Literature: The Catcher in the Rye

A strangely creepy cover.

You know what I'd do, if I had a goddamn choice? I'd be the catcher in the rye and all.

The Catcher in the Rye is a 1951 novel by the late, reclusive author J. D. Salinger.

The story concerns Holden Caulfield, a smart but troubled kid who, after being expelled from his boarding school in December 1949, spends his time wandering New York City, mourning for the loss of innocence in children, and failing to understand the people that surround him. Holden himself can come off as a Jerk with a Heart of Gold as he unkindly judges almost everyone, but as the book explores his underlying psychological issues and reaches its Bittersweet Ending, Holden's true nature becomes apparent.

The book is considered one of the best novels of all time, is practically the textbook for First-Person Narration, and is regularly found in critical lists of the greatest English works of fiction. The novel is a frequent target of the Moral Guardians for its offensive language and nihilistic attitude. It is the most popular novel never to have been adapted into a movie.

Contains examples of:

  • Ambiguous Situation: The scene where Mr Antolini strokes Holden's sleeping head. It could be (as Holden thinks) a sexual pass or simply a misguided attempt at paternal affection.
  • Anti-Hero: Holden is a Classical Anti-Hero.
  • Author Avatar: Holden. J.D. Salinger stated that he would have allowed a stage adaptation of the work on the condition that he be allowed to play Holden, despite being significantly older than Holden by the time this was a possibility.
    • Although this may have been simply because Salinger didn't want a stage play made at all, as he implied he would allow a film adaptation to happen only upon his death, partly to provide for his children, and partly so he wouldn't have to see it. In his later novella "Seymour: An Introduction," narrator Buddy Glass implies authorship of Catcher and emphatically denies Holden is based on Buddy's elder brother Seymour. Both Seymour and Buddy have been suggested as the more likely Author Avatar of Salinger himself.
  • Berserk Button: Holden seeing anyone engaging in "phony" behavior- mainly blatant hypocrisy- he complains about them at length in the narration.
  • Big Applesauce
  • Big Brother Instinct
  • Bile Fascination: A movie Holden goes to see is an in-universe example.
    "It was so putrid I couldn't take my eyes off it."
  • Bittersweet Ending: Holden grows a little like the examples provided, but he winds up catching tuberculosis and being incredibly sick for awhile.
  • Black Sheep: Holden remarks that he's the only stupid one among his siblings.
  • Book Ends: The first chapter reveals Holden's pathetic essay on the Ancient Egyptians. The last chapter show him teaching two little boys at a museum about the same subject.
  • Bookworm: One of the very few things Holden unambiguously enjoys is reading.
  • Brilliant but Lazy: Holden.
  • Byronic Hero: Holden.
  • Catch Phrase:
    • Holden's favorite insult, "phony".
    • The word "goddamn" which he uses 237 times in only 214 pages.
  • Children Are Innocent: And then they're not anymore.
  • Cloudcuckoolander: Holden
  • Coming-of-Age Story
  • Consummate Liar: Holden often makes up stories with people he meets. Often, it will be his age.
  • Cultural Rebel: Holden
  • Department of Redundancy Department: Holden has a habit of repeating what he just said using a different order of words frequently. That is, frequently, Holden will repeat himself but put the words in a different order. He really does.
  • Desperately Looking for a Purpose in Life: A group of children are playing on "some crazy cliff," and Holden's task is to catch them before they fall off the edge. Imagining this, he wishes it could be his purpose. Never mind the entire mental construct is based on a Mondegreen. Most Salinger characters are hothouse flowers; to survive, they need a rare element... one which the world could never provide.
  • Driven to Suicide: Holden mentions James Castle, a boy he knew at school committed suicide because of bullying. Castle called another boy,Phil Stable very conceited guy, so Stabile and six of his friends tried to force him to take it back.
    I won't even tell you what they did to him—it's too repulsive—but he still wouldn't take it back, old James Castle. And you should've seen him. He was a skinny little weak-looking guy, with wrists about as big as pencils. Finally, what he did, instead of taking back what he said, he jumped out the window.
  • The Eeyore: Phoebe challenges Holden to name one thing that he genuinely likes. Holden claims he can't concentrate enough to answer her question.
  • Emo Teen: Holden, probable Trope Codifier.
  • First Gray Hair: Played with. Seventeen-year-old Holden acknowledges having a great deal of grey hair, but does not seem concerned by it, except as a means to disguise his age in order to buy alcohol. Nevertheless, it is listed as being one of his 'adult-qualities', which is significant considering the themes of the novel...
  • Freudian Excuse: He oh-so-subtly explains what his is, before deciding not to go into any detail on it as not to invoke it. Of course, by saying so he invokes it anyway, so it's not so much averted as glossed over.
  • Friend to All Children: Holden
  • The Ghost: Several. Jane, D.B., Holden's parents, and Allie seem to be the most significant, though.
  • Glurge: In-universe. Holden Caulfield has this reaction to a movie he watches and then describes for us readers. In the movie, an old duke loses his memory and then meets a nice lady with a brother whose nerves are shot who helps him publish a book and becomes a love interest for him. When his old blind mother and fiancee find him, they try to confirm his own identity for him, but the duke doesn't believe them. By the end, the duke regains his memory, is happily married to the nice lady, the brother has gotten his nerves back and has cured the duke's mother of her blindness. To top it all off, a dog they previously thought was male had puppies!
  • Growing Up Sucks: Holden has this belief and this is part of his motivation for wanting to be a "catcher in the rye" so that he can protect children from awful phony stuff.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: Holden frequently describes Stradlater as "sexy", and he remarks on his good looks more than once. In the 1950s, though, the term could still be taken to mean "obsessed with sex" (its original definition) rather than "sexually attractive". A more modern equivalent would be "horny".
  • Holding Hands: Holden describes in detail how good it was to hold hands with Jane.
  • Hypocrisy Nod
    • Someone who hates movies as much as Holden claims to sure seems to watch a lot of them.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Holden, according to some. To others, a Jerk Sue. It's only too easy to get irritated by Holden's constant negativity. Still others see him as a Jerkass Woobie.
  • Lack of Empathy: Holden doesn't like how a woman cares for fictional characters more than her own child.
  • Madden Into Misanthropy
  • A Man Is Not a Virgin: Played straight to an extent. Holden is a virgin and is emotionally immature. He hires a prostitute named Sunny in order to lose his virginity but is too uncomfortable to have sex with her.
  • Minimalistic Cover Art: Some popular versions of the book cover feature only the title and author's name on a blank field. The Italian version is white, while the English version is red.
  • Misaimed Fandom: invokedHolden does this with the song "Comin' Thru the Rye". It's actually about two lovers meeting in a field. Holden adopts it as an image of himself protecting children from their own inevitable maturity (especially sex) and phoniness (like, say, lying about where you're going and screwing some guy in a field instead). He mishears it, after all.
    • Interestingly, the word ‘rye’ might actually refer to Rye Water in Scotland. The poem then discusses a girl named Jenny who lets her petticoat down and get wet instead of holding it up while crossing it, so she can push away the boys who would run by to kiss the girls who would hold their petticoats on one hand and whatever they were carrying on the other instead, leaving no free hand to ward off the boys. Holden decided to interpret the word ‘rye’ as actual rye, which is the more ‘adult’ version, but misinterprets the meaning of the poem as talking about kids playing in a rye field.
  • Moral Guardians: What Holden himself wants to be—that is, the Catcher In The Rye, a person who guards the innocence of children.
  • The Movie Buff: Phoebe loves them as much as Holden claims to hate them.
  • Never My Fault: Holden certainly isn't one for blaming himself for his troubles.
  • New Media Are Evil: Holden hates movies and, throughout his life, Salinger blocked all attempts to make The Film of the Book. Which is ironic, as Salinger himself was a cinemaphile. The reason for that is because Salinger hated how the 1949 film My Foolish Heart (based on his short story "Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut") came out. To date that film is the only authorized film adaptation of his work.
    • One could argue it's not movies that Holden hates per se, it's (of course) the phoniness of Hollywood, particularly how he perceives his older brother D.B. as selling out, abandoning his more original, more creative work in favor of the more lucrative business of writing screenplays.
  • Platonic Prostitution: Holden hires a prostitute when he's at a hotel, but changes his mind when she arrives, and says that he just wants to talk. This doesn't work out; she becomes annoyed, demands more money than was originally agreed upon, and when Holden refuses to pay, she comes back with her pimp, who beats up Holden and takes the money.
  • Precision F-Strike: Despite a large amount of other profanities, there is only one appearance of an actual F-bomb in the last chapter, where Holden sees it in clearly visible graffiti and tries to cover it up, because he doesn't want kids to see it. A very good example of how the word can be appropriately shocking when used correctly.
  • Punch a Wall: Holden mentions that after his brother died, he smashed every window in the garage with his bare hands. He also tried to knock out the family station wagon windows, but by then, his hands were too broken.
  • Rape as Backstory: Perhaps not rape, but something similar that isn't explored. This is strange considering the narrator.
    "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."
  • Rule of Symbolism: Holden's little sister, who to him is the epitome of what he's trying to protect, is named Phoebe. This is an epithet of Artemis, who is occasionally associated with the moon; in its male form, "Phoebus", it is also an epithet her twin brother Apollo, who is associated with the sun. The prostitute Holden hires, who is one of the apexes of the things Holden hates, is named Sunny.
    • Artemis is also the goddess of maidenhood and innocence. On the other hand, Apollo, god of the sun, was known for having many affairs with women, like most Greek gods.
  • Security Blanket: His hunting cap can be seen as this, in that he's constantly putting it on and taking it off only when he's in a situation where he knows he will be mocked for wearing it.
  • Sir Swears-a-Lot: Holden loves to swear. In this 214-page story, Holden uses the word "goddamn" 237 times.
  • Silly Rabbit, Cynicism Is for Losers!: Both Mr. Antolini and Phoebe try to get across to Holden that much of his unhappiness is self-inflicted, and just as narcissistic as all the "phonies" he rails against.
  • The Snark Knight: Holden, possibly.
  • Sliding Scale of Plot Versus Characters: Way on the character side.
  • Soap Punishment: Holden Caulfield tries asking Ward Stradlater if Stradlater gave Jane Gallagher the time. That, by the way, is old slang for having sex with someone. Stradlater responds "What a thing to say. Want me to wash your mouth out with soap?"
  • Stylistic Suck: Very accurately done with Holden's one-paragraph essay on the ancient Egyptians.
    The Egyptians were an ancient race of Caucasians residing in one of the northern sections of Africa. The latter as we all know is the largest continent in the Eastern Hemisphere. The Egyptians are extremely interesting to us today for various reasons. Modern science would still like to know what the secret ingredients were that the Egyptians used when they wrapped up dead people so that their faces would not rot for innumerable centuries. This interesting riddle is still quite a challenge to modern science in the twentieth century.
  • Title Drop: The page quote above.
  • This Loser Is You
  • Unreliable Narrator: Holden, again. It's worth noticing that while his narration is hilarious, his spoken dialogue is an apex of The Comically Serious and morbidity.
  • Unusual Euphemism: When Stradlater has sex with a girl, Holden refers to it as "giving her the time". It was much dirtier in the time period this book is set in.
  • Verbal Tic:
    • Holden has one. He really does.
    • Holden has a rather annoying habit of calling people "Old" before their name (Old Phoebe, Old Stradlater, etc).
    • He also has a tendency to say "and all" at the end of his sentences.
    • "That killed me." Given the situation it's actually a little thought-provoking.
    • His frequent use of 'goddamn' and asserting that various people are 'phonies' verge on Catch Phrase territory.
    • "I'm not kidding"
    • "If you want to know the truth..."
    • "Boy..."
  • Vinyl Shatters: Holden accidentally shatters a record he was going to give to his sister Phoebe. It was almost definitely a shellac 78, which are known to shatter.
  • Wham Line: The first time Holden speaks at length about his brother Allie, he talks tenderly about how his little brother loved baseball and had a favorite catcher's mit that he always used when playing. Then he finishes the paragraph with this:
    "Anyway, he's dead now."
  • Younger Than They Look: 17-year-old Holden Caulfield is 6'2" and has gray hairs. As such, he claims he can easily pass as an adult. But he's more often called out on being a minor than he is successfully able to pass.
    • Sunny, for example, not only wouldn't believe he was 22, but may have also compared him to 13-year-old Freddie Bartholomew from the 1937 movie Captains Courageous.

Alternative Title(s):

Catcher In The Rye, The Catcher In The Rye