Childhood and Adulthood in The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger



Adulthood is something many children and teens look forward to in life because of the freedom you are granted when you are no longer living life according to your parents rules. Holden Caulfield, however, has a very different view on the transition between child and adulthood, which he delves into in The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. Instead of excitedly awaiting adulthood, as most children do, Holden, quite opposingly, fears adulthood and does everything in his power to avoid growing up himself, as well as allowing others to grow up. Holden wishes he could dodge the unavoidable part of life that is growing up, as well as help others do the same as a way to retain their innocence. Holden’s obsession with preserving youthful innocence is driven by his twisted view on adulthood, a mindset that is directly responsible for the deterioration of his mental health that is exhibited as the novel progresses.

A common word that is repeated exactly 35 times by Holden Caulfield in the The Catcher in the Rye is “phony”. Holden is a strong believer that a lot of traits exhibited by adults are phony, which inherently makes the entirety of the adult world phony. This is ironic though, because Holden himself smokes and drinks, two things that are seen as “adult traits”, and also lies frequently, which would be considered “phony” to him if it was done by anyone else. If there’s one thing Holden hates most in the world it is the so-called “phonies” he seems to think he is constantly surrounded by. This fear of phoniness and becoming a phony, which Holden believes happens as you transition into adulthood is why Holden fears growing up. He believes that without youthfulness and the innocence that comes with it, you cannot avoid becoming a phony. Holden realizes that his once youthful peers at Elton Hills are in their transition into adulthood, which causes him to believe that he is “surrounded by phonies” and must leave the school, as to not be corrupted by them (Salinger 17). The irony in Holden’s hate of phonies is that he is quick to call out others' phoniness yet “he castigates himself for doing some of the phony things, lying especially”(Mambrol 1). Holden develops many unhealthy coping mechanisms to combat his fear of growing up, isolation being a prime example. 

Isolation is one tool Holden uses to avoid the influences that others have on the slow process of growing up. As mentioned previously, Holden left Elkton Hills because he couldn't stand being surrounded by phonies all the time. A similar occurrence happens at Pencey Prep, where Holden once again feels like his classmates are inferior phonies, compared to himself. This superiority complex that Holden develops during his time at Pencey is put to rest as he leaves yelling “sleep tight… ya morons” as his final message to his peers (Salinger 68). After his departure from Pencey, Holden makes his way to New York City, which gives him the ability to escape and isolate himself from phoniness. This isolation plays a big factor in the declining mental health of Holden, which seemingly spirals out of control as the novel goes on. Holden takes his drive to isolate himself so far that he plans to run away and go West, when he would spend the rest of his life alone, with possibly his wife, and any children they may have (Salinger 219). However, he “never realistically considers running away, for he realizes that flight cannot help him”, which is why in the end, Holden never lives out his dreams and desires of running away (Mambrol 1). Holden’s mental health slowly deteriorates as he falls more lonely and depressed, the longer he continues to isolate himself. Due to his poor mental state, Holden’s obsession with stagnant innocence only intensifies and he begins to create fantasies of being a “catcher in the rye” as part of this ongoing fascination with staying young and innocent. 

Protecting the innocence of those who have not yet lost it is something that Holden takes very seriously, especially when it comes to his younger sister, Phoebe. Holden is very watchful over Phoebe, because he doesn’t want her to be corrupted by adults, which would cause her to turn into a phony just like the rest of them. Though Holden’s goal is to keep Phoebe innocent, “she is considerably more mature than Holden” and acts as “a voice of reason throughout the novel” (Kestler 1). Symbolism is used periodically throughout the text, most of the time centering around the idea of preserving innocence. Holden’s brother Allie died as a child and never got a chance to grow up and grow out of his innocence, therefore he is made into a symbol for eternal innocence. Holden often circles back to Allie, not just because he is still grieving the loss of him, but also because he wishes everyone could stay like Allie, forever preserved in their childhood and innocence. Another product of Holden’s obsession with the idea of innocence is his fantasy about one day being a “catcher in the rye”, an image he interpreted from the poem “Comin’ Thro’ the Rye” by Robert Burns. Holdens idea is that he is in a field of rye located just on the edge of a cliff when kids frequently go to play. Holden wants to be the person who perches himself on the edge of the cliff and catches the children who are running through the field before they run off the side (Salinger 191). This desire of saving the children from falling symbolizes Holden wanting to save children from falling out of their innocence and entering the adult world. 

Holden Caulfield is a character that seemingly develops backwards during the novel The Catcher in the Rye. Nearing the end, Holden is in a terrible mental health state which he was driven to by his own thoughts, fears and obsessions. Thankfully, by the very end of the novel, Holden was able to let go of his obsession with innocence a little bit, specifically his hold on the innocence of his younger Phoebe. Holden was finally able to grasp the concept that everyone needs to grow up and grow out of their youthfulness, eventually, and it is a waste of time to try and avoid doing so.