Holden Caulfield–Whimpering Little Phony

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Holden Caulfield–Whimpering Little Phony


Holden Caulfield endeared himself to the anti-socializers of all ages because he went right into the lion’s cage–all those phonies!–without liking anything of what he relentlessly described.

Alfred Kazin‘s America (250)

As Erik Erikson noted, adolescents are often deeply concerned with notions of identity. This preoccupation commonly manifests itself in decisions teens make regarding music and fashion. For many young people, life is a constant struggle to remain ahead of the curve, rejecting bands and fashions they have discovered as soon as they become popular. Authenticity is a key component of this phenomenon, as adolescents of all ages feel so betrayed when a band that they like “sells out” by making any sort of changes in their music or overall presentation which might enable them to attract a larger audience. (Death or glory becomes just another story)

The adolescent quest for authenticity has no greater (and certainly no more enduring) spokesman than Holden Caulfield, J.D. Salinger’s incessantly complaining hero from The Catcher in the Rye. For generations, this clarion castigator of the Great Phoniness of it All has attracted “armies of young people who gratefully see themselves in The Catcher in the Rye” (Kazin 248). What often goes unheeded by Caulfield’s admirers (though certainly not by Caulfield himself) is the fact that he is just as dishonest and insincere as all the phonies he admonishes throughout his brief sojourn back to the mean streets of Manhattan.

For the soon-to-be-institutionalized Holden Caulfield, the game of life has been intentionally rigged against him:

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 (12-13).


This is a peculiar outlook for someone as wellborn as Caulfield
. Most of his contemporaries would consider Holden Caulfield–with his wealthy parents who send him to the finest schools and supply him with ample spending money–to be one of the hot-shots. Caulfield’s acute egocentrism inhibits him from stepping outside of his rather comfortable situation long enough to ponder how relatively fortunate he is.

For almost three-hundred pages, this whining, self-absorbed narcissist goes on and on about everyone else’s problems. (Nothing is ever really Holden’s fault. He can’t help the fact that the world is overpopulated with a bunch of goddam phonies).

One of the biggest reasons I left Elkton Hills was because I was surrounded by phonies….For instance, they had this headmaster, Mr. Haas, that was one of the phoniest bastards I ever saw in my life (19).

And later when his kid sister admonishes Holden for dropping out of yet another school, he whines:

“Oh, God, Phoebe, don’t ask me that. I’m sick of everybody asking me that,” I said. “A million reasons why. It was one of the worst schools I ever went to. It was full of phonies” (217).

But the most interesting thing about Caulfield is that he is quick to point out that he’s just as much of a hypocrite as anyone. (Oddly, this doesn’t seem to deter the legions of young people who find him so compelling.)

Caulfield freely admits that he’s “the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life” (22). When a potential date asks Holden if he is “from Princeton,” he replies, “Well, approximately” (84). And when a nice old lady tells him that Pencey is a “very good school,” he declines to demur. “Even if I’d wanted to, I wouldn’t have had the strength to straighten her out” (260). So there’s one loophole: it’s only ok to be a hypocrite when your name is Holden Caulfield

When Holden strikes up a conversation on a train with a woman he describes as “about forty or forty-five, but she was very good-looking,” he decides against telling her the truth about her son Ernie, “Who was doubtless the biggest bastard that ever went to Pencey, in the whole crumby history of the school” (70, 71). Caulfield freely admits that he “really started chucking the old crap around”( 73). His excuse for this supreme act of phoniness: “The thing is, though, I liked old Murrow’s mother.” (72).

But Caulfield is less honest with himself when he makes up a lie to get away from the almost preternaturally annoying Lillian and her “Navy guy” boyfriend: “After I told her I had to meet someone, I didn’t have any goddam choice except to [leave]…People are always ruining it for you” (114).

But nobody forced Caulfield to say he “had to meet someone.” It was merely the most expedient way to rid himself of unwanted company. He could have simply told the couple the truth, that he didn’t want to sit with them, but that would have been unkind. So he chooses to blame them for the fact that he is just as phony as anyone else in the story.

But I don’t find Caulfield’s hypocrisy nearly so annoying as his perpetual complaining. (I can hear you thinking, “Relax, he’s just a fictional character” or “Don’t you realize that the dude is in a mental hospital?”) Fictional or otherwise, I have a far greater tolerance for guys who choose a life of quiet desperation than those who opt for the whimpering variety. This is probably because I was raised to believe that men who complain too much just aren’t Scandinavian enough.

by Richard W. Bray

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One Response to “Holden Caulfield–Whimpering Little Phony”

  1. An Effective Title-Writing Strategy for Academic Papers « Laughter hope sock in the eye's Blog Says:

    […] What’s the Matter with Kids these Days?, Part 473—It’s all about the Music, Man Holden Caulfield–Whimpering Little Phony […]

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