Early on in The Catcher in the Rye, it’s clear that Holden doesn’t fit in. After all, he decides not to attend his school’s big football game with the rest of his peers, a sign that he tends to sequester himself from others. What makes The Catcher in the Rye unique, however, is not the fact that Holden is an alienated teenager, but the novel’s nuanced portrayal of the causes, benefits, and costs of his isolation. Simply put, alienation both protects and harms Holden. On one hand, it ensures that he’ll never have to form connections with other people that might end up causing awkwardness, rejection, or the sort of intense emotional pain he felt when his brother, Allie, died. On the other hand, though, this very same instinct estranges him from the kind of connection all humans need in order to lead happy lives. In keeping with this, Holden may wish that he didn’t need human contact, but he does. So while his alienation protects him, it also severely harms him, making him intensely lonely and depressed. As a result, he reaches out to people but then finds himself incapable of letting them fully engage with him on an emotional level. In turn, he becomes trapped in a cycle of self-destruction: his fear of human contact leads to alienation and loneliness, which encourages him to reach out to others, which excites his fear of human contact, which causes him to shut down, which leads once more to alienation. By drawing attention to this pattern, Salinger illustrates that while alienating oneself from others can turn into a vicious cycle.
Holden makes a point of separating himself from his peers. He does this in multiple ways, some of which are more subtle than others. For instance, even his manner of dressing indicates his desire to be set apart from everyone else, as he wears an eccentric hunting hat that separates him from people like Stradlater, who would never wear such unique or unconventional attire. He also purposefully alienates himself from Stradlater because he can’t bring himself to speak openly about how he feels. Angry and jealous that Stradlater went on a date with Jane (his longtime crush), Holden antagonizes his roommate until they finally come to blows. Shortly thereafter, Holden vindictively fixes his hunting cap on his head and storms out of the dorm, yelling, “Sleep tight, ya morons!” With this, he sets off on his own, bidding his classmates a harsh farewell that underscores just how eager he is to insulate himself from his peers. Acting like he doesn’t need anybody but himself, he sets off on an untethered solo journey through New York City.
Although Holden is committed to proving how little he needs others, his loneliness soon overtakes him. Desperate for company, he makes multiple attempts while in New York to connect with people like his childhood girlfriend, Sally Hayes, and his former student mentor, Carl Luce. In both cases, though, he ends up behaving abrasively, apparently uncomfortable with the idea of simply relating to others. When Holden inevitably drives both Sally and Carl away, he once again begins to feel sad and alone, and this causes him to think about his dead brother, Allie. As a result, he decides to go home so that he can speak to perhaps the only person he actually likes—his little sister Phoebe. However, because he’s determined to set himself apart from the rest of his family, he’s unable to stay with Phoebe when his parents come home that night. Yet again, then, his decision to isolate himself interferes with his ability to find genuine human connection, thereby cementing the pattern of alienation that makes him feel so unhappy and lonely.
It’s worth pointing out that Holden largely experiences alienation because he chooses to ostracize himself from others. At the same time, though, Salinger suggests that Holden slowly begins to lose his ability to decide whether or not he wants to feel isolated. In other words, Holden becomes so used to distancing himself from others that he eventually finds it nearly impossible to shake his feelings of ostracization. This is the case when he visits Phoebe’s school at the end of the novel. At first, he relishes the familiarity of the school, which he himself used to attend. As he sits on the steps, he feels a vague sense of belonging. Just then, though, he looks at the wall and sees that somebody has graffitied “Fuck you” onto it. Suddenly, he feels as if the whole world is against him, thinking that somebody will probably write the same phrase on his gravestone when he dies. Instead of seeing this vandalism as nothing more than an act of immaturity, he lets it ruin his newfound sense of belonging, clearly feeling that the phrase is aimed directly at him. He responds so negatively to this because he has voluntarily alienated himself for too long. As a result, he has become used to seeing himself in opposition to the world. It is for this reason that Salinger implies that it’s risky to isolate oneself from human connection, since doing so makes it that much harder to fight off loneliness and emotional turmoil.
Alienation and Meltdown ThemeTracker
Alienation and Meltdown Quotes in The Catcher in the Rye
"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.
[Ackley] took another look at my hat […]. "Up home we wear a hat like that to shoot deer in, for Chrissake," he said. "That’s a deer shooting hat."
"Like hell it is." I took it off and looked at it. I sort of closed one eye, like I was taking aim at it. "This is a people shooting hat," I said. "I shoot people in this hat."
I was only thirteen, and they were going to have me psychoanalyzed and all, because I broke all the windows in the garage. I don’t blame them. I really don’t. I slept in the garage the night he died, and I broke all the goddam windows with my fist, just for the hell of it…It was a very stupid thing to do, I’ll admit, but I hardly didn’t even know I was doing it, and you didn’t know Allie.
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.
You know those ducks in that lagoon right near Central Park South? That little lake? By any chance, do you happen to know where they go, the ducks, when it gets all frozen over?
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.
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.
I got up close so I could hear what he was singing. He was singing that song, “If a body catch a body coming through the rye.” He had a pretty little voice, too. He was just singing for the hell of it, you could tell. The cars zoomed by, brakes screeched all over the place, his parents paid no attention to him, and he kept on walking next to the curb and singing “If a body catch a body coming through the rye.” It made me feel better. It made me feel not so depressed any more.
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.
“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.”
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.
Among other things, you’ll find that you’re not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. You’re by no means alone on that score…Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You’ll learn from them—if you want to.
[W]hile I was sitting down, I saw something that drove me crazy. Somebody’d written "Fuck you" on the wall. It drove me damn near crazy. I thought how Phoebe and all the other little kids would see it, and how they’d wonder what the hell it meant, and then finally some dirty kid would tell them…I hardly even had the guts to rub it off the wall with my hand, if you want to know the truth. I was afraid some teacher would catch me rubbing it off and would think I’d written it. But I rubbed it out anyway, finally.
That’s the whole trouble. You can’t ever find a place that’s nice and peaceful, because there isn’t any. You may think there is, but once you get there, when you’re not looking, somebody’ll sneak up and write “Fuck you” right under your nose... I think, even, if I ever die, and they stick me in a cemetery, and I have tombstone and all, it’ll say “Holden Caulfield” on it, and then what year I was born and what year I died, and then right under that it’ll say “Fuck you.” I’m positive, in fact.