Study Guide

The Catcher in the Rye Themes

By J. D. Salinger

  • Innocence

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    Holden is a sex maniac. Trust him: he says it himself. But… really? The boy’s a virgin, and he can’t even bring himself to have sex with a prostitute—someone who literally does it for money. We don’t know about you, but Holden’s questions and assertions about sex don’t sound like the work of a sex maniac. They sound a lot more like the naïve fumblings of someone who’s still innocent enough to believe anything Carl Luce tells him. For all that Holden seems so obsessed with protecting little kids, we think the real innocent in Catcher in the Rye just might be Holden himself.

    Questions About Innocence

    1. Is Holden's desire to protect children from the "dirty" things of the adult world (sex) an impossible one?
    2. Is Holden innocent? What does “innocent” mean in this context?
    3. Why is Holden so obsessed with innocence? Who seems innocent to him?

    Chew on This

    Although Holden is obsessed with sex, he sees the world with a childlike innocence.

    Holden wants to prevent children from losing their innocence in the same way that he’s lost his.

  • Mortality

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    You’d expect a seventeen-year-old boy to be a lot more interested in sex than death, but… not Holden. Can you blame him? His younger brother died of leukemia four years before we meet him. He witnesses a young boy’s suicide at prep school. And then there’s the whole little problem of World War II. It seems like one of Holden’s major issues in Catcher in the Rye is that people—phonies—go around pretending like major tragedies don’t happen every day: they cry at sad movies, but they don’t cry about the atomic bomb. No wonder he thinks his screenwriter brother D.B. is such a phony.

    Questions About Mortality

    1. There are two major events in Holden's past related to death: his brother Allie dying from leukemia, and James Castle's suicide at Elkton Hills. How has each of these affected Holden and his thoughts about mortality?
    2. Where does Holden envision his brother Allie to be now? Does he seem to believe in an afterlife? Why is Holden so bothered by Allie's burial in a cemetery?
    3. Holden thinks about death a lot, but does he ever think about his own death? Is that secretly what he’s worried about?

    Chew on This

    Holden has a major death wish.

    Holden is only obsessed with death and mortality because he cherishes life so much.

  • Youth

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    Holden loves kids, but not in a creepy way. Really. He just thinks they’re cute little bundles of hilarious innocence: genuine, caring, and naturally kindhearted. In contrast, adults are “phony,” self-centered, and generally “bastards.” So, what’s he? Is teenaged Holden a phony bastard, or a kindhearted kid? And is “adolescence” just another word for “learning to be fake”? Catcher in the Rye doesn’t give us a clear answer—after all, it’s all told from Holden’s perspective—but it doesn’t look good.

    All we have to say is—wait until Lord of the Flies is published in a few years, Holden. And then tell us how you feel about kids.

    Questions About Youth

    1. What is it about children that Holden finds so much more appealing than adults?
    2. Is Holden more of a kid, or more of an adult? What defines these categories in The Catcher in the Rye?
    3. How is Holden like the teenagers around him—Ackley, Stradlater, Sally, etc.? Is he as different as he thinks he is?

    Chew on This

    Holden's unreliability makes it impossible for us to judge him as either a child or an adult.

    What Holden thinks he likes about youth is just his idealized notion of what children are like. He's not in love with childhood; he's in love with a fantasy.

  • Isolation

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    If we had a dollar for every time our parents told us to just wait until we got to college, and then we’d find all kind of people to be friends with, we’d … have a few dollars. Our point is that, in Catcher in the Rye, Holden feels isolated partly because he lives in such a confined circle. All his schoolmates are rich, privileged kids with narrow worldviews—but he’s also too rich and privileged to connect with anyone who isn’t a rich, privileged kid. (College probably isn’t going to help much, because it’s just going to be full of the same rich, privileged kids.) Maybe he could try hanging around with the Beat Generation?

    Questions About Isolation

    1. Is Holden lonely because others alienate him, or because he alienates others? What prevents Holden from alleviating his loneliness?
    2. Holden interacts with a lot of people during his two days (or so) in New York. Does he form a real, genuine connection with anyone?
    3. We can probably all agree that Holden and Phoebe have a real, personal connection with each other. What makes their relationship different from the relationships Holden has with others in the novel?
    4. Which events or scenarios make Holden feel particularly lonely? Why might this be?
    5. Is Holden more or less isolated (or the same) at the end of the novel than he was at the beginning?

    Chew on This

    Although Holden feels alienated from the entire world throughout the book, the last line of the novel shows us that the act of speaking his story connects him to his audience—and saves him from isolation.

    Although Holden blames other people and their "phoniness" for his loneliness, it is clear that the fault is entirely his own.

  • Sexuality and Sexual Identity

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    We can’t tell if Holden would be the kid in our class sneaking in his dad’s Playboy (do dads even subscribe to Playboy anymore?) or the one telling his teacher that someone was looking at a dirty magazine. (Actually, knowing Holden, he’d probably be telling on himself.) In either case, sexuality is something secretive and shameful to Holden. To him, it seems there’s no such thing as a healthy sex drive: any sex drive at all automatically means you’re a pervert. Tell us again why they keep banning Catcher in the Rye?

    Questions About Sexuality and Sexual Identity

    1. Why does Holden sabotage himself every time he has the opportunity to have sex?
    2. What is Holden's attitude toward women as sexual beings? Toward men?
    3. What does Holden consider "perverty" behavior? Is this a reasonable definition?
    4. Is Holden in love with Jane Gallagher? Does he even want to have sex with her? Is Holden able to distinguish between love and lust?

    Chew on This

    Although Holden is obsessed with sex, he wants to preserve innocence more than he wants to gain carnal knowledge.

    Holden's view of any sexual act as "crumby" and degrading is the result of his experiences with sexual abuse.

  • Sadness

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    Let’s do some word counting: variations of “depressed” or “depressing” occur 41 times in Catcher in the Rye. “Happy”? Five. As in, you can count them on one hand. Yep, we feel pretty comfortable saying that “sadness” is a major theme. Holden is just—well, today we’d probably call him clinically depressed. He has no apparent reason to be so bummed out all the time; he just is. The question is, is this sadness a rational response to how awful the world is? Or does he just need some good old-fashioned talk therapy?

    Questions About Sadness

    1. Check out our list of things that make Holden depressed in our “Character Analysis.” Do they have anything in common? Or are they just random because everything makes him depressed?
    2. Holden is most happy at the end of Chapter Twenty-Five, while he watches Phoebe go around on the carousel. In fact, he's so happy that he's "damn near bawling." What's up with that? Why does this, of all things, make him happy?
    3. Does Holden sound like he's still sad, now that he's seventeen and telling the story? Or is it more of a, "Sure, I was sad then, but I'm OK now" sort of deal?

    Chew on This

    Isolation is the greatest source of Holden's melancholy in The Catcher in the Rye.

    The more Holden connects to other people in The Catcher in the Rye, the more depressed he becomes.

  • Wisdom and Knowledge

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    If you asked Holden, he’d probably agree that everything he needed to know he learned in kindergarten. To him, institutional education is nothing more than teaching kids how to be phony, how to make money, how to live the kind of lifestyle where they go into an office all day and play golf all weekend. (Gee, that doesn’t sound so bad to us.) But by the end, he seems almost ready to admit that Mr. Antolini might be right: there’s inherent value to knowledge and learning, and formal education can keep you from squandering your native talent—and, thanks to Catcher in the Rye, we know that Holden has plenty of native talent.

    Questions About Wisdom and Knowledge

    1. What is it that Holden hates about these prep schools? Is it education, the institution, or the people running the institution? Does he distinguish between these? Can we?
    2. Does the ending to The Catcher in the Rye suggest that Holden will indeed "apply himself" in his next school, or does it hint that he'll just fail again?
    3. Is that even a relevant question, considering what we've just learned by reading The Catcher in the Rye?
    4. Is Holden convincing in his argument that education leads to snobbery and phoniness?
    5. Check out Mr. Antolini's big speech about education. Does the tone with which this is presented suggest that Salinger agrees with this, or is it presented in mockery of those who would promote it as a personal outlook?
    6. Does The Catcher in the Rye make the argument that knowledge is best obtained through experience, rather than formal education?
    7. What would Holden think about the fact that The Catcher in the Rye is often taught in schools today?

    Chew on This

    The speeches given to Holden by Mr. Spencer and Mr. Antolini, at the beginning and end of the novel, respectively, act as thematic bookends for the plot structure. Holden's reactions to these "lectures" encapsulate the ways in which he has changed over the course of his story.

    Mr. Spencer and Mr. Antolini have fundamentally different attitudes toward education: Mr. Spencer sees education as a way of creating conformists, and Mr. Antolini sees education as a way of creating individuals.

  • Lies and Deceit

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    Let’s do another word count (see “Sadness” for our first one): variations of “phony” occur 47 times in Catcher in the Rye. That’s a lot. Trust us. Phoniness is—well, everything from pretense to social snobbery to language to appearances. You could say that it’s anything Holden doesn’t like. You could also say that it’s anything that makes people less childlike and less innocent. You could also say that the whole foundation of civilization and society is based on what Holden calls “phoniness,” so … he should probably either learn to deal with it, or go ahead and run off to that cabin in the woods already.

    Questions About Lies and Deceit

    1. What does Holden mean when he uses the term "phony?" What modern-day equivalent would you use? Poser? Hypocrite?
    2. Is Holden often "phony" himself? He may not think so, but can we come up with reasons to see him as a phony?
    3. It seems that all adults are phony in The Catcher in the Rye, and all kids are genuine. Is this just the way things are in the world of the novel, or do we attribute Holden's biased point-of-view for such categorizations?

    Chew on This

    Although Holden appears to judge only adults as "phonies," there’s nothing specifically keeping kids from being phony, too.

    Holden is possibly the biggest phony we meet in Catcher in the Rye.

  • Madness

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    Is Holden crazy? Catcher in the Rye begins with a seventeen-year-old Holden Caulfield telling his own story of a year earlier, with mentions of his having come "out here" to "rest up." So, how much of what he relates is normal adolescent behavior, and what is just psychotic? (Just for fun, ask your parents about the difference between “normal adolescent behavior” and “psychosis” and wait for their bitter laughter.)

    Questions About Madness

    1. No, really, is Holden crazy? Why or why not?
    2. Holden says right off the bat (while still at Pencey) that his "nerves [are] shot." Is he just talking the talk, or does he really feel like something’s wrong with him?
    3. When Holden heads over to Mr. Spencer's house in Chapter One, he says, "It was that kind of a crazy afternoon, and you felt like you were disappearing every time you crossed a road." What do you make of this, given Holden's climactic street-crossing episode in Chapter Twenty-Five? Does this mean that his "breakdown" (or "episode") was latent and therefore inevitable from the beginning?

    Chew on This

    While Holden can be considered crazy during his time in New York City, the presentation of his narrative suggests that by the time he's telling us the story, he's sane.

    "Madness" is an irrelevant term in The Catcher in the Rye. Holden presents a world so absurd that his actions are neither crazy nor sane—they simply are.

  • Religion

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    The Catcher in the Rye treats religion much the same way as it does education. There may be an intrinsic value to it, but who can tell? It's been ruined by institutions and the phony people who run them. To Holden, religion is just one more way of creating social barriers and encouraging people to be phony. But religious people themselves? Maybe not so bad. The two nuns are almost the only people Holden doesn’t end up calling phony.

    Questions About Religion

    1. What is it that Holden dislikes about religion? Is it spirituality itself, the institution, or the people running it?
    2. Does religion affect the way Holden thinks about his dead brother, Allie? Does spirituality?
    3. Why is it that Holden sees Sunny as a real person, not simply a prostitute, but he can't get past the fact that the nuns are nuns?
    4. Holden claims that he’s an atheist—in fact, that all of his siblings are. Is he, really? Does he have any structure of belief?

    Chew on This

    Holden Caulfield actually shows a lot of respect for the religious people he runs into.

    Holden's desire to protect innocence suggests an acute awareness of guilt; his musings about Jesus and forgiveness suggest that, on some level, he really feels like he needs redemption.