Perhaps the greatest theme of the novel involves the relationship between the pain of actual experience and feeling one's feelings, on the one hand, and on the other hand the equally devastating numbness that comes with shutting down one's emotions in order to avoid suffering. After the death of Allie, Holden essentially shuts down, forcing himself to lose all attachments to people so as never to be hurt again. He repeatedly mentions how important it is not to get attached to anyone, since this will lead to missing them once they are gone. By the end of the novel, he has spiraled so far down with this theory that he has become afraid to even speak to anyone. Phoebe is perhaps the only reminder that Holden still has the capacity to love. When he looks at her, he cannot help but feel the same tortured love that he felt for Allie. Nevertheless, the surges of these feelings leave him even more bereft. He knows he must leave Phoebe to protect himself, but when she shows up to accompany him on his journey, ultimately he puts his love for her first and sacrifices his own instinct to flee in order to return home.
Holden, it seems, is in the throes of an existential crisis. To a great degree he is numb to the pains and joys of life. Unable to come to terms with his brother's death, he has no one to show him the kind of parental or brotherly love that he himself gave Allie. Whenever someone does end up showing him even a hint of such love (such as Mr. Antolini), Holden ends up being disappointed.
Love and Sex
At his core, Holden is a deep, sensitive soul, at bottom unable to sublimate his feelings into numbness. He envies someone like Stradlater, who can simply pick up girls whenever he likes, and who treats sex as a casual pleasure. To Holden, however, sex is deeply discomforting. He cannot have it with girls he likes, and he cannot manage to numb himself enough to treat girls casually. Numbing himself to love, it seems, is Holden's greatest challenge. He feels too deeply about the world, about people, to truly shut down. When he finally does fall in love with Jane Gallagher, he soon discovers that Stradlater has a date with her, which confirms his suspicion that everything he loves eventually deteriorates. He leaves Pencey with some hope of inventing a new identity, but he cannot break out of his being. Even in the presence of a prostitute, he cannot think of having sex, only of having a conversation in the hope of feeling some glimmer of human affection with her. All Holden wants to do is talk, but he cannot find someone who will listen.
Loss of Innocence
Holden must face that fork in the road of adolescence when one realizes that maturity entails a loss of innocence—that greater knowledge of oneself and others and the circumstances all comes with a price. In Holden's case, he cannot bear to accept the death of Allie, the death of pure innocence that had no good reason to suffer or die. In Holden's eyes, Allie is truth, while everyone else is “phony.” Innocence goes with idealism and a certain inability or unwillingness to bear and accept the harsher reality. Holden cannot bear to hold onto his innocence because innocence brings its own harms; people continue to disappoint him. Thus the cost of maturity is much less; innocence has been quite painful, too. Innocence has been problematic: the prostitute demands more money for nothing, the man who takes him in seems like a pedophile, and the cab drivers berate him as stupid when he asks simple questions about the birds in the park. While Allie’s memory can help him preserve his innocence, this is not enough, for he cannot find real love in the outside world.
Besides, losing Allie has brought tremendous pain. Holden also has the common adolescent experience of perceiving that time in school learning mundane lessons feels petty when his entire soul is in flux as it comes to grips with reality. When the entire world around him appears phony, where can he go to grasp hold of some reality, some stable truth? Without an explanation why Allie was taken from him, there appears no reason behind the world's events, and in this respect Holden’s maturity involves a deep loss of innocence such that he perceives that the reality of the world is its very irrationality.
Phoniness vs. Authenticity
Holden labels almost everyone a “phony,” excepting Phoebe, Allie, and himself. In Holden's eyes, a “phony” is someone who embraces the world’s mundane demands and tries to make something out of nothing—that is, just about everyone who studies in school or who puts on airs in order to do a job or achieve a goal. The fact that no one is acknowledging how trivial and fleeting life is, compared with the grand things we tell one another about reality—how difficult it is to truly love and share oneself with people knowing that all, like Allie, will eventually die—causes him to burn with frustration, even rage. Holden understands on some level one of the most profound truths of mortal life: the superficial matters little because it will not last, yet it is made to seem so much more important. Meanwhile, all around him, he must watch superficial people win honors through their artifice. He thus holds his deepest contempt for those who succeed as phonies: Stradlater, the Headmaster, and all the boys who treat school as if it is a club to be ruled by Social Darwinism. All Holden wants is some authentic living, to hold on to someone like Phoebe or Allie who knows nothing of the world’s superficiality and therefore is not tainted by it, but he is afraid to make it too real out of the justified fear of one day losing them forever.
Life and Death
A key part of Holden’s emotional life involves his reaction to Allie’s death. People live for a while, but all too soon we all die. Allie did not choose it, but Holden thinks about James Castle, a skinny boy who jumped out the window at school and fell to his death. Holden himself entertains thoughts of a similar suicide. The decision to numb himself to his feelings about life is a decision to shut himself down emotionally so much that he is no longer truly living. It is a decision, however, that remains fundamentally impossible for Holden. When he thinks about James Castle, he cannot bear to imagine James just laying there amidst the stone and blood, with no one picking him up.
Holden might see some romance in suicide and some comfort in the idea that it ends internal pain, but death does seem worse, the ultimate loneliness. He seen the effects of death on the living as well. He thus cannot do to Phoebe what Allie has done to them already.
He plods on, only sure that he must gradually wean himself away from Phoebe so that she gets used to losing him forever--and so that he gets used to being away from her. Though Holden needs closeness and love in order to renew his life, he keeps driving himself further away from it in order to avoid the inevitable loss. The more he wants to experience life, the more antisocial he becomes and the more he imagines death. This paradox is part of Holden’s life: there is pain in shutting down one's feelings, and there is pain in the risk of opening oneself up again. He impossibly tries to avoid pains that are inevitable for human mortals while they live.
Lack of Authority Figures
Holden is profoundly alone. His parents are absent except for insisting that he progress along a conventional path and stay in school as long as he can before he is kicked out or tires of each institution. His parents do not let him regroup but send him off to the next school. At Pencey, Holden finds no adult to trust with his feelings; most people everywhere are phony. Some adults even seem so selfish that they are willing to abuse children. Overall, Holden views adults with intense disappointment, even cynicism. How is it that the older they get, the farther from authenticity they get? Meanwhile, the gradual deterioration of the body disgusts him. Upon visiting an old professor, much of his thoughts are dedicated to the awfulness of the old man's body. There is no allure in growing older.
Authority does not seem related to wisdom, either. Adults tell Holden to find direction and thus stability, but he views such advice as both suspicious and naïve; playing such a game is inauthentic. Going his own way autonomously, as a law unto himself, does not work out so well either, so it is unclear where Holden might find legitimate authority.
Holden is very lonely, and his adolescent loneliness seems to run much deeper than the feelings so commonly felt at that age. He admits to his loneliness openly, and it gives him evidence that perhaps he might still have some emotions left. At the same time, Holden takes few steps to mitigate his loneliness. Whenever he feels the urge to meet someone, to call up a girl, to have a social experience, he ends up sabotaging it before he can get hurt. He thus protects himself so fully that he effectively shuts off any possibilities of alleviating his own loneliness. He might want to call Jane, for example, but he hangs up before she gets on the phone. He might want to sleep with a prostitute to feel human comfort, but this will not do. He might want to interact with friends at a bar, but he ends up saying something hurtful so that they abandon him. Pushing them away provides a deeper and deeper loneliness, but at these moments of choice he is willing to endure it rather than eventually face the ultimate, devastating loneliness of losing another person like Allie.
The Catcher in the Rye Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Catcher in the Rye is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.