In J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, a novel about a teenager’s many frustrations with the world, 16-year-old Holden Caulfield constantly encounters people and situations that strike him as “phony.” This is a word he applies to anything hypocritical, shallow, inauthentic, or otherwise fake. He sees such “phoniness” everywhere in the adult world, and believes adults are so superficial that they can’t even recognize their own insincerity. And though Holden feels this skepticism most prominently toward the adults in his life, he’s often horrified to find that even his teenaged peers embody the same lack of authenticity as his teachers and other authority figures. What he doesn’t seem to recognize, though, is that he is often rather phony himself, since he frequently lies and misrepresents himself. More importantly, he uses his judgmental attitude to avoid failure or emotional pain, choosing to be apathetic about schoolwork and his relationships so that he doesn’t have to apply himself. In this way, he uses his hatred of phoniness as a crutch, allowing him to reject anything that presents itself to him as a challenge. In the end, this attitude leads him to little more than lonely hopelessness, hinting that his expectations for the world are unrealistic and self-destructive.
In many ways, Holden is right that the people around him are frustratingly inauthentic. For instance, his sensitivity to adult phoniness enables him to recognize that the headmaster of Elkton Hills (one of the schools he attended before his current school, Pencey Prep) only pays attention to the parents of rich students. Every Sunday, Holden explains, Mr. Haas shakes hands and speaks with visiting parents, but Holden notices that he all but ignores families who aren’t wealthy. After giving poorer families a “phony smile,” he talks to rich parents for as long as half an hour. Despite this discrepancy, Mr. Haas presents himself as a kind, welcoming, and polite man. In reality, though, Holden sees that he’s nothing but a social climber who only cares about people if they have money. This, Holden claims, is one of the primary reasons he left Elkton Hills, insisting that he was “surrounded by phonies” at the institution. In turn, readers sense just how much Holden cares about whether or not the people around him are genuine in the way they present themselves.
Although Holden is correct that many people aren’t as kind or earnest as they’d like others to think, it’s worth noting that he himself is often quite hypocritical. In fact, he admits early in the novel that he’s very good at “shooting the bull,” claiming that he can easily trick people into thinking he’s invested in something when he actually isn’t. When he goes to his history teacher’s house to say farewell before he leaves Pencey, for example, he tells Mr. Spencer that he appreciates how hard it must be to be a teacher. In contrast to this sentiment, though, what he really believes is that “you don’t have to think too hard when you talk to a teacher,” since it’s so easy to trick them. In turn, it becomes clear that Holden is more than willing to be dishonest and inauthentic, and that he thinks it’s easy to dupe other people because they themselves are so phony. However, he is perhaps less persuasive than he might think, considering that Mr. Spencer quickly cuts him off and asks him pointed questions about what he really feels. In this moment, readers see that Holden can be just as phony as anyone else, though he refuses to admit it. In this sense, then, his criticism of other people’s inauthenticity distracts him from his own phoniness.
Near the end of the novel, Holden’s former English teacher, Mr. Antolini, tries to help him see how unproductive it is to fixate on the many ways in which people are phony. Although Holden might be right that the world is full of inauthentic people, he uses this as an excuse to not apply himself in school. Similarly, his cynicism puts a strain on his relationships, as evidenced by the fact that he once called his friend Carl Luce a “fat-assed phony,” which unsurprisingly drove them apart. He also ruins his connection with Sally Hayes by calling her a “royal pain in the ass” because she doesn’t agree that the world is made up of shallow people who set useless expectations for young people. Trying to help him see that this pessimistic view of the world is unhelpful, Mr. Antolini warns Holden that some men think that “their environment [can’t] supply them with” what they need to be happy, so they give up looking for it before they even give themselves a chance to find it. In other words, Holden is so fixated on the idea that society is superficial and fake that he convinces himself that it’s pointless to follow the rules. By making this decision, he stops himself from even trying to succeed in life. Consequently, it’s apparent that his obsession with phoniness ultimately works against him, keeping him in a perpetual state of cynical apathy that deprives him of happiness, progress, or satisfaction.
Phoniness 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."
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.