Critical Essays Major Themes


Authentic versus Artificial

Holden's aesthetics are entertaining, but they also tell us a good deal about his worldview. He sees much of life as a conflict between the authentic and the artificial, which is directly related to his attitude toward children and his resistance to the adult world. When Holden sees the 6-year-old child marching down the street singing, "If a body catch a body coming through the rye," he is uplifted because of the authenticity of the scene. The boy is not trying to please anyone; he is merely expressing his passion of the moment. D.B.'s short stories fall into the same category. They are quiet, private, an author's expression of his own truth without concern for reward. Estelle Fletcher, the black artist who sings "Little Shirley Beans" on the recording that Holden buys for Phoebe, is another adult who gets it right. Holden likes her jazz style, saying she "sings it very Dixieland and whorehouse, and it doesn't sound at all mushy." He appreciates the fact that she avoids sentimentality and doesn't cater to the audience by making the song "sound cute as hell."

On the other hand, when Ernie plays his piano at his nightclub in Greenwich Village, or when D.B. writes screenplays for Hollywood, or when various actors compromise their talents to please an audience, Holden can't stand it. These adult manipulations are, for him, the same as prostitution. The artists have sold out — for money or fame or just for applause. Nor can he tolerate what he sees as emotional manipulations in literature. Romance magazines with "lean-jawed guys named David" and "a lot of phony girls named Linda or Marcia" usually set Holden to "puking," although he does sometimes read them on the train. Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms, which has a great reputation as an antiwar novel, also strikes him as manipulative and artificial. So do most films, especially sentimental war films. In the end, he seems to distrust the corrupting potential of the relationship between artist and audience, especially among adults.

Sexual Confusion

Sexual confusion is another of the consistent themes in The Catcher in the Rye. It is not unusual for any of us to be concerned about sex as adolescents, but Holden is especially so. He has the usual biological yearnings but has mixed feelings about how he should respond to them. Although he is a romantic, he still admits that he is sexually driven. It is to Holden's credit that he respects what girls say when they ask him to stop making advances, even though he has heard the usual rumors that they don't always mean it. When a girl says she wants to stop, Holden stops. "No" means "No" for Holden Caulfield. Unfortunately, Holden seems to think this is one of his weaknesses. During the encounter with Sunny, the prostitute, Holden decides that he simply does not want to go through with the act of sex. While talking later with Carl Luce at the Wicker Bar, Holden wonders if he needs psychoanalysis because he has difficulty being intimate with a girl unless he really cares about her. Luce, who likes to pose as a sophisticate, lacks the maturity or good sense to tell Holden that these feelings are admirable.

On the other hand, Holden is unusually concerned about homosexual males (whom he calls "flits"). He thinks that all homoerotic behavior is "perverty," lumping it together with bestiality (or at least accepting the fact that Carl Luce has this view).

Although Holden is understandably bothered by Mr. Antolini's odd behavior at the apartment, he might be over-reacting. Salinger is unclear about the former teacher's motive. Holden and the readers might notice that the teacher pats him on the head, not the genitals.

Thinking about major themes can be helpful to the reader. However, as readers of any work of fiction (especially with a novel as complex and richly ambiguous as The Catcher in the Rye) we need to be careful not to try to define or dissect too much. Most interpretations of the novel are debatable. The Catcher in the Rye remains a force in literature precisely because it may mean many things to many different people.

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