Holden Caulfield's Perception and Gradual
Acceptance of the "Real" World.
In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden views the world as an evil and
corrupt place where there is no peace. This perception of the world does
not change significantly through the novel. However as the novel
progresses, Holden gradually comes to the realization that he is powerless
to change this.
During the short period of Holden's life covered in this book, "Holden
does succeed in making us perceive that the world is crazy".1 Shortly
after Holden leaves Pencey Prep he checks in to the Edmont Hotel. This is
where Holden's turmoil begins. Holden spends the following evening in this
hotel which was "full of perverts and morons. (There were) screwballs all
over the place."2 His situation only deteriorates from this point on as the
more he looks around this world, the more depressing life seems.
Around every corner Holden sees evil. He looks out on a world which
appears completely immoral and unscrupulous. The three days we learn of
from the novel place a distressed Holden in the vicinity of Manhattan. The
city is decked with decorations and holiday splendor, yet, much to Holden's
despair "seldom yields any occasions of peace, charity or even genuine
merriment."3 Holden is surrounded by what he views as drunks, perverts,
morons and screwballs. These convictions which Holden holds waver very
momentarily during only one particular scene in the book. The scene is
that with Mr. Antolini. After Mr. Antolini patted Holden on the head while
he was sleeping, Holden jumped up and ran out thinking that Mr. Antolini
was a pervert as well. This is the only time during the novel where Holden
thinks twice about considering someone as a pervert. After reviewing Mr.
Antolini, Holden finally concludes that maybe he wasn't making a "flitty"
pass at him. Maybe he just like patting guys heads as they sleep. This is
really the only time in the novel where Holden actually considers a
positive side. This event does not constitute a significant change. As
Holden himself says, "It's not too bad when the sun's out, but the sun only
comes out when it feels like coming out."4 The sun of course is a reference
to decency through the common association of light and goodness. His
perception of the world remains the same.
The one conviction that does change during the novel is Holden's
belief that he can change the world. On his date with Sally, Holden
reveals his feelings. "Did you ever get fed up?... I mean did you ever get
scared that everything was going to go lousy unless you did something..."5
Holden goes through several plans. Holden at one point contemplates
heading out west where he will pretend to be a deaf-mute and live a quiet
life. At another point Holden proposes to Sally to escape this world with
him. It is finally to his younger sister Phoebe that Holden reveals his
ultimate plan. Although Holden describes the situation in a very
picturesque and symbolic manner he essentially tells Phoebe that he wants
to prevent children from growing up. He blames the world's corruption on
adults and believes that when he stops the children from growing up he will
preserve their innocence and save the world.
It takes most of the book before Holden begins to realize that he is
helpless to stop this corruption. Finally, he realizes that not only is
there nothing that he can do, but there is nowhere he can go to hide from
it. Holden takes awhile to comprehend these concepts. One good example is
when Holden is delivering the note to his sister. He encounters a
"fuck-you" written on the wall. Holden careful rubs this off with his hand
so as to protect the innocent children from reading it. Later on he finds
"fuck-you" scratched into the surface with a knife. He discovers that he
can't efface this one. Even in the timeless peace of the Egyptian tomb
room at the museum there is an un-erasable "fuck-you." This incident is
the beginning of Holden's realization that his dreams are infeasible.6
Ironically enough, it is one of the "innocent" children that he is
trying to protect who helps him come to terms with this realization. It is
Phoebe who challenges his plan to escape out west. As he is telling Phoebe
that she can not run away, he discovers that he too can not run away. "You
can't ever find a place that is nice and peaceful, because there isn't
The final break-down comes near the end of the book when he is
watching Phoebe on the carousel.
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.8
In the above passage from the novel, Holden hits the final breakdown.
Being "the catcher" becomes obviously unrealistic. The gold rings are
ironically not gold but really brass-plated iron. The gold rings are
symbols of the corrupted world which always "wears" a shiny surface to hide
its evil. It is at this point that Holden sees that he can not stop
children from growing up and therefore losing their innocence. They will
fall if they fall, there is nothing that can be done.
Shortly after this point Holden has his nervous breakdown. His
breakdown is due to this depressing realization that the world is corrupt
and filled with evil. He knows now with a sickening certainty that he is
powerless to stop both evil and maturation. As a matter of fact, it is
"bad" to do so.