The Catcher in the Rye

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Themes and Colors
Phoniness Theme Icon
Alienation and Meltdown Theme Icon
Women and Sex Theme Icon
Childhood and Growing Up Theme Icon
Madness, Depression, Suicide Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Catcher in the Rye, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Phoniness Theme Icon

Holden constantly encounters people and situations that strike him as "phony," a word he applies to anything hypocritical, shallow, superficial, inauthentic, or otherwise fake. He sees such "phoniness" everywhere in the adult world, and believes adults are so phony that they can't even see their own phoniness. And Holden is right. Many of the characters in the novel, from Ackley and Stradlater, to Sally, to Mr. Spencer are often phony, and say and do things that keep up appearances rather than reflect what they truly think and feel.

Yet even though Holden is right that people are phony, Catcher in the Rye makes it clear that Holden's hatred of phoniness is still self-destructive. Though Holden is constantly pointing out the phoniness in others, he is himself often phony. At various times in the novel, he tells pointless lies, claims to like or agree with statements or ideas he hates, goes out with girls he doesn't like, all to try to feel less lonely or to avoid direct confrontations. The point, then, is that, yes, people are "phony" and can't live up to Holden's wish that the world be simple, a place of black and white. But in the end what Mr. Antolini is trying to make Holden see is that while this "phoniness" is harmful and hurtful, it doesn't make people evil or worthy of hate. It makes them human. Holden, in effect, is wishing that the world could be inhuman, could be something that it never can be.

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Phoniness Quotes in The Catcher in the Rye

Below you will find the important quotes in The Catcher in the Rye related to the theme of Phoniness.
Chapter 2 Quotes
"Life is a game, boy. Life is a game that one plays according to the rules."
"Yes, sir. I know it is. I know it."
Game, my ass. Some game. If you get on the side where all the hot-shots are, then it's a game, all right—I'll admit that. But if you get on the other side, where there aren't any hot-shots, then what's a game about it? Nothing. No game.
Related Characters: Holden Caulfield (speaker)
Page Number: 12-13
Explanation and Analysis:

When Mr. Spencer advises Holden to see his life as a game, Holden pretends to affirm the sentiment. But in reality, he believes this worldview is only helpful to those who already hold positions of relative advantage.

The disconnect between Holden’s external speech and his interior monologue marks his distance from adult society. His spoken language is polite and submissive, using the term “sir” and repeating with subservience “I know it is. I know it,” as if he does not have any additional independent thoughts. Yet when the text moves into his mind, we see a very different tone: one that immediately swears—“my ass”—and then goes on to invalidate his previous comment.

Holden’s specific contention with Mr. Spencer’s point is worth considering: he finds the thoughts of empowered adults irrelevant because their advice only applies to those within parallel positions of power—the ones “on the side where all the hot-shots are.” That is to say, the metaphor of the "game" implies a mindset that presumes one can actually dictate the rules. Holden does not simply say that he is disadvantaged in the game, however, but rather denies the entire metaphorical system. With the use of interior monologue, he rejects the worldview hoisted on him by others and sets the stakes of his own game.

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Chapter 7 Quotes
When I was all set to go, when I had my bags and all, I stood for a while next to the stairs and took a last look down the goddam corridor. I was sort of crying. I don't know why. I put my red hunting hat on, and turned the peak around to the back, the way I liked it, and then I yelled at the top of my goddam voice, "Sleep tight, ya morons!" I'll bet I woke up every bastard on the whole floor. Then I got the hell out.
Related Characters: Holden Caulfield (speaker)
Related Symbols: Holden's Red Hunting Hat
Page Number: 68
Explanation and Analysis:

Holden decides to depart Pencey and leave for New York City. As he leaves, he experiences a round of intense emotions, followed by an aggressive renunciation of all those who remain.

Salinger makes this passage a parody of departure narratives: The packing of bags, the moment of reflection, and the crying are all aspects of classic departures. Yet when Holden does not know why he is crying, he subtly denies that his emotional responses are due to this normal emotional arc. Perhaps he does feel some sadness at leaving a comfortable environment, but the emotion seems to stem more from his disillusionment and frustration with this supposedly phony society.

Holden more assertively renounces that society through his use of the red hunting hat: He wears it as a form of self-affirmation, as an indication that he is hunting humans, and as a reminder that he can behave “the way I liked.” That renunciation of normal social codes comes to a climax when he yells into the hallway—parodying the farewell phrase of “sleep tight” by actually rudely awakening everyone. In this moment, Holden shows himself not just to be mentally distant from and critical of those around him, but also willing to openly renounce and mock those he deems phony.

Chapter 13 Quotes
If you want to know the truth, I'm a virgin. I really am. I've had quite a few opportunities to lose my virginity and all, but I've never got around to it yet. Something always happens... I came quite close to doing it a couple of times, though. One time in particular, I remember. Something went wrong, though—I don't even remember what any more.
Related Characters: Holden Caulfield (speaker)
Page Number: 120
Explanation and Analysis:

Holden accepts an offer from the elevator operator Maurice to be sent a prostitute. As a result, he reveals his anxiety over being a virgin and recounts his botched attempts to have intercourse.

The novel’s tone shifts markedly here into a confessional. There is an implied listener in the phrasing “If you want to know”—as if Holden sees himself speaking earnestly to a judgmental audience. The following lines are similarly defensive and self-critical: he affirms that this is not due to a lack of interest from women, for he has had “quite a few opportunities.” Rather it seems to stem from some personal fear or insufficiency—yet Holden is unable to articulate just what this is. Though he can remember “one time in particular,” he cannot or chooses not to recall it with any specificity. The reader is left only with the paltry information “something went wrong.”

As is characteristic of Salinger’s writing, this passage causes the reader to empathize more with Holden, even as he also seems less likable. His hiring of a prostitute marks a lack of moral compass, but this saddened reflection on virginity shows him at his most vulnerable. Salinger implies that Holden’s earlier brazen behavior is just a front for personal insecurity about his ability to sexual perform—and his resulting relative lack of experience.

The trouble was, I just didn't want to do it. I felt more depressed than sexy, if you want to know the truth. She was depressing. Her green dress hanging in the closet and all. And besides, I don't think I could ever do it with somebody that sits in a stupid movie all day long. I really don't think I could.
Related Characters: Holden Caulfield (speaker), Sunny
Page Number: 123
Explanation and Analysis:

When the prostitute Sunny comes to Holden’s room, his fear develops into depression and paralysis. Holden declines to have sex and explains, here, that the refusal comes from how sad he found the scene.

The moment clarifies the occasions Holden referred to earlier when he could have lost his virginity. It shows that in such instances, he becomes distraught by the depressing circumstances of the interaction. Sexual interest alone is insufficient to make him pursue sex, and Holden thus seems to want to search for something meaningful. One should note, however, that Holden’s response is not based on any kind of ethical principle. (He would likely find such moralizing to be “phony.”) Rather it is based on an immediate emotional response—as well as on the appearance of the scene in which he finds himself. Holden, above all, is disheartened by the physical detail of the “green dress,” and his reference to the “stupid movie” indicates that he is filtering his experience through a cinematic lens. That is to say, Holden seems to be watching the movie of his life, as well as the movie of Sunny’s life, play out—and he becomes “depressed” when he understands the nature of this hypothetical film.

The reference to the movies also implies that Holden's earlier criticism of "phony" movies and the people who enjoy them extends even to his instincts. This also suggests that Holden truly does want something meaningful from sex, since he feels he couldn't do it with just anyone, particularly someone he doesn't respect.

Chapter 14 Quotes
It took me quite a while to get to sleep—I wasn't even tired—but finally I did. What I really felt like, though, was committing suicide. I felt like jumping out the window. I probably would've done it, too, if I'd been sure somebody'd cover me up as soon as I landed. I didn't want a bunch of stupid rubbernecks looking at me when I was all gory.
Related Characters: Holden Caulfield (speaker)
Page Number: 136
Explanation and Analysis:

After Sunny takes his money and Maurice punches him in the stomach, Holden tries to fall asleep. He considers suicide, but decides against it because of an imagined social response.

This passage shows Holden at the depths of his despair. Whereas his earlier comments have certainly conveyed depression and angst, contemplating suicide marks a significant shift toward the worse. He does not even try to hide the fact, explicitly using the term “committing suicide” and only then using the more euphemistic phrase “jumping out the window.” As with the prostitute, what stops Holden from acting is not an ethical belief—nor a rational consideration—but rather an issue with the cinematic quality of what would take place. Here, what he finds depressing is the way others would look at him “all gory.” This image reiterates the way Holden tends to see his life as a movie playing out before him, in which his actions are made largely based on whether he would be pleased or disheartened by the quality of the movie. Suicide is only ruled out because the resulting scene for the “stupid rubbernecks” would not fit with his aesthetic wishes.

Chapter 17 Quotes
Then, just to show you how crazy I am, when we were coming out of this big clinch, I told her I loved her and all. It was a lie, of course, but the thing is, I meant it when I said it. I'm crazy. I swear to God I am.
Related Characters: Holden Caulfield (speaker), Sally Hayes
Page Number: 163
Explanation and Analysis:

Holden and Sally travel to the theater in a cab, and Holden finds himself acting increasingly irrational. He simultaneously professes his love, claims the statement is a lie, and defends the validity of the lie.

Salinger continues to construct a complicated, self-contradictory psyche for Holden: he seems capable of telling a “lie” that is also true in that he “meant it” at the moment when he spoke it. This disparity points out the fickleness of human identity, a factor that Holden despises in others but continues to encounter in himself. He describes such volatile emotions an indication of lunacy—“I’m crazy”—but Salinger implies, rather, that they are a universal aspect of the human experience.

It is important, here, to observe the reemergence of Holden’s confessional tone. The phrases “just to show you” and “I swear” reinforce how Holden feels his life to be constantly on display. He sets a high stake in an implied audience of his life, one that could presumably note the inconsistencies between his thoughts and his actions. Part of this stems from the structure of a novel, in which a character is indeed "on trial" through the narrative—but it also speaks more generally to Holden’s self-conscious character. He is self-admonishing, even self-hating, yet he also desperately wishes to be absolved of his guilt.

"You ought to go to a boys' school sometime. Try it sometime," I said. "It's full of phonies, and all you do is study so that you can learn enough to be smart enough to be able to buy a goddam Cadillac some day, and you have to keep making believe you give a damn if the football team loses, and all you do is talk about girls and liquor and sex all day, and everybody sticks together in these dirty little goddam cliques."
Related Characters: Holden Caulfield (speaker), Sally Hayes
Page Number: 170
Explanation and Analysis:

As Holden and Sally talk about schools, Holden offers a condemnation of his academy, and attacks its artificial rituals and social behaviors.

It is difficult to know what to make of Holden’s comments here. On one hand, they might simply speak to his depressive nature, reaffirming how he finds everything in his world meaningless. On the other, one could identify a cultural critique in Holden’s words. Indeed, there is something artificial about the group-think style of living that places these high-achieving boys on a trajectory from “study” to “goddam Cadillac.” Holden is articulating, in immature language, a genuine criticism made by members of the counter culture. His focus on communal rituals—such as “the football team”—and empty discussions—“all you do is talk about girls and liquor and sex all day”—are similarly poignant. Indeed, many readers may empathize with the feeling that social rituals are meaningless and repetitive. Yet Holden is notably guilty of these very same behaviors: himself fixated on girls, liquor, and sex. Salinger thus gives us a character who offers genuine insights on social practices, but whose views also seem self-defeating and invalidated due to how carelessly they are applied.

I said no, there wouldn't be marvelous places to go to after I went to college and all. Open your ears. It'd be entirely different. We'd have to go downstairs in elevators with suitcases and stuff. We'd have to phone up everybody and tell 'em good-by and send 'em postcards from hotels and all... It wouldn't be the same at all. You don't see what I mean at all.
Related Characters: Holden Caulfield (speaker), Sally Hayes
Page Number: 172
Explanation and Analysis:

Holden interrupts Sally to further reject the trappings of adult life. He claims that living together when they are older would be horrifying and not at all equivalent to escaping to the woods now.

That Holden denies the existence of “marvelous places” in the future speaks to his deep anxieties about adulthood. Evidently, all experiences after college are held to be banal and phony. They are “entirely different” not because of their physical environment, but rather because of how codified and mechanical his life will become as an adult. Whereas escaping to the woods as an adolescent holds the potential of complete isolation (and perhaps a perpetuation of the "innocence" of childhood), travel as an adult brings baggage both literal and metaphorical. Holden is perturbed by the “suitcases and stuff” that would weigh them down, as well as the social networks that demand goodbyes and “postcards.” He identifies isolation and ease of travel with youth and sees adults as living artificial and ensnared lives. Though this may be an exaggerated image, Salinger once again grants Holden the benefit of a compelling critical eye. Adults, indeed, are weighed down by these concerns, and thus Holden’s wish to hold on to his adolescence is admirable even as it is unreasonable.

Chapter 24 Quotes
This fall I think you're riding for — it's a special kind of fall, a horrible kind. The man falling isn't permitted to feel or hear himself hit bottom. He just keeps falling and falling. The whole arrangement's designed for men who, at some time or other in their lives, were looking for something their own environment couldn't supply them with. Or they thought their own environment couldn't supply them with. So they gave up looking.
Related Characters: Mr. Antolini (speaker), Holden Caulfield
Page Number: 243
Explanation and Analysis:

Holden visits his old English teacher, Mr. Antolini, who offers this compelling advice on his future. Mr. Antolini claims that Holden is following a well-trod narrative in which he expects too much from the world and will thus end up inevitably disappointed.

Mr. Antolini’s story, here, is more compelling for Holden than the comments he has received from other adults—for instead of offering stock phrases, Mr. Antolini closely examines Holden’s position and gives a specific diagnosis of his problem: “a special kind of fall.” Holden’s fall, he contends, is notable because it is infinite. Whereas a normal fall, say a specific negative experience, has a painful endpoint and impact of pain, Holden’s fall is permanent because it stems from the mental state he applies to every experience.

This mental state is the result of “looking for something their own environment couldn’t supply them with”—that is to say setting unreasonably high expectations for people and for experiences that consistently disappoint. Alternatively, it may be the result of presuming this fact to be the case, as if the environment may indeed be able to provide the wished-for experience. In either case, these permanently-falling men nihilistically abandon the entire quest for happiness and meaning because of the mismatch between expectation and reality. Salinger thus universalizes Holden’s experience and contends that one must continue to find meaning in the world even if it does not satisfy all of one’s desires.