and then I break them right away. Last year I made a rule that I was going to quit horsing around with girls that, deep down, gave me a pain in the ass. I broke it, though, the same week I made it – the same night, as a matter of fact. I spent the whole night necking with a terrible phony named Anne Louise Sherman. Sex is something I just don't understand. I swear to God I don't. (9.14-15)

Bust out those highlighters, Shmooperinos: Holden says if you like a girl, you shouldn't do "crumby" stuff to her. Crumby = dirty in the sex way, not in the mud-puddle way. To him, what's "sexy" is "dirty" and therefore degrading to the woman. So, if you like a woman as a person, not as a sex object, how could you ever get dirty with her?

After he left, I looked out the window for a while, with my coat on and all. I didn't have anything else to do. You'd be surprised what was going on on the other side of the hotel. They didn't even bother to pull their shades down. I saw one guy, a gray-haired, very distinguished-looking guy with only his shorts on, do something you wouldn't believe me if I told you. First he put his suitcase on the bed. Then he took out all these women's clothes, and put them on. Real women's clothes – silk stockings, high-heeled shoes, brassiere, and one of those corsets with the straps hanging down and all. Then he put on this very tight black evening dress. I swear to God. Then he started walking up and down the room, taking these very small steps, the way a woman does, and smoking a cigarette and looking at himself in the mirror. He was all alone, too. Unless somebody was in the bathroom—I couldn't see that much. Then, in the window almost right over his, I saw a man and a woman squirting water out of their mouths at each other. It probably was highballs, not water, but I couldn't see what they had in their glasses. Anyway, first he'd take a swallow and squirt it all over her, then she did it to him – they took turns, for God's sake. You should've seen them. They were in hysterics the whole time, like it was the funniest thing that ever happened. I'm not kidding, the hotel was lousy with perverts. I was probably the only normal bastard in the whole place – and that isn't saying much. I damn near sent a telegram to old Stradlater telling him to take the first train to New York. He'd have been the king of the hotel. (9.14)

Shmoop doesn’t like to judge, but we do see why Holden would think of a cross-dressing gentleman as a “pervert.” But a couple having a good time with some water? A little odd, but not exactly extraordinary. To Holden, everything “sexy” just ends up seeming perverted.

Faith Cavendish

"Where ya stopping at? Perhaps we could get together for cocktails tomorrow."

"I can't make it tomorrow," I said. "Tonight's the only time I can make it." What a dope I was. I shouldn't've said that.

"Oh. Well, I'm awfully sorry."

"I'll say hello to Eddie for you."

"Willya do that? I hope you enjoy your stay in New York. It's a grand place."

"I know it is. Thanks. Good night," I said. Then I hung up.

Boy, I really fouled that up. I should've at least made it for cocktails or something. (9.52-58)

Faith Cavendish is a girl who “doesn’t mind doing it,” and it sounds like she wouldn’t mind doing it with Holden—but he backs down, just like always. Every time he actually has a chance to have sex, he … abstains. (Again, remind us why this book is banned?)

Chapter 10

I apologized like a madman, because the band was starting a fast one. She started jitterbugging with me – but just very nice and easy, not corny. She was really good. All you had to do was touch her. And when she turned around, her pretty little butt twitched so nice and all. She knocked me out. I mean it. I was half in love with her by the time we sat down. That's the thing about girls. Every time they do something pretty, even if they're not much to look at, or even if they're sort of stupid, you fall half in love with them, and then you never know where the hell you are. Girls. Jesus Christ. They can drive you crazy. They really can. (10.42)

We’re thinking “half in love” is just code for “wholly in lust.”

Holden Caulfield

She was really a moron. But what a dancer. I could hardly stop myself from sort of giving her a kiss on the top of her dopey head – you know – right where the part is, and all. She got sore when I did it.

"Hey! What's the idea?"

"Nothing. No idea. You really can dance," I said. "I have a kid sister that's only in the goddam fourth grade. You're about as good as she is, and she can dance better than anybody living or dead." (10.25-27)

Although he values intelligence in women, Holden often lets physical appearances cloud his judgment.

The blonde was some dancer. She was one of the best dancers I ever danced with. I'm not kidding, some of these very stupid girls can really knock you out on a dance floor. You take a really smart girl, and half the time she's trying to lead you around the dance floor, or else she's such a lousy dancer, the best thing to do is stay at the table and just get drunk with her.

"You really can dance," I told the blonde one. "You oughta be a pro. I mean it. I danced with a pro once, and you're twice as good as she was. Did you ever hear of Marco and Miranda?"

"What?" she said. She wasn't even listening to me. She was looking all around the place. (10.13-15)

Hm. Holden is hardly sexually or socially inept here. He's bold enough to ask the girl to dance in the first place, and then adept enough to make decent conversation. Again, we’re pretty sure he could get lucky if he really wanted to.

Chapter 11

I held hands with her all the time, for instance. That doesn't sound like much, I realize, but she was terrific to hold hands with. […] We'd get into a goddam movie or something, and right away we'd start holding hands, and we wouldn't quit till the movie was over. And without changing the position or making a big deal out of it. You never even worried, with Jane, whether your hand was sweaty or not. All you knew was, you were happy. You really were. (11.6)

Holden doesn’t care about sex—he cares about companionship and emotion. And for some reason, he doesn’t think he can have both with Jane.

The other thing I just thought of. One time, in this movie, Jane did something that just about knocked me out. The newsreel was on or something, and all of a sudden I felt this hand on the back of my neck, and it was Jane's. It was a funny thing to do. I mean she was quite young and all, and most girls if you see them putting their hand on the back of somebody's neck, they're around twenty-five or thirty and usually they're doing it to their husband or their little kid – I do it to my kid sister Phoebe once in a while, for instance. But if a girl's quite young and all and she does it, it's so pretty it just about kills you. (11.6)

Jane's action toward Holden—putting her hand on the back of his neck—is similar to his kissing her everywhere but her lips. They both take a more emotion-based attitude toward each other. It’s like they go out of their way to avoid being sexual. Hm. It is starting to sound a lot like they both have a history of abuse, isn’t it?

Anyway, I was telling you about that afternoon Jane and I came close to necking. It was raining like hell and we were out on her porch, and all of a sudden this booze hound her mother was married to came out on the porch and asked Jane if there were any cigarettes in the house. […] He had a lousy personality. Anyway, old Jane wouldn't answer him when he asked her if she knew where there was any cigarettes. So the guy asked her again, but she still wouldn't answer him. She didn't even look up from the game. Finally the guy went inside the house. When he did, I asked Jane what the hell was going on. She wouldn't even answer me, then. She made out like she was concentrating on her next move in the game and all. Then all of a sudden, this tear plopped down on the checkerboard. […] I don't know why, but it bothered hell out of me. So what I did was, I went over and made her move over on the glider so that I could sit down next to her – I practically sat down in her lap, as a matter of fact. Then she really started to cry, and the next thing I knew, I was kissing her all over—anywhere—her eyes, her nose, her forehead, her eyebrows and all, her ears—her whole face except her mouth and all. She sort of wouldn't let me get to her mouth. Anyway, it was the closest we ever got to necking. […] I asked her […] if Mr. Cudahy – that was the booze hound's name – had ever tried to get wise with her. She was pretty young, but she had this terrific figure, and I wouldn't've put it past that Cudahy bastard. She said no, though. I never did find out what the hell was the matter. Some girls you practically never find out what's the matter. (11.5)

The only remotely sexual action we see between Jane and Holden isn't actually that sexual—it's more about his comforting her than anything else. Meanwhile, it sounds like the two of them have similar histories of (maybe?) sexual abuse.

Chapter 13

Anyway, while I was putting on another clean shirt, I sort of figured this was my big chance, in a way. I figured if she was a prostitute and all, I could get in some practice on her, in case I ever get married or anything. I worry about that stuff sometimes. […] I wouldn't mind being pretty good at that stuff. Half the time, if you really want to know the truth, when I'm horsing around with a girl, I have a helluva lot of trouble just finding what I'm looking for, for God's sake, if you know what I mean. Take this girl that I just missed having sexual intercourse with, that I told you about. It took me about an hour to just get her goddam brassiere off. By the time I did get it off, she was about ready to spit in my eye. (13.25)

If sex is all there is between two people—like Holden suspects it might be—then it had better be good. That's a lot for a sixteen-year-old to have to deal with.

I knew I didn't have to get all dolled up for a prostitute or anything, but it sort of gave me something to do. I was a little nervous. I was starting to feel pretty sexy and all, but I was a little nervous anyway. If you want to know the truth, I'm a virgin. I really am. I've had quite a few opportunities to lose my virginity and all, but I've never got around to it yet. Something always happens. […] I came quite close to doing it a couple of times, though. One time in particular, I remember. Something went wrong, though – I don't even remember what any more. The thing is, most of the time when you're coming pretty close to doing it with a girl – a girl that isn't a prostitute or anything, I mean – she keeps telling you to stop. The trouble with me is, I stop. Most guys don't. I can't help it. You never know whether they really want you to stop, or whether they're just scared as hell, or whether they're just telling you to stop so that if you do go through with it, the blame'll be on you, not them. Anyway, I keep stopping. (13.24)

This is a big conversation we need to have here. Check out Holden's "Character Analysis" for a big argument.

Anyway, I kept walking around the room, waiting for this prostitute to show up. I kept hoping she'd be good-looking. I didn't care too much, though. I sort of just wanted to get it over with. (13.26)

At this point, Holden doesn't see sex as something intimate or even just fun—it's a rite of passage he has to "get […] over with." Gee, that really puts a person in the mood.

Holden Caulfield

She came in and took her coat off right away and sort of chucked it on the bed. She had on a green dress underneath. Then she sort of sat down sideways on the chair that went with the desk in the room and started jiggling her foot up and down. She crossed her legs and started jiggling this one foot up and down. She was very nervous, for a prostitute. She really was. I think it was because she was young as hell. She was around my age. […] She had a tiny little wheeny-whiny voice. You could hardly hear her. She never said thank you, either, when you offered her something. She just didn't know any better.

[…]

I took her dress over to the closet and hung it up for her. It was funny. It made me feel sort of sad when I hung it up. I thought of her going in a store and buying it, and nobody in the store knowing she was a prostitute and all. The salesman probably just thought she was a regular girl when she bought it. It made me feel sad as hell—I don't know why exactly. (13.26-53)

Right away, we know this isn’t going to go well—because Holden sees Sunny as a person, not as a sexual object. He thinks about how she's nervous, too, tries to guess her age, notices her voice, speculates about her personal situation and even how she might view herself (like how she might feel ashamed about being a prostitute). Holden sees this as a liability—but we see it as him most (only?) redeeming feature.

"Uh huh. Well, how 'bout it? Y'innarested? Five bucks a throw. Fifteen bucks the whole night." He looked at his wrist watch. "Till noon. Five bucks a throw, fifteen bucks till noon."

"Okay," I said. It was against my principles and all, but I was feeling so depressed I didn't even think. That's the whole trouble. When you're feeling very depressed, you can't even think.

[…]

I looked at the red thing with my number on it, on my key. "Twelve twenty-two,"

I said. I was already sort of sorry I'd let the thing start rolling, but it was too late now. (13.13-19)

And here we go again. Notice that Holden says "Okay" because he's feeling depressed. We've seen that his isolation makes him feel this way, so it makes sense that he's looking for companionship to make him feel better. Unfortunately, prostitutes aren't so much companions as people to have sex with, and we know for Holden, sex and emotion are sort of at odds. So basically, this is doomed from the start.

Chapter 17
Holden Caulfield

We horsed around a little bit in the cab on the way over to the theater. At first she didn't want to, because she had her lipstick on and all, but I was being seductive as hell and she didn't have any alternative. Twice, when the goddam cab stopped short in traffic, I damn near fell off the seat. Those damn drivers never even look where they're going, I swear they don't. Then, just to show you how crazy I am, when we were coming out of this big clinch, I told her I loved her and all. It was a lie, of course, but the thing is, I meant it when I said it. I'm crazy. I swear to God I am. (17.10)

Hm. Just a few chapters ago, Holden was saying how sick it made him to listen to Stradlater’s coaxing, and now here he is saying that Sally “didn’t have any alternative” because he was being “seductive as hell.” What’s up with that?

Chapter 19
Holden Caulfield

Old Luce. What a guy. He was supposed to be my Student Adviser when I was at Whooton. The only thing he ever did, though, was give these sex talks and all, late at night when there was a bunch of guys in his room. He knew quite a bit about sex, especially perverts and all. He was always telling us about a lot of creepy guys that go around having affairs with sheep, and guys that go around with girls' pants sewed in the lining of their hats and all. And flits and Lesbians. […] He said it didn't matter if a guy was married or not. He said half the married guys in the world were flits and didn't even know it. He said you could turn into one practically overnight, if you had all the traits and all. He used to scare the hell out of us. I kept waiting to turn into a flit or something. The funny thing about old Luce, I used to think he was sort of flitty himself, in a way. (19.3)

Men, women, the Discovery Channel—Holden is confused about himself, about sex, nervous about his own abilities, and just an all-around mess. Carl Luce doesn’t help: in Luce’s worldview, sexuality is something that can turn on you at any second. You could literally just wake up gay.

Chapter 24
Holden Caulfield

I didn't know what the hell to talk about while I was waiting for the elevator, and he kept standing there, so I said, "I'm gonna start reading some good books. I really am." I mean you had to say something. It was very embarrassing.

"You grab your bags and scoot right on back here again. I'll leave the door unlatched."

"Thanks a lot," I said. "G'by!" The elevator was finally there. I got in and went down. Boy, I was shaking like a madman. I was sweating, too. When something perverty like that happens, I start sweating like a bastard. That kind of stuff's happened to me about twenty times since I was a kid. I can't stand it. (24.98-100)

Look at how Holden acts even after he feels violated and nervous. He still makes conversation, still tries to somewhat smooth over the conversation. Despite everyone calling him "anti-social" all the time, he's a rather conscientious guy. On the other hand, it could be that he's just super embarrassed and talking to make himself feel better. Take your pick.

Mr. Antolini

Then something happened. I don't even like to talk about it. I woke up all of a sudden. I don't know what time it was or anything, but I woke up. I felt something on my head, some guy's hand. Boy, it really scared hell out of me. What it was, it was Mr. Antolini's hand. What he was doing was, he was sitting on the floor right next to the couch, in the dark and all, and he was sort of petting me or patting me on the goddam head. Boy, I'll bet I jumped about a thousand feet.

"What the hellya doing?" I said.

"Nothing! I'm simply sitting here, admiring – "

"What're ya doing, anyway?" I said over again. I didn't know what the hell to say—I mean I was embarrassed as hell.

"How 'bout keeping your voice down? I'm simply sitting here – "

"I have to go, anyway," I said—boy, was I nervous! I started putting on my damn pants in the dark. I could hardly get them on I was so damn nervous. I know more damn perverts, at schools and all, than anybody you ever met, and they're always being perverty when I'm around. (24.82-88)

There's way too much to say about this paragraph for us to cram it into a teeny-tiny thought here. Check out Mr. Antolini's "Character Analysis" for solid analytical indulgence.

"Jane Gallagher. Jesus . . . I couldn't get her off my mind. I really couldn't. "I oughta go down and say hello to her, at least."

"Why the hell don'tcha, instead of keep saying it?" Stradlater said.

I walked over to the window, but you couldn't see out of it, it was so steamy from all the heat in the can. "I'm not in the mood right now," I said. I wasn't, either. You have to be in the mood for those things. […] I walked around the can for a little while. I didn't have anything else to do. (4.49-57)

Holden says he ought to go say hello to Jane, but can't get himself to follow through and actually do it. It’s not just that he’s a coward—he really likes this girl, and that means that he’s somehow unable to think about her in any sexual way.