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.
Women and Sex Theme Icon

Like most teenagers, Holden struggles with his sexuality. He considers himself a "sex maniac," but is also completely inexperienced. In addition, he has very strong and often contradictory feelings about women. Most women, such as Bernice Krebs and Sally Hayes, he sees as utterly stupid, largely because they seem interested in boys and men, whom Holden knows from experience are up to no good. On the other hand, Holden sees Jane Gallagher as a perfect woman: kind, loving, gentle, innocent, wonderful. In other words, he idealizes her. Yet the fact that he is so frightened to call or talk to her implies that he knows that she can't possibly be as perfect as he wants her to be. In the end, Holden's feelings about women and sex mirror his feelings about society as a whole. He desperately wants to have a girlfriend, have sex, and achieve emotional intimacy, and at the same time is desperately afraid as well.

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Women and Sex 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 Women and Sex.
Chapter 10 Quotes
She knocked me out. I mean it. I was half in love with her by the time we sat down. That's the thing about girls. Every time they do something pretty, even if they're not much to look at, or even if they're sort of stupid, you fall half in love with them, and then you never know where the hell you are. Girls. Jesus Christ. They can drive you crazy. They really can.
Related Characters: Holden Caulfield (speaker), Bernice Krebs
Page Number: 95
Explanation and Analysis:

While at the Lavender Room, Holden begins to dance with Bernice Krebs. He momentarily abandons his critical mindset to give this praising description of women.

Holden’s statements are a complicated combination of abhorrent sexism and refreshing earnestness. On one hand, it is relieving to see him say with relish “you never know where the hell you are”—for this sense of reckless abandon seems a hard-fought battle from Holden’s tendency to judge everything as “phony.” Indeed, becoming “knocked out" or “crazy” might be taken as an accomplishment for Holden, perhaps even as a sign of maturity considering it marks an interest in women.

The passage, however, also forefronts the way Holden objectifies women. He treats females as a general “they” group, and belittles their intelligence with the reference to “they’re sort of stupid.” In this sense, Holden’s behavior further incriminates him in the eyes of the reader. Thus the passage, as is characteristic of Salinger, makes the protagonist simultaneously more human and less sympathetic.

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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 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.