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Why Holden Caulfield is So Misunderstood

Holden Caulfield Catcher in the Rye is So Misunderstood Blog Header

There are historically two schools of thought when it comes to Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye

People either detest him and everything he stands for, or they love him. 

Often, this is tied to when one reads Salinger’s novel for the first time. Read it in your teens and you’ll likely relate to Holden. Read it in adulthood, and one becomes less sympathetic.

This is perhaps a little reductive, but it does tend to be the general trend.

As a figuratively paid up member of the Holden Caulfield Appreciation Society – along with my friend and podcaster Lucy Kikuchi, I’m going to tell you why Holden’s haters are dead wrong.

Why do people hate Holden Caulfield?

Bit of a history lesson.

When The Catcher in the Rye was published, it was a highly controversial book. The constant cussing and ‘taking the lord’s name in vain’ led to it being banned in certain parts of America.

Holden is a rebel. He claims to see through the insincerity and inauthenticity of adult society, branding people around him ‘phonies’ – even people who perhaps don’t deserve such a description.

Holden is immature, hypocritical, unbelievably cynical, and even a little misogynistic. Whilst it would be harsh to label him an incel, he does possess certain similar characteristics with today’s online movement.

This makes him enemies.

“But, hang on John, you’re meant to be batting for this guy” I hear you protest. What exactly are his redeeming features?

The Truth About Holden Caulfield

There are two strands to Holden Caulfield that are often overlooked, or at least not acknowledged as much as they ought to be. These are grief and the loss of innocence.

Unresolved grief permeates The Catcher in the Rye. Holden’s grief is for his late brother Allie, whom he tends to bring up periodically – usually when he’s depressed. 

Breaking off from his current situation, Holden goes on extended monologues about Allie in nostalgic, almost reverent terms. These moments are where the close reader begins to understand the vulnerability of Salinger’s protagonist, in spite of his prickly demeanour.

The loss of Allie is also linked to Holden’s loss of innocence. Death focuses the mind, and anyone who has ever lost a friend or family member at a young age will have felt that vacuum of justice, and complete bereftness.

Meanwhile, Holden constantly rejects the sexual awakening of himself, and of others. 

Jane, a friend of his when he was younger, whom Holden was rather attracted to in a maternal sense, goes on a date with his roommate Stradlater.

Stradlater’s cool, confident exterior is everything Holden isn’t. Holden fears he’ll ‘put the moves’ on Jane and ‘getting off’ with her – something he’s obsessed with preventing in order to not sully his memory of Jane in more innocent times.

Holden seemingly suffers a mental breakdown towards the end of the novel, after a controversial exchange with an old teacher, Mr Antolini. Desperate for help, he seeks out Mr Antolini – a teacher who understood Holden and one he felt safe with. Antolini allows him to stay for the night, but upon waking up to find Antolini stroking his head, Holden implies to the reader that Antolini is a sexual abuser and flees. The truth of this isn’t established, with Holden a highly unreliable narrator.

With not even Antolini to rely on, Holden Caulfield is lost. You’ll notice that I’ve neglected to mention his parents. Their absence, emotionally and physically in the novel, is palpable. Even the biggest critic of Caulfield has to at least empathise with this.

Holden Caulfield is, in my view, a tragic hero. A massively flawed, but nonetheless affable and loveable character who must be protected at all costs.

What the Catcher in the Rye is Actually About

The band Keane once wrote a song called Everybody’s Changing. It’s a great song. Here’s a brief extract from the chorus:

So little time
Try to understand that I'm
Trying to make a move just to stay in the game
I try to stay awake and remember my name
But Everybody's Changing, and I don't feel the same

You're gone from here
Soon you will disappear, fading into beautiful light
'Cause Everybody's Changing, and I don't feel right

And this song pretty much sums up Holden Caulfield’s experience.

That period in one’s life – the transition from childhood to young adulthood – the teenage years if you will, is a painful period. Certainties and securities one can rely on are unceremoniously stripped away, the simplicities of friendship give way to external social pressures, and people change, sometimes for the worse. These are the real growing pains.

Holden summons an image in the novel of children playing in rye fields beside a cliff. As the children fall off, he catches them – a metaphor for rescuing them from a loss of innocence. He’s obsessed with being the ‘catcher in the rye’, but ultimately, he cannot protect everyone. 

Growing up is an inevitability but this isn’t acceptable to Holden. This manifests itself in grief over the loss of innocence, both for himself, his peers, and the younger people around him such as his little sister Phoebe.

How do you feel about Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye
Love him? Hate him? Bit of both? Let me know below 👇

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7 thoughts on “Why Holden Caulfield is So Misunderstood”

  1. I still hate Holden Cauldfield. He is judgemental and creepy. However, I know this is mainly because I cannot relate to his main grief of losing a loved one at a young age or losing a loved one who died at a young age. The grief I can relate to is not having parents to emotionally rely on. I can’t relate to the anger he feels towards all adults basically because I focus all my anger on one person rather than all adults. I would like to think I am a good person. I may not want to go on a crusade to help kids but I don’t judge every adult I see or see women so creepily either

  2. My copy of The Catcher in the Rye has Holden’s surname spelled Cauldfield until after he has been with the woman who keeps calling him Mr. Cawffle, then it becomes Caulfield. Has anyone noticed this in any copies they have seen. Any ideas why that may be ? It could be just a typo, but it seems odd that it changes at that time if it is

    • That’s interesting. Do you have a photo or link to your edition of the book? Would be really curious about checking this out.

      Like you said, it’s strange that there would be inconsistencies like that, as opposed to it being either correct/incorrect all the way through.

      • Sadly, I do not. I left it in my old copy at home with a friend for safe keeping as I was travelling around. I contacted the friend yesterday and he put my memory straight ! It is an old library copy from 1969 of the English edition, the one with Phoebe running towards the merry-go-round. My friend says that there are in fact only 2 occasions where the surname is spelt with an extra ‘D’.
        The name is typed correctly when Old Spencer first mentions his name on P.11. The extra ‘D’ first occurs on page 17, ‘Respectfully yours, Holden Cauldfield’ and then again on P.79 ‘Holden Cauldfield’s my name’.
        At the time of getting the book from a library sale in the 80’s, my friend notioned that the name being mis-spelled was indicative of Holden’s looming breakdown as it is when he in saying who he is that the ‘mistakes’ are made; again, a sign that he is losing his identity. My friend is now convinced that it is merely a typo.
        I think his original analysis is an interesting one and i’d love to know if other pre-1970 (English edition or othewise) also had these spelling differences. What do you think ? Typo ??

        • Thank you for your comments, Holly – it’s really, really fascinating.

          It’s hard to say, but I’d probably be inclined to think that it’s a misprint. If it was an authorial decision, I don’t see why it would have been edited out in later editions. I wonder if there are any early editions available online – that might clear it up.

          I’ll do some digging and see what I can find!

          • I wish you good luck ! I have been trying to find out why my copy is like that and if there are any others out there for over 30 years ! Misprint or not, I’m so glad you find it as interesting as I do. I’ve often wondered if it is only that impression, how many were printed and why it is those two parts in particular?
            It has just occurred to me that there may be some conspiracy theorist out there who has wtitten a whole thesis on the matter haha.

            Please let me know if you have any success 🙂