Psychologically Under Siege

Society and the Individual in The Catcher in the Rye

by Luigi Kapaj

There are several cases where society's desire to control and the individual's need to act freely come into direct conflict in The Catcher in the Rye. J. D. Salinger expresses such conflict through a series of encounters with various stereotypes and institutions of American society, typical of the 1940s -1950s, that represent facets of society as well as metaphorical micro chasms of these conflicting positions. Readers are given the unique perspective of observing this interaction as though the escapades of Holden Caulfield, Salinger's narrator and protagonist, in this book are preserved within a glass case at a museum for us to reconsider for, unlike the reader (or listener) whom Holden addresses, the words on its pages will not change. Only the reader's interpretation will change. Let us explore a series of these encounters and how they demonstrate the theme of conflict between control and independence as the character of the turmoil faced by Holden.

Holden's disdain for the nature of society and, more importantly, society's inability to accept Holden is deeply rooted in their incomprehension of one another. The importance is to be placed on the latter because society's perception of Holden gives no inclination of changing. This stands in sharp contrast to Holden's search throughout the book where he is trying to understand society. There is no mutual understanding.

When one is dismayed by some cold facet of society, the verbal exclamations are directed at the incorporeal "they". Who are "they"? Just because a tangible object to direct such anger at may be elusive, does not dismiss the existence of a reasonable target. Holden makes attempts to interact with society and is consistently let down. When he asks Stradlater to give his regards to Jane, he sums up the exchange with "They never give your regards to people" (Salinger 33). When a bus driver assumed Holden was going to cause trouble, he concluded the moment with "People never believe you" (Salinger 37). When he asked a waiter to pass a message, he didn't even bother to give the waiter a voice, but rather concluded, "People never give your message to anybody" (Salinger 149). When these events happen once, it is clearly meant to represent a recurrence. In Holden's words, "they" are "people" and not just the people he directly encounters, but the collective notion of people known as society. Simply put, they are the people who are part of society.

Holden encounters a steady stream of bit players throughout the book. One critic weighed their importance to the story by sheer volume: "Salinger is a master at the minor (or flat) character, and The Catcher in the Rye is full-to-bursting with these folk. There are over fifty-five such characters in the novel – over fifty-five! – many of whom never appear more than once, many of whom, in fact, never actually appear in the book at all, floating ghostlike through the dark recesses of Holden Caulfield's mind" (McNally 107). These come in the form of stereotypes, from peer groups such as jocks and outcasts, to authority figures such as teachers and mothers, and a whole spectrum in between. These characters, as they are introduced, may play different roles to the story line, but each one gives a different perspective of how they interact with someone in Holden's position.

There are two views put forth by these characters. The first is what Holden sees in these people and how he learns about society in general from them. This one is the more obvious because Holden is telling the story. When Holden meets Mrs. Morrow on the train, he is most interested in how her perception of her son is so different from reality and concludes that "Mothers are all slightly insane" (Salinger 55). Right from the beginning of the novel, we are shown that Holden is not satisfied with the façade presented to him by people and is interested in people's intentions like when he sees through Stradlater's compliment: "He was only flattering me, though" (Salinger 29), or someone's charitable work "The only way she could go around with a basket collecting dough would be if everybody kissed her ass for her when they made a contribution" (Salinger 114). He also observes how others conform to the point of mindless obedience like the elevator operator who he circumnavigates with a little "Social Engineering"1 and notes "All you have to do is say something nobody understands and they'll do practically anything you want them to" (Salinger 157-8). But Holden does not blindly accept things without reading into them more carefully, and this brings us to the second view expressed through these characters, which is how they react to him. One character, Carl Luce, suggests Holden should seek psychoanalytical help2 when Holden tries to have an intelligent conversation with him. On his date with Sally Hayes, Holden attempts to relate with her and express his inner desires, even invites her along, only she is too self absorbed3, and tells him "You can't just do something like that" (Salinger 132), and tries in turn to convince him to follow a more normal life plan: "We'll have oodles of time to do those things – all those things. I mean after you go to college and all, and if we should get married and all. There'll be oodles of marvelous places to go to" (Salinger 133). These characters that Holden encounters have no empathy or appreciation for his situation.

Some of Holden's encounters focus more on the institutions than the characters who represent them.

Salinger chooses to revisit the teacher stereotype three times to try to thoroughly examine its impact on Holden. The first teacher to be introduced in the novel is Holden's history teacher, Mr. Spencer, who tries to convince Holden to play by society's rules through his speech about life being a game. Holden immediately sees though this example to the other side "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" (Salinger 8). This is a commentary on society and how it only works for those that fit in, and completely fails for those that do not. Mr. Spencer fails Holden. Later in the book, Holden revisits this authority figure in the form of Mr. Antolini, who was a former teacher of his at a previous school. Mr. Antolini also tries to convince Holden that he should not fight against society's control by reading a quote about maturity being complacency: "The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one" (qtd. in Salinger 188). Mr. Antolini tries to show compassion and understanding of Holden, only to attempt to exploit him in the form of an attempted molestation4.

The most dramatic example of a teacher epitomizing society's attempt to force Holden into conformity is Mr. Vinson's class on Oral Expression. Why would Holden fail an oral expression class when he clearly has quite an ability to express himself throughout the book? Especially considering he easily does well in his English classes. The book itself is a conversation Holden is having with the reader5. When he writes a composition, he is given latitude as to how he approaches his assignment. He can write in his own fashion, pace, and do so as the inspiration strikes him. But in the oral expression class, he is forced into a structured format ill suited for his level of creativity. The name of the teacher, chosen by Salinger, even hints at this as Vinson means "conquering"6 which is exactly what he is attempting to do to his student's minds by controlling how they think. Holden is forced to plan the path of his work before he starts, which precludes him from allowing his work to follow a natural path, and should he deviate into anything new he is berated by hostile interjections7. This is clearly a case of originality versus conformity, where anything that does not conform is not only deemed a failure, but is subject to public humiliation. His teacher may believe he is helping Holden focus by forcing him to "unify and simplify" (Salinger 185) but this only serves to stifle his creativity. This symbolizes society attempting to force Holden into conforming, by constantly ridiculing him whenever he attempts to think for himself, until he would think the same way as other people.

Holden makes some careful observations of two major flaws in society that prevent people from getting along that really should have no reason to feel apart. He talks about the class divides in society on page 108 where he uses the suitcases as a metaphor for how different social classes do not get along. Here the different suitcases represent different economic status. He also alludes to religious differences when he mentions that the same conversation would be more enjoyable if the people where in the same church8. These are situations where the people enjoyed each other's company, yet the different positions placed upon them by society's measure interfered.

The important role Maurice plays is in representing society's rogue side. Maurice is a pimp, rather unsavory yet an institution of society none the less, who assaults Holden. This character demands more of Holden than he is willing to give, or even fairly owes, and reacts to him violently for wanting to preserve what is his. Holden tries to defy this unfair treatment yet ultimately fails and considers himself "yellow"9 for being incapable of fighting back. This story takes place during a time in Holden's life when he is exploring what it means to become a man. Facing your demons is a crucial rite of passage. Being brave and holding your own in a fight is a very important sign of manhood, especially for someone who is psychologically under siege his whole life. It's a theme that is often pushed in the movies and exaggerated to an unrealistic degree making the expectations of those who watch such movies impossible to live up to. Holden can't realistically go after the pimp with a gun, "holding onto my guts, blood leaking all over the place" (Salinger 104). But that is his impression of a manly way to handle the situation because he was "ruined"10 by the movies. But what we, as observers through the glass case, can read into this that Holden cannot, is that Holden is perhaps the bravest character in this book simply because he refuses to back down on his principles regardless of the overwhelming might of his adversary.

A hallmark of the era in which this book is written is the belief that any child incapable of coping with society must be suffering from a mental disorder11 and requires a specialist to adjust the way he thinks until that child accepts a lifestyle that which he is told to be right. I know of no better definition of conformity. Indeed, Salinger taunts the reader with allusions, both vague and direct, that Holden is in need of such psychoanalytical help. But the distinction between the vague and direct styles of inference forms an important reflection of what is really going on as opposed to what other people perceive to be going on. The reader is tempted to believe that Holden is in a mysterious institution, and often hears him refer to things that drive him crazy12. But it is always something done by other people that is insane, not him. The only person to directly suggest that Holden should seek psychoanalytical help is Carl Luce, who only engages people in intelligent conversation when he can be condescending13 to them, a person whom Holden "once called him a fat-assed phony" (Salinger 137), and admits to having needed psychoanalytical help himself14. But that is the only time such a statement is made. There is nowhere else in the book that directly states anything about needing psychoanalytical help or being put into a mental institution. Most readers with an inempathetic approach to this book, including some critics15, assume that just because Holden doesn't fit into the society around him, he must be crazy and therefore must be in a mental institution. This is, of course, an incorrect assumption as it is stated that he is relating his tale from a hospital where he is getting checkups for his tuberculosis16. Rather, Holden resists fitting into society because he perceives conforming as insane. Holden states his opposition to conformity when he discusses the military: "I do know it'd drive me crazy if I had to be in the Army and be with a bunch of guys like Ackley and Stradlater and old Maurice all the time" (Salinger 140). He goes on to discuss regimentation being what he dislikes most when he mentions his short lived trial at becoming a boy scout, "I was in the Boy Scouts once, for about a week, and I couldn't even stand looking at the back of the guy's neck in front of me. They kept telling you to look at the back of the guy's neck in front of you" (Salinger 140-1), because he finds the notion of being too similar to other people detestable.

Holden's reaction to society is probably what is most alarming to censors and appealing to outcasts. In Holden's speech to Sally on pages 130 through 133, he outlines numerous things he dislikes about his current and prospective life as a normal member of society, and proposes to rebel against such a life by leaving it behind. There is no single quote that can do justice to his feelings without unfairly belittling other parts which are all cumulatively important. Rather, I would name this speech the "Call of the Disenfranchised" because it reaches out to any readers disillusioned by society. When Holden asks, "Did you ever get fed up?" (Salinger 130), it is as if he is directly asking the reader. Anyone responsive to that would likewise be responsive to every "I hate it" (Salinger 130), "It's full of phonies" (Salinger 131), and "I don't get hardly anything out of anything" (Salinger 131) as something to identify with, and cumulatively feel the desire expressed to Sally, "How would you like to get the hell out of here?" (Salinger 132), as if asked of the reader. Holden is denouncing society and proposes to get away from it so he can live life his own way. It is an affront to conformity simply because it sees conformity as an affront to individuality.

Salinger's work stands in the tradition of great works of American fiction, from Huckleberry Finn to The Bill of Rights17, in trying to find, if not define, the individual's place in society. Yet it heralds in a new tradition of classic works to follow, powerful enough to enter our daily vocabulary as with Catch-2218 or The Principia Discordia's ability to found a movement that escapes proper description in our system of language, that challenge the very concept of society and puts forth the notion that it stands in direct conflict with the free choice of individuality.

Holden is acutely aware of himself and his life and is trying to find some salvation in the world around him. But no one he meets wants to listen to him or tries to understand him unless they are out to take advantage of him. It is society that doesn't see him for who he is and what he is going through. Throughout the book, he is constantly searching for someone he can relate to. He is wise enough to see through people's pettiness and façades, which only serves to leave him unhappy with their company and yet strong enough to stand apart from them but never reconciled with how he is supposed to live. He is dissatisfied with what is expected of him and is trying to grow up in his own honest way. The Catcher in the Rye is not about Holden so much as it is about society and its inability to deal with anybody who doesn't follow the crowd and put up a certain front. Society would characterize him as creating his own problems by not playing life by society's rules. I think that in Holden's case, Society creates his problems by imposing rules on life he cannot play by.


  1. The article Mind Games - Social Engineering, a definition of this term, is best summed up in this line: "Social engineering is the art (not an attack) of getting people to comply to your wishes" (Dr. T.).
  2. This is discussed as a continuation of some previous conversation on page 148.
  3. "That's why she was so hot to go. She wanted to see herself in one of those little skirts that just come down over the butt and all" (Salinger 129).
  4. "What he was doing was, he was sitting on the floor right next to the couch, in the dark and all, and he was sort of petting me or patting me on the goddam head" (Salinger 192). It is actually not so important whether this was an actual act of pedophilia, so much as that is how Holden perceived it.
  5. The book opens with "If you really want to hear about it..." (Salinger 1) and starts the conclusion with "That's all I'm going to tell about" (Salinger 213).
  6. "Vinson" Def. "Baby Names". 2003. 19 March 2003.
  7. "I mean it's dirty to keep yelling 'Digression!' at him when he's all nice and excited" (Salinger 184).
  8. "He was enjoying the conversation about tennis and all, but you could tell he would've enjoyed it more if I was a Catholic and all" (Salinger 112-3).
  9. "I'm one of these very yellow guys" (Salinger 88).
  10. "The goddam movies. They can ruin you. I'm not kidding" (Salinger 104).
  11. Hack, Ed. Professor. ENG 151. Class Lecture. 13 February 2003.
  12. "It drives me crazy" (Salinger 86).
  13. "These intellectual guys don't like to have an intellectual conversation with you unless they're running the whole thing" (Salinger 147).
  14. "He's [the psychoanalyst] helped me to adjust myself to a certain extent" (Salinger 148-9).
  15. Holden in the Museum is an alleged critical essay where the author, in his opening salvo, declares no identification with the book. This allows him to make facts out of assumptions, such as "(the asylum he finally finds "out West" is for the insane)" (Seelye 27), without consideration of details to the contrary.
  16. "I have no wind, if you want to know the truth. I'm quite a heavy smoker, for one thing – that is, I used to be. They made me cut it out… That's also how I practically got t.b. and came out here for all these goddam checkups and stuff" (Salinger 5).
  17. What the USA PATRIOT Act Means to You (ACLU) outlines several ways in which The Bill of Rights is completely disregarded.
  18. "Catch-22" Def. "Merriam-Webster Dictionary". 2003. Merriam-Webster Online. 19 March 2003.

Works Cited

© 2003, by Luigi Kapaj
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last updated on December 29, 2003

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