In The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger uses Holden Caulfield’s thoughts about women and sex to illustrate the young man’s naivety. More specifically, Holden’s romantic and sexual expectations reveal his tendency to idealize certain unrealistic notions. For instance, he thinks of Jane Gallagher as a perfect woman, despite the fact that he can’t even bring himself to call her on the phone. Having idealized her in this way, he looks down on seemingly all the other women he encounters, seeing them as annoying and unintelligent simply because he compares them to Jane, holding them to an unreasonably high standard. In this way, he makes it impossible for himself to be happy with any of his romantic partners. Worse, he can’t bring himself to reach out to Jane because he senses that even she won’t live up to the idea he’s built of her in his mind. This, in turn, reveals his tendency to romanticize impractical notions, which enables him to ignore the many limitations of reality. Through Holden’s ambivalence toward women and sex, Salinger suggests that holding such impossibly high standards for sexual and romantic relationships ultimately paralyzes people and prevents them from finding meaningful connections.
Holden’s confidence when it comes to romantic relationships emerges early in the novel, as he refers to himself as a “sex maniac.” However, this confidence isn’t quite as sturdy as one might expect, which becomes clear when Holden can’t contain his jealousy after Stradlater goes on a date with Jane Gallagher. Unbeknownst to Stradlater, Holden has had a crush on Jane for quite some time, though he hasn’t seen her for a while. Interestingly enough, though, it is exactly because Holden hasn’t seen Jane for a while that he becomes so upset. Indeed, Holden has idealized Jane in the time since he last saw her, eventually coming to think of her as the embodiment of a perfect woman. When Stradlater goes on a date with her, then, Holden is overcome with jealousy, hating the idea of Stradlater—who he knows is sexually forward with his dates—trying to have sex with Jane. Although he wants to present himself as a cool and sexually experienced young man, he finds it impossible to hide his feelings when Stradlater returns from the date and refuses to talk about it. As Holden gradually loses his temper, readers see that his self-image as a confident womanizer with many lovers is little more than an act, since he has obviously fixated on just one woman.
Ironically, Holden can’t bring himself to reach out to Jane despite his strong feelings for her. He tells himself throughout the novel that he should call her, but he always stops himself because he isn’t in the right “mood.” Instead of actually interacting with her, then, he merely thinks about her. Consequently, his idea of her (and of his relationship with her) takes on the quality of a mere fantasy, ultimately causing him to elevate her even more than he already has. As he fixates on how great Jane is, he thinks disparagingly about young women like Sally Hayes, with whom he actually has a romantic relationship. Although Holden finds Sally attractive, he thinks of her as “phony” and annoying. In keeping with this, his entire conception of her is quite condescending, but this doesn’t stop him from getting wrapped up in the idea of running away with her. In the same way that he idealizes Jane Gallagher, he romanticizes his relationship with Sally, choosing to overlook his lack of respect for her in order to invest himself in a far-fetched fantasy about moving to Vermont with her. When Sally rejects this idea, his scorn for her returns with a vengeance because her rational response forces him to confront his own naïveté—something he is quite hesitant to do.
Above all, Holden wants a romantic partner who will validate the way he feels. This is why he gets so angry when Sally forces him to see how ridiculous his plan to move to Vermont really is. Of course, Sally’s reaction to his ludicrous fantasy is exactly the kind of levelheaded perspective he needs, but Holden is unwilling to admit this, so he lashes out at her. In this manner, he cuts himself off from emotional and romantic intimacy because he has cultivated unrealistic expectations for both the people he respects and the way he views his life. Accordingly, he finds himself alone and unable to sensibly envision not only his love life, but also his future.
Women and Sex ThemeTracker
Women and Sex Quotes in The Catcher in the Rye
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.
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.