Holden Caulfield Character Sketch

In J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, the main character of Holden Caulfield has a unique and profound vision of the world.

In J.D. Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye", the main character of Holden Caulfield views the world as a place where valuable human qualities such as love and kindness have been overridden by the middle class version of "success", which is based chiefly on money and power. Holden Caulfield is an idealist clinging desperately to the notion that basic human kindness is far more vital to a happy existence than material wealth. Salinger continuously portrays Holden as a cynical character, particularly in regards to issues surrounding wealth and corruption, as can be seen in the following passage which describes the character's opinion of lawyers like his father:

"Lawyers are all right, I guess - but it doesn't appeal to me,' I said. "˜I mean they're all right if they go around saving innocent guys' lives all the time, and like that, but you don't do that kind of stuff if you're a lawyer. All you do is make a lot of dough and play golf and play bridge and buy cars and drink Martinis and look like a hot-shot. How would you know you weren't being a phony? The trouble is, you wouldn't" (p. 172).

Yet Holden is also in many ways, an optimist in that he believes he will eventually find the meaning in life that he is seeking. Of course, Holden's idealism causes others to view him as naïve and immature, which is exactly the type of reversal of values that Salinger is trying to depict. At sixteen, Holden's experiences are limited and so his attitudes are dismissed as the naïve rantings of an innocent youth Holden is alienated due to his inability or unwillingness to conform to the acquisitive attitudes of post-war America. Holden feels like a misfit in a corrupt environment, and he desperately seeks a human connection that will make him feel whole.

Ironically, despite Holden's convictions about society's twisted definition of success, he describes himself as a perpetual failure. He has been told endlessly by his parents, teachers and just about everyone he knows that his expulsions and other reckless acts make him a failure, and he has internalized those assumptions to some extent. Early in the novel, Holden says, "As a matter of fact, I'm the only dumb one in the family" (p. 67). Still, he is able to view his alleged failings as almost laughable. Holden takes the news that he has flunked out of yet another school in stride, deciding to go spend a few days in New York to "take it easy" (p. 51). While in New York, a terrible date, a run-in with a pimp named Maurice, and a bizarre encounter with an old teacher all serve to obliterate Holden's plans for a little "R & R". At the same time, issues such as inadequacy, alcoholism, and suicide are cluttering his mind and fueling his cynicism. Still he manages to hang onto his ideals. That is, until his sanity comes into question.

Holden is said to suffer from psychological problems because of his self-destructive behavior and his non-conformist attitudes. The "cure", as implied in the novel, would be for Holden to give up his resistance to material gain and his adoration for non-judgmental, genuine human interaction. Perhaps the lesson to be learned from this classic literary character in regards to wealth, corruption and the American dream, is that no matter how many beautiful, expensive things one is surrounded by, true happiness can only be found from within.

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