From the outset of the novel it is clear to the reader that Holden is unsure of who he is. This gives creates ambiguity in the opening chapter. The fact that the main character doesn’t know who he is makes it difficult for the reader to get an accurate picture of his personality. However as the novel progresses we can see Holden’s character begin to emerge and develop. Our first impression of Holden’s character is that he has maturity and wisdom beyond his years. Furthermore we can see a very adult side to an otherwise childish character who “sometimes act[s] a lot older than [he is]”. However whenever Holden tries to act older than he actually is his youthfulness actually shows through. A good example of this is when Holden decides to get a prostitute for “five bucks a throw”. He seems confident and mature talking to ‘Maurice’, however when ‘Sunny’ enters his hotel suite he seems to lose his confidence and his immaturity emerges. The question “Don’t you feel like talking for a while” this seems a very strange thing to say having been so self-confident as to “order” a prostitute to his hotel room. However it may be seen as a cry for companionship. He may have just wanted someone to talk to because he is ‘lonesome’.
I think there are three things that Holden is searching for. He is looking for his identity as an individual, his identity in relation to his brothers and finally his identity as an American. His identity as an individual becomes clearer as the book progresses. Salinger seems to show Holden as a continually developing character and his individualism is more apparent in the later chapters. “I sat in that goddam bar until one o’clock or so” this shows desperation yet independence in Holden’s actions. That is not to say he enjoys being on his own. Holden constantly complains about how “lonesome” he is. This seems to be a major part of the authors intentions. Holden is an independent character within the novel and this aspect of his character doesn’t seem to fit with the feelings of loneliness he constantly reminds the reader of. Conversely, it is possible to see that Holden has nobody close enough, geographically, to satisfy these feelings. The people who were close to him; Stradalater, Sally and even Ackley were condemned by Holden as phoneys and therefore they didn’t manage to console him. The only people who could really stop these feelings of ‘loneliness’ are his brothers, one of whom is dead and his sister.
Holden seems to admire both his brothers. However he places his deceased brother ‘Allie’ on a pedestal. He tries extremely hard to get the reader to appreciate Allie “you’d have liked him”; he says this several times throughout the novel. This device makes the reader can feel that they like Allie and so in turn get closer to Holden and furthermore makes Holden trust them. The difference between Allie and D.B. is clear. Holden seems to think of D.B. as a bit “phoney” and says often that he thinks of his older brother as “prostituting himself” but still reveres him.
This seems to be a very important factor with Holden in distinguishing between Allie and D.B. Holden does not however have the same affection for D.B. as he still has for Allie. Therefore although he does not criticise D.B. he seems to intentionally create faults with D.B. to keep Allie up on the pedestal “he can be a bit phoney” and “prostituting himself are two pieces of evidence to prove this. Allie’s death was obviously devastating for Holden and Salinger uses this event to portray Holden in an even more mature light. A catastrophic event in life always adds a kind of mature reflectiveness that is evident in Holden. “It drives me crazy when someone gets killed-especially somebody smart and entertaining and all” Holden says this when describing Mercutio from Romeo and Juliet. However it also describes his feelings over Allie. I think that Allie’s death is the most important thing that determines Holden’s character.
During his journey Holden meets several women and girls, Sally, the three women in the bar and most importantly his sister, Phoebe. Holden plays a different role with each of these people. With Sally he always seems to be acting. This may be due to the way Holden tries to be more grown up than he actually is. Holden often lies to make himself look like a better person or mock himself humorously and self consciously. However, this is extremely hypocritical when the reader considers the amount of times Holden complains about people being ‘phoney’. Holden seems to be putting a mask on his real nature. When he is with Phoebe he trusts her and obviously cares for her very much. He is also at his most genuine Holden we see throughout the book. Furthermore he is the least lonely. I think that this may be due to the amount of Allie that Holden sees in Phoebe. With the three ladies in the bar Holden acts older but seems much younger. This is the only type of situation where we see Holden’s real age begin to show. All of these experiences develop Holden as a character. As the book begins to finish we see that Holden stops pretending to be something that he’s not. He stays with the genuine attitude that he had around Phoebe and his identity as an individual remains this way.
Conformity was a key element of American attitudes in the 1950’s. Even at “Pencey prep” the idea of conformity was crucial to the school life. Everyone looked the same, acted the same and even spoke the same. However Holden doesn’t conform. He acts as an individual rather than as part of a group. Holden’s individualistic attitude is especially evident and important while he is in school but is also noticeable throughout the rest of the novel. Salinger uses the conformity principle to place Holden in a different place to everybody else. It makes everyone except Holden to have a robotic outlook on life whereas Holden’s aspect on life is completely independent of everyone else around him this non-conformity adds further to another major factor in the novel, Holden’s narration. Holden makes sweeping statements and huge generalisations “all those ivy league bastards look alike”.
This makes him an extremely unreliable narrator. However the reader seems to be drawn to Holden’s character and becomes almost protective of his opinions. However it is important to notice that Holden’s version of events may not be the whole truth if truthful at all. Furthermore, Holden’s active imagination and lies add to this sense of unreliability. He lies quite unnecessarily about several things including his age when he is on the train leaving school, “Rudolph Schmitt”. Holden obviously wanted to please ‘Ernest Morrows’ mother. I think this shows a predominant feature of Holden’s character.
Holden looks to please most people he comes across even if he doesn’t particularly like them. This seems to be done through a sense of guilt once again relating back to Allie. He believes that if he is kind to the people he comes across he might prevent them some of the pain he has experienced. Holden is very honest with himself but especially with the reader. There is not one moment in the book where he lies to himself or the reader. Salinger uses this fact to get Holden closer to the reader by creating an image of reliability but most of all a respect for Holden’s honesty. This further adds to Holden’s personality, he is brutally honest about himself which makes him appear almost humble in his approach to others.
Holden shows his caring side once he reaches New York after leaving “Pencey”. He had earlier in the book wandered where the ducks that lived in Central Park went when the pool froze over. He puts this question to a taxi driver and gets a thoroughly indifferent response. This brief moment in the book adds something previously only seen once to Holden’s character a kindness and affection only seen when he had spoken of Allie. However this affection when speaking of Allie was always juxtaposed with a deep sense of guilt and grief whereas here it is not.
The final point is the hunting hat that Holden buys on the fencing trip for “a buck”. This hat always seems to appear at the most desperate times in Holden’s journey. When the reader thinks Holden is down and out, out comes the hunting hat and Holden begins to see things more happily again. This hat acts as his comfort blanket until he gives it away to Phoebe towards the end of the novel. In my opinion it is this point which signifies a change in Holden. It is this point where he seems to have found a purpose, his own true identity. It shows a decision from Holden that he doesn’t need this security anymore. It is as though Holden as realised his guilt is unnecessary and he is in control of his own life and his own happiness. Because of this, his hat isn’t needed and this leg of his quest has come to an end.
I think that Holden’s quest in “the catcher in the rye” is not only a quest for himself to find his identity, but also for him to find his purpose. Holden was a different character at the end of the book to the Holden we saw at the beginning. The reader has been able to watch Holden grow and develop into the Holden in chapter 26. Holden has realised on his voyage that there are some things that he has no control over but mostly he has to be in the driving seat of his own destiny. This is what Holden’s quest has been about for both the reader and Holden himself.