The Catcher in the Rye is a portrait of a young man at odds with the process of growing up. A 16-year-old who is highly critical of the adult world, Holden covets what he sees as the inherent purity of youth. This is why the characters he speaks most fondly about in the novel are all children. Thinking that children are still untainted by the “phony,” hypocritical adult world, he wishes there were a way to somehow preserve the sense of honest integrity that he associates with childhood. Consequently, he not only dreams about protecting children from the trials and tribulations of growing up, but also resists his own process of maturation. At the same time, though, he frequently tries to present himself as much older than he actually is, posturing as an adult even when it’s obvious that he’s a teenager. Interestingly enough, these unsuccessful forays into the adult world ultimately force Holden into situations that make him seem even more immature than he should be at his age. To that end, it is precisely because he disastrously thrusts himself into adult situations that he comes to fear maturity so much. As Holden vacillates between romanticizing youth and imitating maturity, then, Salinger presents a study of a young man who has trouble simply living in his own skin, and suggests that both resisting adulthood and forcing oneself to grow up before one is truly ready are detrimental to an individual’s development.
Holden’s affinity for children is made evident by the way he talks about his little sister, Phoebe. He sees Phoebe as the perfect person, someone uninfluenced by the adult world, which he thinks has a corrupting influence. Unlike adults, Holden thinks, Phoebe will never pretend to be something she’s not, and she always understands exactly what he’s trying to say. The fact that he so thoroughly appreciates her ability to understand him is worth considering, since it suggests that he feels perpetually misunderstood by the adults in his life. After all, even his adult mentors—Mr. Spencer and Mr. Antolini—try to lecture him in ways that only annoy him. Indeed, even when he does connect with adults, they always say or do something to bother him, and he begins to hate their phoniness. For instance, he likes his older brother D.B., but can’t stand that he decided to move to Hollywood to write movies. According to Holden, this is a waste of talent. Failing to see that D.B. is most likely writing movies because it’s a way to be financially responsible as a writer, Holden resents him and sees his decision to move to Hollywood as proof that adults make deplorable, unrespectable choices. With this in mind, he idealizes people like Phoebe and Allie (his dead brother) instead, appreciating them because he can’t imagine them making the same choices as people like D.B.
What’s strange about Holden’s positive feelings toward Phoebe is that he appreciates the very traits that distinguish her as a sophisticated and mature child. Whenever he fondly reflects upon her ability to understand him, he’s actually just celebrating her advanced conversational skills, as well as her emotional intelligence. In keeping with this unacknowledged appreciation of maturity, Holden himself often tries to act much older than he really is, despite the misgivings he has about the adult world. For example, he frequently invites middle-aged adults for “cocktails,” flirts with older women, makes plans to get married in the woods of New England, and lies about his age. The fact that he behaves this way undermines all the negative things he says about adult hypocrisy, since it’s clear that he himself is often hypocritical, effectively wanting to disparage the adult world while also trying to enter it. This, it seems, is most likely why he idealizes childhood so much, since he has so much trouble actually playing the role of a mature adult. In fact, the majority of his attempts to posture as an adult end in disaster, like when he tries to have sex with a prostitute but suddenly doesn’t feel up to the task—a situation that doubtlessly makes him feel quite young. Because of his repeated failure to present himself as an experienced adult, then, he romanticizes childhood, seeing children as pure and innocent because they—unlike the adults in his life—will readily accept him.
Because Holden’s unsuccessful forays into the adult world give him such a scornful idea of what it means to grow up, he comes to see adulthood as something that corrupts purity and innocence. With this regressive mindset, he sees the process of maturation as something of a travesty, which is why he eventually tells Phoebe that all he wants to be in life is the “catcher in the rye,” or a person who catches children when they’re in danger. This is a fairly abstract thought, but it’s worth considering because it indicates Holden’s desire to save children—and himself—from adulthood. He tells his sister that he has recently been picturing a group of children running around in a field of rye. In this field, he says, there is some sort of cliff, and he’s standing at the edge of this cliff. When the children are about to fall off, Holden catches them, thereby saving them from destruction. This serves as a metaphor for Holden’s belief that children must be saved from the various pitfalls of growing up. Because he himself has experienced some of the difficulties of getting older, he thinks he can help people like Phoebe preserve their innocence. However, it’s obvious that nobody can do anything to stop themselves from growing up, and Holden’s form of delusional self-protection can only last so long—after all, he will get older and will have to face things like sex, intimacy, and death. And though he himself refuses to acknowledge this, readers see that it’s just as futile to resist growing up as it is to prematurely posture as an adult.
Childhood and Growing Up ThemeTracker
Childhood and Growing Up 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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
She was a very nice, polite little kid. God, I love it when a kid’s nice and polite when you tighten their skate for them or something. Most kids are. They really are. I asked her if she’d care to have a hot chocolate or something with me, but she said no, thank you. She said she had to meet her friend. Kids always have to meet their friend. That kills me.
The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move. You could go there a hundred times, and that Eskimo would still be just finished catching those two fish, the birds would still be on their way south, the deers would still be drinking out of that water hole, with their pretty antlers and their pretty, skinny legs, and that squaw with the naked bosom would still be weaving that same blanket. Nobody’d be different. The only thing that would be different would be you.
“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.”
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.
"You don’t like anything that’s happening."
It made me even more depressed when she said that.
"Yes I do. Yes I do. Sure I do. Don’t say that. Why the hell do you say that?"
"Because you don’t. You don’t like any schools. You don’t like a million things. You don’t."
"I do! That’s where you’re wrong—that’s exactly where you’re wrong! Why the hell do you have to say that?" I said. Boy, was she depressing me.
"Because you don’t," she said. "Name one thing."
"One thing? One thing I like?" I said. "Okay."
The trouble was, I couldn’t concentrate too hot. Sometimes it’s hard to concentrate.
Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around—nobody big, I mean—except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff—I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all.
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.
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.