The Catcher in the Rye as a Novel of Escape

Holden Caulfield is the representative American postwar hero cast in the image of a New York adolescent coming to terms with a world where everything is 'phony' that makes him 'puke'.

Jerome David Salinger

Salinger lifelong obsession with this big-city boy who is expelled from Pencey Prep (he has been expelled from a few other schools earlier also) makes Holden Caulfield a sort of misfit in society. Except for his elder brother D.B. who has sold his soul to Hollywood movies and prostituted himself (like Salinger had done with his aborted Hollywood film), his dead younger brother Allie and his younger sister "old Phoebe", Holden does not seem to connect with anything else as he unfolds his experiences of two days after he is expelled from Pencey Prep for failing in four subjects out of five. He is at a loose end. He leaves for New York, where he proposes to spend the interim between Saturday and Wednesday when the Christmas holidays begin and his parents would have received the headmaster's letter expelling him. He comes across a lot more phonies than he had encountered at Pencey Prep. He visits old friends and teachers, dates Sally Hayes, calls up old flame Jane Gallagher, and has an unsuccessful date with a prostitute at a New York hotel. The world, for Holden Caulfield, is full of flits, perverts and jerks. Their actions make him puke. In a bid to escape this world, he decides to go west where he plans to live in a log cabin and spend the rest of his days. But the emotional pull of his younger sister Phoebe draws him back to civilization and he lands up on a psychiatrist's couch. The experience is unsettling for the sixteen-year-old who vicariously lives out Salinger's own adolescence and youth.

The bewilderment and frustration with the existing society turns Holden Caulfield into a cynic in a world full of "phony slobs'', including his headmaster at school, "old Spencer", his history teacher, his roommates Ackley and Stradlater. Holden is a heavy smoker and drinker at such a young age and his efforts to act as a grown-up are met with a solid wall by all sections of society he comes across. He is a great fibber, a compulsive liar (just for the heck of it), a fantasizer (when he is punched by Stradlater, he imagines that the six bullets of a pistol have been pumped into his stomach), but a sentimentalist when it comes to D.B., Allie and Phoebe. He is a child of his times who wishes to escape the stifling atmosphere around him. And it is this attitude which gives him a 'cult' status in postwar American fiction. Holden Caulfield is all about growing up in America in the 1940s and thereafter. He is a typical big-city boy struggling to come to terms with his environment and having failed to do so, thinks of an escape from civilization like Huck Finn. His idea of escape is outlined to Sally Hayes:

"Look,"I said. "Here's my idea. How would you like to get hell out of here? Here's my idea. I know this big guy down in Greenwich Village that we can borrow his car for a couple of weeks. He used to go to the same school I did and he still owes me ten bucks. What we could do is, tomorrow morning we could drive up to Massachusetts and Vermont, and all around there, see. It’s beautiful as hell up there. It really is. I was getting excited as hell, the more I thought of it, and I sort of reached over and took old Sally’s goddam hand. What a goddamn fool I was." "No kidding", I said. "I have about a hundred and eighty bucks in the bank. I can take it out when it opens in the morning, and then I would go down and get this guy's car. No kidding. We'll stay in these cabin camps and stuff like that till the dough runs out. Then, when the dough runs out, I could get a job somewhere and we could live somewhere with a brook and all and, later on, we could get married or something. I could chop all our own wood in the wintertime and all. Honest to God, we could have a terrific time! Wudday say? C'mon! Will you do it with me? Please."

Sally, of course, finds the idea preposterous as "we're both practically children. And did you ever stop to think what you'd do if you didn't get a job when your money ran out? We'd starve to death. The whole thing's so fantastic."

Sally's refusal depresses Holden and she hits "the ceiling". The resolve is firmed after his experience with the homosexual teacher Mr. Antolini. Holden finally decides to leave New York in order to escape the 'phony' world. When he writes a note to Phoebe to meet him for the last time after school:

I thought how it might be the last time I'd ever see her (Phoebe) again. Any of my relatives, I mean. I figured I'd probably see them again, but not for years. I might come home when I was about thirty-five, in case somebody got sick and wanted to see me before they died, but that would be the only reason I'd leave my cabin and come back. I even started picturing how it would be when I came back. I knew my mother's get nervous as hell and start to cry and beg me to stay home and not go back to my cabin, but I'd go anyway. I'd be casual as hell. I'd make her calm down, and then I'd go over to the side of the living room and take out this cigarette case and light a cigarette, cool as all hell. I'd ask them all to visit me summertime and on Christmas vacation and Easter vacation. And I'd let D.B. Come out and visit me for a while if he wanted a nice, quiet place for his writing, but he couldn't write any movies in my cabin, only stories and books: l'd have this rule that nobody could do anything phony when they visited me. If anybody tried to do anything phony, they couldn’t stay."

Of course, Holden does not make it. He can't escape the phony world when Phoebe tugs at his heartstrings and insists on accompanying him. He goes home and the rest in a blur because he says:

"That's all I'm going to tell about. I could probably tell you what I did after I went home, and how I got sick and all, and what school I'm supposed to go to next fall, after I get out of here, but I don't feel like it. I really don't. That stuff doesn't interest me too much right now...I mean how do you know what you're going to do till you do it? The answer is you don't. I think I am, but now do I know? I swear it’s a stupid question."

Thus, end the adventures of Holden Caulfield, who is desperately trying to escape from a 'well-ordered' society because he finds himself out of place there. For all we know, The Catcher in the Rye may well be the last novel of escape in American fiction. It captures the disillusionment, frustration and the resultant cynicism of the great American Dream gone sour.