Analysis of J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye”


J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye,” originally published in 1951, was required reading when I was a sophomore in high school. Having read the book again recently for several reasons, I can see why some high schools chose to ban it, although they most likely did so for the wrong reasons.

This book isn’t too adult or profane for high school readers, but its underlying message will most likely be lost on, or not appreciated by, the teenage demographic. Surely many teens have related to main character Holden Caulfield, yet in my personal opinion, I feel this book has an even larger impact on those in their early twenties.

For one, although Holden vaguely describes other characters whom he’d went to school with, an although we know he is about 17 years old, many of his professed opinions on people stem from not them as individuals but them as part of society at large. He uses characters such as Ackley, Phoebe and Stradlater to emphasize traits of society he both admires and despises; if you follow closely, you’ll see Holden contradict himself on several counts when it comes to these attributes, as if Salinger wanted us to both admire and despise Holden as well.

In retrospect, I remember enjoying the book in high school, but I personally didn’t have a clue yet as to how I’d adjust to the “real world” and the people in it once I graduated. Now, having had my fair share of experiences, this novel rings truer somehow, an I immediately recognized some of Holden’s underlying issues that I don’t remember my teachers ever addressing in high school.

What are these issues? Well, from the ending we can assume Holden had been sent to some juvenile psychiatric ward, while there are certain passages (see the quotes below) which hint at sexual abuse and manic depression. In the bigger picture, Holden seems a hypocrite at times, yet we can’t help but admire him as at least he has opinions. Surely someone who can articulate society at such length is intelligent, which is why it seems he chooses to fail out of spite for the system itself- not because he isn’t capable of doing the work. Going back to the abuse issues, we see that Holden is having trouble coming to grips with growing up. His remarks are introspective but also immature, as if he is worried how his words might sound to us readers. Everyone who’s Holden’s age goes through this difficult transition between child an adult, but in Holden’s case, it’s intensified by subtle hints that he’s been robbed of a childhood by people he was supposed to trust. Hence, social/trust/boundary issues. All of Holden’s repressed past issues and current woes then contribute to his mental illness, which is hinted at within some of his other family members as well.

Chapter 27

“Chapter 27″ is the 2007 flick from J.P. Schaefer, starring Jared Leto as Mark David Chapman. Chapman, of course, was the man who murdered Beatle legend John Lennon in New York in 1980. Chapman was obsessed with “Catcher in the Rye,” and in the film we see his mannerisms and thoughts are similar to Holden’s:

“I can’t stand the movies. They’re just so phony.”

“Take me somewhere nice. Not too expensive, just nice.” [Speaking to cab driver]

“I’ll tip her well if she doesn’t talk.” [Ordering a prostitute]

“I am gonna kill John Lennon.”

Of course we know that Holden also hated the movies, he was frightened by the tiny prostitute’s voice, he used the word ‘phony’ a lot, and he often made narrative threats to others- Holden didn’t, however, follow through with these threats.

The title of the film stems from the book’s last chapter- Chapter 26. Chapter 27 then implies a continuation, as if Chapman was taking over where Holden left off. Apparently Chapman intended on writing this last installment in Lennon’s blood, according to Robert Rosen’s book, “Nowhere Man: The Final Days of John Lennon.”

What I find so interesting about this whole event is that, (as expected of course), the media focuses on the shooting and the loss of a great artist, but rarely do they objectively try and explore Chapman’s ties to the novel. Sure, Chapman was probably mentally ill. But after watching “Chapter 27,” I got the impression that Chapman saw the world as ‘phony’ because he’d been mistreated, ignored and probably picked on. One might view Holden in the same light, yet something about Holden seemed more vulnerable, less aggressive, beyond the fact that Holden was 17 and Chapman was 25. Maybe if the book did go on, Holden would become hardened and more bitter in those eight years.

Still, since Chapman worshipped “Catcher in the Rye” like a Bible, an even was carrying it when he shot Lennon, I’m surprised more people haven’t discussed this aspect openly.

A side note: Lennon was very interested in numerology, and the number 9 showed up frequently within his life, hence it showing up in his art. The parallels and frequency of the number 9 in this event are quite eerie (27= 2+7=9).

Some have wandered why a “Catcher in the Rye” film was never made, and some insist that “Chapter 27″ was this story put to the backdrop of a real-life man. However, there’s another film that loosely mirrors the novel but more accurately portrays a Holden-like character:

Igby Goes Down

“Igby Goes Down” is the 2002 flick from director Burr Steers.

Many have called this film a modernized version of “Catcher in the Rye,” and while there are certainly major differences in character roles and names, it’s hard not to compare Holden with Igby (played by Kieran Culkin).

Both plots surround a teenage boy coming-of-age amidst loss, dysfunction, drama, and bits of humor.

Here are some of the similarities:

– Both wear a unique hat

– Both are kicked out of various schools

– Both interact in some form with a female at a hotel- Holden meets a prostitute person who is tiny but has a frightening voice; Igby calls a girl who says she’s eleven and her voice is deep from smoking cigarettes

– Both mention a boy at a school that committed suicide

– Both feel their brother is somewhat phony, although they still look up to him in a sense

– Holden mentions people writing “F*ck you” on things; Igby’s mother Mimi writes it on a mirror

– Holden says “That kills me”; Igby says “That tortures me”

– Both mother figures have some sort of nervous disorder

– Both are not violent in nature, but will allow themselves to get beat up

– Both object to innocence being lost and children growing up too fast- Igby makes a face when he hears the field hockey girls cuss; Holden is offended by the language written on the walls of Phoebe’s school

– The book has a character named D.B.; The film has a character named D.H.

– Both feel the need to say goodbye when they’re definitely leaving a place

– Both have either been abused or mistreated in some way

– Both experience a “midlife crisis” at about 17 years old

Other films that reflect the novel and its characters are Miguel Arteta’s “The Good Girl,” in which actor Jake Gyllenhaal plays a character named Holden who’s fond of the novel, and Robert Redford’s “Ordinary People,” in which actor Timothy Hutton plays a depressed teen who’s mourning the loss of his brother while dealing with his dysfunctional parents. And let’s not forget Travis Bickle of 1976’s “Taxi Driver” (directed by Martin Scorsese), and dare I say 2010’s “Remember Me” (directed by Allen Coulter).

Conspiracy Theory (ies)

“Conspiracy Theory” is Richard Donner’s 1997 film, starring Mel Gibson and Julia Roberts.

In the movie, Gibson’s character Jerry cannot stop himself from buying each and every copy/edition of “The Catcher in the Rye” on compulsion. The audience learns that the book is on an FBI/CIA watch-list, which means that such agencies keep records of everyone who ever purchased or checked out the book at a library. In the film, this is because of the novel’s association with lone assassins/gunmen, the majority of whom are known by three names. Without giving too much of the film’s plot away, the audience learns that “The Catcher in the Rye” is one of the many devices used by intelligence agencies to brainwash potential killers, driving them insane or framing them for murder.

I mentioned Mark David Chapman previously, but there’s also John Hinckley Jr., who attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagan in 1991, and Robert John Bardo, who killed Rebecca Schaeffer in 1989. Apparently Hinckley Jr. had the book in his hotel room, where it was found by police among other novels, while Bardo had it on him on the night he murdered Schaeffer. Of course, there are plenty of other lone gunmen in history with three names as well.

Due to the novel’s unwitting ties to these assassins, one can see how the book gained negative connotations over the years. And while “Conspiracy Theory” was just a movie, many out there do believe in a conspiracy involving “The Catcher in the Rye” and some unknown men behind the curtain.

As mentioned previously about Chapman’s strange appeal to the book, one has to wonder if all the assassinations/shootings mentioned above were pure coincidence in regards to the novel, or if there really is some deeper connection between disturbed, outcast men and Salinger’s Holden.

Personally, I can see how the novel can shake or unsettle someone who’s already mentally fragile, not to mention depress someone who is mentally stable. For one, it echoes as a manifesto to anyone who’s ever been outcast or mistreated. The book may seem as if it is written for them and them alone- their only source of understanding in the world coming from a fictional character. It also doesn’t give readers a concrete ending in regards to Holden’s fate, which leaves a space for either negative or positive thoughts to fill.

On my second read, I happened to be in a somber mood, and while parts of the book lifted my spirits, others just as quickly turned sadness into unexpected anger- Not towards anyone in particular, but towards the world in general. The dark humor the book contains can turn very easily to dangerous nihilism. And so, I can see how some of these men may have been wrongly influenced by the novel somewhat.

But while we’re in the conspiracy theory section, let me just say that having recently read the book does not make me free game for government manipulation!


Overall, I found Holden to be a very likeable character, even more so on my second reading. He came from money, but never appeared snobby or pretentious; some destructive behavior was warranted toward others, but he wasn’t violent; he has more respect for children than adults. At times he acted more cowardly than he spoke (which he admits), but this typically was in social situations where he simply wanted to belong. Which brings me to a quote I love from Hunter S. Thompson which very much applies to Holden’s character: “No two ideals were ever more incompatible than the security of conformity and the freedom of individuality. After the choice is made, the rest is easy – unless you don’t have the guts to stick by your choice.”

Perhaps why this novel has become such a classic is because it describes how alone in this world we really are. Although Holden has the hormones of a teenage boy, an often thinks about girls, he’s wise beyond his years when he indirectly realizes that what he needs is a friend- not a lover or a whore. All of Holden’s emotions are intensified by being in a city populated by so many people who seem to feel nothing.

“Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.” This last line from the novel really stands out, as it portrays the paper-thin line between being independent and being alone. Regardless of which you are, when you’re by yourself and have nothing to do to pass the time but think, surely your mind will travel to past nostalgia an even negative memories, because it’s these moments of human contact which make us feel most alive, no matter how painful.

If you’ve read the novel, surely you’ve connected its title with several passages in the book. By being the catcher, Holden is both protecting and preserving the innocence of the young, before they fall into sin and corruption. If this field of rye is a form of heaven for children (his brother Allie), then Holden, though technically living, wouldn’t mind being dead- He knows there’s something better. He’s “holden” out for something better.

Unless you’ve interacted with the same types of people Holden has, and unless you share some of Holden’s feelings, most of this novel may seem like rambling to you. But I urge those of you who felt so-so about it the first time around, to pick it up again.


” I live in New York, and I was thinking about the lagoon in Central Park, down near Central Park South. I was wondering if it would be frozen over when I got home, and if it was, where did the ducks go. I was wondering where the ducks went when the lagoon got all icy and frozen over. I wondered if some guy came in a truck and took them away to a zoo or something. Or if they just flew away.”

“I’m pretty sure he yelled ‘Good luck!’ at me. I hope not. I hope to hell not. I’d never yell ‘Good luck!’ at anybody. It sounds terrible, when you think about it.”

“I took off my coat and my tie and unbuttoned my shirt collar, and then I put on this hat that I’d bought in New York that morning. It was this red hunting hat, with one of those very, very long peaks — The way I wore it, I swung the old peak way around to the back- very corny, I’ll admit, but I liked it that way.”

“This is a people shooting hat — I shoot people in this hat.”

“But I’m crazy. I swear to God I am. About halfway to the bathroom, I sort of started pretending I had a bullet in my guts — I pictured myself coming out of the goddamn bathroom, dressed and all, with my automatic in my pocket, and staggering around a little bit. Then I’d walk downstairs, instead of using the elevator. I’d hold onto the banister and all, with this blood trickling out of the side of my mouth a little at a time. What I’d do, I’d walk down a few floors holding onto my guts- blood leaking all over the place-and then I’d ring the elevator bell. As soon as old Maurice opened the doors, he’d see me with the automatic in my hand and he’d start screaming at me in this very high-pitched, yellow-belly voice, to leave him alone, but I’d plug him anyway. Six shots right through his fat hairy belly. Then I’d throw my automatic down the elevator shaft- after I’d wiped off all the finger prints and all. Then I’d crawl back to my room and call up Jane and have her come over and bandage up my guts. I pictured her holding a cigarette for me to smoke while I was bleeding and all.”

“Certain things they should stay the way they are. You ought to be able to stick them in one of those big glass cases and just leave them alone. I know that’s impossible, but it’s too bad anyway. Anyway, I kept thinking about all that while I walked.”

“You ought to go to a boys’ school sometime. Try it sometime — It’s full of phonies, and all you do is study so that you can learn enough to be smart enough to be able to buy a goddamn Cadillac some day, and you have to keep making believe you give a damn if the football team loses, and all you do is talk about girls and liquor and sex all day, and everybody sticks together in these dirty little goddamn cliques.”

“If you want to know the truth, I don’t even know why I started all that stuff with her — I probably wouldn’t’ve taken her even if she’d wanted to go with me — The terrible part, though, is that I meant it when I asked her. That’s the terrible part. I swear to God I’m a madman.”

“You take somebody that cries their goddamn eyes out over phony stuff in the movies, and nine times out of ten they’re mean bastards at heart. I’m not kidding.”

“I was crazy about The Great Gatsby. Old Gatsby. Old sport. That killed me. Anyway, I’m sort of glad they’ve got the atomic bomb invented. If there’s ever another war, I’m going to sit right the hell on top of it. I’ll volunteer for it, I swear to God I will.”

“Then I thought about the whole bunch of them sticking me in a goddamn cemetery and all, with my name on this tombstone and all. Surrounded by dead guys. Boy, when you’re dead, they really fix you up. I hope to hell when I do die somebody has sense enough to just dump me in the river or something. Anything except sticking me in a goddamn cemetery. People coming and putting a bunch of flowers on your stomach on Sunday, and all that crap. Who wants flowers when you’re dead? Nobody.”

“This fall I think you’re riding for- it’s a special kind of fall, a horrible kind. The man falling isn’t permitted to feel or hear himself hit bottom. He just keeps falling and falling. The whole arrangement’s designed for men who, at some time or other in their lives, were looking for something their own environment couldn’t supply them with. Or they thought their own environment couldn’t supply them with. So they gave up looking. They gave it up before they ever really even got started.” – Mr. Antolini

” — I kept walking and walking up Fifth Avenue, without any tie or anything. Then all of a sudden, something very spooky started happening. Every time I came to the end of a block and stepped off the goddam curb, I had this feeling that I’d never get to the other side of the street. I thought I’d just go down, down, down, and nobody’d ever see me again.”

“That’s the whole trouble. You can’t ever find a place that’s nice and peaceful, because there isn’t any. You may think there is, but once you get there, when you’re not looking, somebody’ll sneak up and write ‘Fuck you’ right under your nose.”

“I went over and sat down on this bench, and she went on got on the carrousel. She walked all around it. I mean she walked once all the way around it. Then she sat down on this big, brown, beat-up-looking old horse. Then the carrousel started, and I watched her go around and around. There were only about five or six other kids on the ride, and the song the carrousel was playing was ‘Smoke gets in your Eyes.’ It was playing it very jazzy and funny. All the kids kept trying to grab for the gold ring, and so was old Phoebe, and I was sort of afraid she’d fall off the goddam horse, but I didn’t say anything or do anything. The thing with kids is, if they want to grab for the gold ring, you have to let them do it, and not say anything. If they fall off, they fall off, but it’s bad if you say anything to them.”

“Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.”

“I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around- nobody big, I mean- except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff- I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy.”

“If a body catch a body comin’ through the rye — “

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