Tools of Characterization
Direct or Indirect Characterization
Direct characterization is when the text just gives you information, such as "Jack is a jerk." (Or, “everyone around me is a phony.”) And Holden says things like that all the time—but Holden is a character himself, so any information we get through him is actually indirect. It passes through his filter and comes out fictional. There is no unbiased and omniscient narrator to give us direct characterization; there's just Holden. As such, much of what he says about other people is really as much of a commentary about himself as it is anything else.
Physical descriptions are a pretty good indication of character in The Catcher in the Rye. Stradlater is big, athletic, and good-looking; accordingly, he's a player. Ackley is pimply and un-hygienic, and everyone dislikes him. Holden is small for his age, and this seems to be a source of insecurity for him; he always tries to act older. Phoebe is cute adorable and she's a joy to be around. See a pattern here?
Or, do you see a pattern of how Holden seems to see the world?
Thoughts and Opinions
Want to know something about Holden? You’re in luck: you have pretty much unfiltered access to his entire brain. We get to hear what Holden thinks about everything. He thinks Jesus' disciples were useless, that the movies are phony, that most girls are dopey but still attractive, that getting a job and being an adult sounds like just about the worst racket he's ever heard, etc. Holden is defined by his impressions—and the way he presents those impressions to us.
Speech and Dialogue
We already know what Holden's real speech sounds like—it's the voice he uses in his narration to us. But check out how he speaks when he's talking to people like Mr. Spencer. He says "sir," holds himself back from digressions, and tries his best to placate and please. That's a far cry from "You'll probably want to know […] all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it" (1.1).
"Suave as hell, boy."
This is how Holden describes his initial interaction with Sunny and how he tries to talk to women, or bartenders, or adults in general whom he wants to impress. Holden tries to present an older persona by using what he considers socially adept phrases ("Allow me to introduce myself," "How do you do," and "Come in, won't you?"). Given the reaction of the women in the Lavender Room, we're not sure how convincing he is. But he gets points for trying.
Holden definitely has an ear for little kids' speak, which "kills" him. We're looking in particular at the scene in the museum in Chapter Twenty-Five, when one of the two "bruddas" asks where the "toons" (“tombs”) are (25.22). Holden understands exactly what the kid's saying, which reinforces what we already knew about Holden and his ability to interact with children.
Explain the idea “Holden is a great rescuer, but fails to rescue himself.” How does Holden’s character change during the course of the novel?
In The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger perfectly captures a teenage boy’s struggle with adolescence. The story is told from the perspective of Holden Caulfield, who is widely regarded as “…the original sullen teenager” (National Public Radio, 2008). Throughout the novel, Holden takes the reader through a few days of his life, in which he flaunts his hostile attitude to the reader. Over the course of his journey, there is a subtle, yet important, pattern. The Catcher in the Rye includes the constant motif of Holden Caulfield rescuing others, while failing to rescue himself.
In the novel, Holden finds opportunities to rescue others, but he never focuses on bettering himself. For example, he highly respects women when it comes to sex. He explains that, when girls tell him he is going too far with them, he always stops because he “…get[s] to feeling sorry for them…they tell [him] to stop, so [he] stop[s]” (Salinger, 1951, p. 50). Later on, when Holden has his encounter with the prostitute, he pities her and does not desire to do anything sexual with her. He treats women as though he is trying to save their sexual purity. However, this does not help Holden at all. He saves these girls, but, as a result, he never has the opportunity to lose his virginity.
Another, less superficial, example of Holden’s rescuing others instead of himself is the way he acts toward his little sister, Phoebe. Specifically, when Phoebe claims she is not going back to school, he insists, “You have to go back to school” (Salinger, 1951, p. 112). Although he sets himself up to ruin his life by quitting school, he cannot allow Phoebe to follow his same destructive path. He saves her academic opportunities, but fails to save his own.
Holden’s desire to rescue Phoebe supports the ultimate example of him being a great rescuer, but failing to rescue himself. Toward the end, when Phoebe asks him what he would like to do with his life, he explains his desire to be a “catcher in the rye” (Salinger, 1951, p. 93). His aspiration to save children from falling off a cliff greatly represents his desire to save innocence. He wants to rescue Phoebe, as well as these children, so he can rescue the purity he believes can only be found within an innocent child. However, he has given up on saving his own purity, as he believes it has been lost. As a result of this, “Holden channels his grief into altruistic fantasies of protecting those whose existence remains unmarred by graffiti, phoniness, certainty, and death” (Tolchin, 2007, p. 37). He fantasizes about saving the children in the rye field because saving them means preserving the purity left in the world.
Consequential to Holden’s desire to rescue others, specifically their purity, he loses sight of the importance in rescuing himself. He does not believe himself to be pure, so he gives up on himself. Because of this, it seems that Holden’s character does not change throughout the novel. He remains static, his “…voice is the same at the end of his retelling as it is at the start,” and “He seems to have learned very little…” (Brooks, 2004, p. 357). By the end of the novel, it seems as though Holden will continue to rescue others and fail to recognize that it is he who needs rescuing.
Brooks, B. (2004). Holden at Sixteen. Contemporary Literary Criticism, 80(3), 353-357.
National Public Radio (2008, Jan. 20). Holden Caulfield: Giving voice to generations. National
Public Radio Books. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=18225406
Salinger, J.D. (1951). The Catcher in the Rye. Retrieved from
Tolchin, K.R. (2007). Optimism, Innocence, and Angst in the Catcher in the Rye. Children’s
Literature Review, 181, 33-45.
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