Questions for Exploring the Novel

1. Comprehension and Interpretation

J.D. Salinger’s classic novel about a troubled adolescent came out in 1951 and soon became famous around the world. Most educated people have read it and while other books have dealt with similar themes since, The Catcher in the Rye remains a particularly poignant work. Nearly half a century later, the schoolboy slang of the central character has dated, but little else has. Holden’s problems are somehow painfully his own, but recognisably those of teenagers who begin to think really seriously about who they are and what they want out of life.

The following questions will help guide your reading and understanding of the novel before you study it in detail. Choose from Section 1, Section 2 or Section 3.

Section 1

Chapters 1—12

1. How has Holden ruined the day for the fencing team?

2. Does Holden’s opinion of Mr Spencer go up or down during his visit? Why?

3. What had Holden purchased in New York City?

4. What sort of person is Ackley?

5. What sort of person is Stradlater?

6. How does Holden react to his discovery of the identity of Stradlater’s date? Why?

7. How does Holden carry out his second promise to Stradlater?

8. Why does Holden take a punch at Stradlater?

9. Why is Holden crying when he leaves Pencey?

10. What lies does Holden tell Mrs Morrow on the train?

11. Who is Hazel Weatherfield?

12. Are Holden’s memories of Jane Gallagher good or bad? Why?

13. What does Holden think of all the people (including Ernie himself) in Ernie’s Bar?

Chapters 13—20

14. What happens to Holden in the elevator back in the hotel?

15. How does Holden feel when he’s talking to Sunny, and how much does he pay her?

16. Is Holden religious? Explain

17. After Maurice slugs him, what does Holden fantasise?

18. How does Holden feel about the two nuns at the lunch counter?

19. What is a little boy singing as he walks down the street? How does the song make Holden feel?

20. Why does Holden like the roller-skating girl?

21. Does Holden go in to the museum? Explain.

22. After the ice skate and rest, what does Holden suggest to Sally? Why?

23. What was (and still is) Luce’s advice to Holden?

24. Who is finally kind to Holden?

25. What accident happened to Holden on his way to Central Park?

26. What did Holden think about as he sat by the pond in the park?

Chapters 21—26

27. How does Holden feel when he looks at Phoebe sleeping?

28. What question does Holden keep repeating to Phoebe?

29. What discovery does Phoebe soon intuitively make?

30. Explain what one thing Holden says he’d like to be?

31. What does Holden remember best about Mr Antolini?

32. As Holden is leaving, what do he and Phoebe give each other?

33. What does Mr Antolini predict lies ahead for Holden?

34. What does Holden worry about after he wakes up later in Grand Central Station?

35. What does Holden find “spooky”when he’s walking down Fifth Avenue?

36. What is Holden’s latest escapist plan?

37. How does Holden react to the obscenities he sees on the walls?

38. Why is Phoebe lugging a suitcase with her?

39. At the carousel, how do Holden and Phoebe show that they really do love each other?

40. Where is Holden at the end of the story?

Section 2

1. Holden often asks people, usually strangers, to let him buy them a drink (Chapters 12, 16). Why do you think he does this?

2. Explain the significance of Holden’s “spendthrift” attitude towards money.

3. What is it that Holden likes so much about the following:
    (a) Allie (Ch.5)?
    (b) Jane (Ch.7)?
    (c) Phoebe (Ch.21)?

4. What is Holden’s attitude towards girls, and what does this attitude say about him?

5. How is this attitude extended to women: (a) his mother? (b) Mrs Marrow? (c) the nuns?

6. What is Holden’s attitude towards religion, and what does this attitude say about him?

7. In what ways does Holden regard the following as phoney and insincere:
    (a) Ackley (Ch.3)?
    (b) Stradlater (Ch.4)?
    (c) the people at Ernies (Ch.12)?
    (d) sexual relationships (Ch.13)?
    (e) ministers (Ch.14)?
    (f) Sally Hayes (Ch.15)?
    (g) actors (ch.16)?
    (h) the crowd at the interval of “I Know My Love” (Ch.7)?
    (i) the film at Radio City (Ch.18)?
    (j) funerals (Ch.20)?

8. What does Holden’s continual use of such expressions as “goddamn” and “crumby” reveal about his attitude to life?

9. Holden has several experiences which reinforce his disillusionment with life and people. Discuss with reference to the following:
    (a) his visit to Mr Spencer (Ch.2)
    (b) his fight with Stradlater over Jane (Ch.6)
    (c) his night with the prostitute (Ch.13)
    (d) his fight with Maurice (Ch.14)
    (e) his night at the theatre with Sally (Ch.16)
    (f) his school days (Ch.22)
    (g) the episode with Mr Antolini (Chs. 24, 25)
    (h) the writing on the wall (Ch.25)

10. Holden claims he was a terrific liar and he frequently does tell lies (Chs 8, 10). In your view, why does he do this?

11. To what extent does Holden attempt to deceive himself and others? Discuss with reference to:
      (a) his lies
      (b) his approaches to older women
      (c) his escapism
      (d) the self-image he tried to project

12. What is Holden’s attitude to his parents and his older brother?

13. Explain the significance of literature and the arts in Holden’s life.

14. Holden explains to Phoebe why he wanted to be a “catcher in the rye” (Ch.22). Explain how this was significant in relation to:
      (a) the death of James Castle (Ch.22)
      (b) his need to see Mr Antolini
      (c) his frightening experience on Fifth Avenue (Ch.25)
      (d) his search for identity

15. When does Holden abandon his dream to become a “catcher in the rye”? Refer to:
      (a) his attempts to erase obscenities from walls
      (b) the carousel scene

16. Discuss the symbolic significance of the following:
      (a) the red hunting cap
      (b) the museum
      (c) the ducks on Central Park lake
      (d) the carousel
      (e) Allie’s baseball mitt
      (f) New York

Section 3

  1. A careful reading of the first page tells us where Holden is as he tells the story, and what has happened to bring him here. Where is he, and why?

  2. The story proper starts the day he leaves Pencey Prep (Preparatory School — an exclusive private boarding school). What is his situation at the school, and his attitude towards it?

  3. “Life is a game”, says teacher Mr Spencer (p.13). What is Holden’s cynical private view of his conventional wisdom?

  4. Holden’s contempt for “phonies” comes out strongly as he listens to old Spencer’s advice and thinks about some of the people at his various schools. What is a phoney, and why does it depress him so much?

  5. Stradlater represents the sort of person Holden might aspire to be. Yet Holden detests him. Why?

  6. The descriptive essay written for Stradlater turns out to be about Allie’s baseball mitt. It introduces something terribly important into our understanding of Holden. What is revealed here?

  7. Among other confusions, Holden’s attitude towards sex is interesting (see page 66, and also Chapter 10). What conflict is he experiencing, and what does it suggest about him?

  8. In Chapter 10, Holden mentions his sister Phoebe. Like Allie, she is important to him. What qualities in Phoebe does he so admire?

  9. Holden’s encounter with Sunny the prostitute is also revealing. What does it tell us about him?

  10. The nuns he meets are a refreshing change for Holden after all the “phonies” in New York. What does he like about them?

  11. The boy singing the catcher song (p.121) is what gives the book its title. What does this boy seem to have that Holden finds so attractive?

  12. Also in Chapter 16 is Holden’s comment about why he likes museums, and what he wishes for so far as time is concerned (p.128). How do you understand this?

  13. What do you make of Holden’s fantasy of getting away with Sally (pp.137-138)?

  14. The Christmas Show is yet another example of what pet dislike of Holden’s?

  15. In Holden’s night of despair (when he gets drunk and goes to Central Park to sit by the frozen pond) he returns to the subject of Allie. What is it about this recollection that sums up his concerns?

  16. When Phoebe asks him to name one thing he likes, his answer is revealing. In what way?

  17. At last his yearnings are focused when he tells Phoebe he wants to be a “catcher in the rye” (pp.179-180). What does he mean by this?

  18. Although Mr Antolini gives sound advice, his gesture shatters Holden’s last shred of trust. How?

  19. What is Holden’s last fantasy (p.205ff), and how realistic is it?

  20. It seems that Phoebe’s involvement in Holden’s fantasy provokes a change in him. That, together with the final scene at the carousel, are very important in understanding how he manages to cope. What do you make of these changes in him?

2. Chapter Analyses

The following questions may be undertaken individually or in small groups and presented to the class for discussion.
Group 1: Chapters 1 to 5
Describe the author’s writing style — is it an effective manner of presenting the story or not?
On the first page, Holden tells us where he is as he tells the story, and what has happened to bring him here. Where is he and why?
What do we learn about Holden’s parents and brother in the introductory comments, as well as what he is saying about Hollywood?
What do the opening chapters reveal about Holden’s personality? How do they provide initial understanding of Holden’s discontent and isolation, and assist us in trying to work out whether Holden is either:
• A likeable and idealistic rebel worthy of admiration, or
• A self-indulgent, failed and neurotic misfit?
The story proper starts the day Holden leaves Pencey Preparatory School (an exclusive private boarding school). What is his situation at the school, and his attitude towards it? Consider:
• The several “phoney” relationships Holden refers to at Pencey (e.g. Mr Haas, Mr Spencer, Stradlater, Ackley).
• Holden’s attitude towards the competitive spirit at the school, as well as his dislike of corruption in both the adolescent and adult worlds there.
• Holden’s cynical private view of Mr Spencer’s conventional wisdom about life being a game: (what does their lack of communication tell us about their relationship?).
• Holden’s reaction to Stradlater’s sexual interest in Jane Gallagher. (What is revealed here about Holden’s sense of morality?; what evidence is there of Holden’s “virginal loneliness” through his references to sexuality?; what does Holden’s attitude towards sex suggest about him and the conflict he is experiencing?).
• Holden’s references to his concern for the Central Park ducks in New York (what could they symbolise?; what could Holden’s sympathy for them illustrate?; is Holden almost identifying with the ducks?).

Consider Holden’s contempt for “phoneys” as he listens to Mr. Spencer’s advice and thinks about several people at his various schools.
• What is Holden drawing our attention to through his recurring references to “phoneys and phoniness” in the novel? (what disliked aspects of the society that Holden comes into contact with are being condemned by the term?; why is Holden so depressed by the concept of “phoniness”?.
• How could the concepts of “phoniness” be the key to Holden’s world and breakdown?
• Consider the relevance of Salinger’s observations in the novel about “phoniness” in the 1950’s to our society in the 1990’s (are people more or less “phoney” today?).

Comment on the possible relation between Holden’s violent reaction to the death of his young brother Allie and his remark that “I’m seventeen now, and sometimes I act like I’m about thirteen”.
Evaluate the genuineness of Holden’s professing to really care for others, to reach for humane values. How believable, moving and impressive is Salinger’s portrait of an apparently sensitive, troubled, lonely and depressed teenager at a crisis point in his adolescence?
• With whom do Holden’s sympathies essentially lie?
• To what extent and for what reasons, does Holden deserve censure because of his apparent disinclination to apply himself and because of his under-achievements at various schools?
• Holden says that he greatly values honesty and integrity but does he sometimes (often?) exhibit the “phoniness” he condemns in others?
• Whatever his failings, did Holden always keep your sympathy as a character?
• Try to account for Holden’s running away from yet another school (Pencey), and seeming to be so lonely, depressed and alienated. What was his problem? Why does he instinctively reject society?
Group 2: Chapters 6 to 10
Stradlater represents the sort of person Holden might aspire to yet he detests him — why?
The descriptive essay written for Stradlater turns out to be about Allie’s baseball glove — to what extent does this introduce something important into our understanding of Holden? (what is revealed here?).
Explain the reason for Holden going to Ackley’s room; what is revealed about Holden?
• What sort of things are on Holden’s mind when he wakes Ackley to ask: “What’s the routine on joining a monastery?”.
• Holden is constantly expressing how “sorry” he feels for others like Ackley (or his mother and Sunny). Is this evidence of an undiscriminating universal “love” for his fellowman or a degree of condescension? (i.e. feeling “sorry” for someone necessarily evidence of “loving” that person?).
How successfully does Holden handle the crisis he meets in these chapters? Is his first venture into the adult world a happy one?
• Is Holden’s flight from Pencey to New York further evidence of an element of selfishness and immaturity? (is he avoiding responsibility to himself and his family or not?). Is Holden demonstrating a total lack of discretion and self-motivation?
• In some ways is his behaviour illustrating that he shares the “phoney” characteristics he criticises in others?
• On the train to New York, Holden lies more and more outrageously to Mrs Morrow. To what extent could it be argued that his motives are ’mixed’? (that is, they’re not just selfish?).
Explain the reason for Holden again mentioning the Central Park ducks (this time to the New York taxi driver).
Why does Holden consider that Stradlater would have been King of the New York hotel he books into?
What details indicate how lonely Holden is feeling in New York following his arrival there from Pencey? What seems to be the reason for his increasing depression, cynicism and frustration during his impulsive drifting from one acquaintance to another in new York bars and restaurants.
To what extent is there a degree of spoilt ‘poor little rich boy’ phoniness in the way Holden spends money recklessly in expensive New York bars, restaurants and taxis?
In Chapter 10, Holden mentions his sister Phoebe. Like Allie, she is obviously important to him.
• What qualities in Phoebe does Holden so admire? Why is she always regarded by Holden as a contrast to “phoneys”?
• What does Holden’s love for the honesty and innocence of children (especially Phoebe) reveal about his:
— dread of change?
— possibly unconscious resistance to growing up, leaving behind his own childhood and becoming an adult?
— attitude towards the values of adult society?
Evaluate how the positive attraction for Holden of the innocence of the pre-adolescent world contrasts with his feeling that growing up involves a loss of the honesty and innocence characteristic of children:
• does Holden see this world being a better model of values than that of his peers and adults?
• why does Holden seem repelled by the values of adult society?
• does Holden consider that becoming an adult compromises one’s integrity to survive in a fundamentally “phoney” society?.
Group 3: Chapters 11 to 15
Why do you think Holden’s thoughts revert at this point to Jane Gallagher and Stradlater?
What is the significance of Jane’s leaving the Kings in the back row when she played checkers (draughts) with Holden? (would she still do so?).
How almost childlike (pure?) does Holden’s relationship with Jane seem to be?
If Holden hadn’t been feeling so “crazy” (depressed?) during his impulsive drifting in New York between various bars and restaurants would he have become co-involved with Sunny the prostitute and Maurice?
• How does the incident typify his predicament in general?
• What does Holden’s encounter with Sunny reveal about him?
• To what extent is Holden’s encounter with the prostitute — humorous or sad?
• How did Holden’s conversation with the taxi driver Horwitz set the mood for his evening at a New York nightclub (was the encounter a bit like a Woody Allen comedy or not?).
Comment on Holden’s further reference in Chapter 12 to the Central Park ducks. Why is he so persistent about them?
One of Holden’s objections to the Disciples of Jesus is that they were picked at random. Do you think Holden really understands the message of Jesus? Relate this to his fair-mindedness (excessive?) and his apparent timidity at times (e.g. not being in the mood to ring Jane Gallagher).
The nuns Holden meets seem a refreshing change for him after his encounters with all the “phoneys” in New York. What does he like about them?
Consider Holden’s attitude to the issue of the suitcases. What is revealed here of his attitudes?
What does Holden tell us about his attitudes to life, morality and religion in his meetings with Horwitz, Ernie, Sunny and Maurice?
8. Twice in Chapter 15 Holden showed protectiveness towards adults — towards his mother (over his latest expulsion from school) and towards the two nuns (whom he thinks might be embarrassed by a close discussion of Romeo and Juliet).
• What does Holden’s concern reveal about him?
• To what extent is his protectiveness misplaced?
Group 4: Chapters 16 to 20
How important is Chapter 16 in showing us the real Holden under the brashness, immaturity and insecurity we have seen so much of?
• Consider his references to the boy singing the catcher song (this is what gives the novel its title). What does this boy seem to have that Holden finds so attractive?
• Consider Holden’s attitude to children and the world of the young.
• Discuss the difference in how Holden feels when in the company of children and when he is with his peers, parents and adults.

To what extent and for what reasons does Holden seem unwilling to act his age?
• What could Holden fear about growing up and leaving behind his own childhood?
• What are the values of adult society Holden seems repelled by — in what ways does Holden see children providing a better model of values than his peers or adults?

Consider Holden’s attitude towards movies, particularly his discomfort with actors. To what extent could actors remind him of how insubstantial he feels sometimes?
Consider Holden’s comment about why he likes the Museum and what he wishes for as far as time is concerned. To what extent can we relate Holden’s liking of a museum for its un-changingness to his feeling (mentioned twice) of nearly “disappearing”?
• Examine Holden’s memories of previous visits to the Museum (why doesn’t he want them disturbed?).
• To what extent could Holden’s liking of the Museum for its un-changingness suggest his dread of change, an unconscious resistance to becoming adult and leaving behind his own childhood?
• To what extent does the innocence of the pre-adolescent world still have a positive attraction for you, as it so obviously did for Holden?
• To what extent has Holden idealised his brother Allie? (in Holden’s memory, Allie always remains innocent and un-corrupted by adult society).
To what extent do you see a connection between Holden’s dislike of “phoneys” and his suggestion to Sally Hayes that they go and live in the woods together? (Is there any indication that even Holden sees this fantasy of hiding away from the world as being essentially false?).
Carl Luce seems to be a rather unsavoury person.
• What do you suppose was Holden’s state of mind when arranging to meet him?
• What is it afterwards?
• Holden asks Luce to have another drink because he, Holden, is “lonesome as hell”.
• What else of Holden’s personality is revealed in Chapter 19?
• What do Holden’s questions to Luce relate to earlier in the novel?
What is it about Holden’s recollection of Allie when he gets drunk and goes to Central park to sit by the frozen pond (his night of despair?) that sums up his concerns?
It seems clear that Holden is depressed in Chapter 20 and he reacts in a way that we have got to know. Trace the steps in this chapter.
Freezing and unwell, Holden decides at last to “sneak home” to see his sister Phoebe. Comment on the reasons why Holden regards her as his closest friend.
Group 5: Chapters 21 to 26
Predicably, Holden is so pleased to be back with Phoebe that he hardly cares whether his parents catch him at home — but what hasn’t he reckoned on?
• Holden is always worried about the “phoney” aspect of people’s lives — is he exaggerating the point when he discusses his father?
What point is Holden making about the words of the song that make the title of the novel?
• In Chapter 22 we learn the dream-like meaning of his “catcher in the rye” fantasy — what is its connection with the death of his brother Allie? (perhaps re-read Chapter 5).
• In his self-perceived role of saviour and preserver of the idealised innocence of children, what does Holden see himself protecting children from as far as adult society is concerned?
• Phoebe is aware of Holden’s image being based on a misunderstanding of the Burns poems. Is this something Holden will have to eventually come to terms with? — does Holden reconcile “meeting” people with “catching” people?
• When Phoebe asks Holden to name one thing he likes, what is revealing about his answer?
Holden finds himself crying again in Chapter 23 (see also Chapters 7 & 20) — suggest reasons.
The teacher Mr. Antolini seems a fundamentally kind person (certainly more astute about life than the elderly Mr. Spencer whom Holden consulted in Chapter 2?), However, after drinking with some of his wife’s friends he ends up behaving in a way that understandably terrifies Holden.
• What is the importance of Chapter 24 in the novel? What upsets Holden so much here?
• Although Mr. Antolini gives sound advice, his gesture appears to shatter Holden’s last shred of trust. How?
• To what extent does Holden succeed in preserving his innocence despite various attempts on his part and the part of others, to lose it.
How realistic is Holden’s last fantasy? (Chapter 26)
• Suggest how Phoebe has influenced Holden’s change of mind when he concedes that children must be allowed to grow up and face an imperfect, dangerous, “phoney” world.
• Phoebe’s involvement in Holden’s fantasy seems to have made him realise that it’s impossible and unrealistic to protect children from “falling off the cliff”, that children will inevitably come into contact with the world of experience (he will also?) and will have to learn to cope with it. That, together with the final scene at the carousel (merry-go-round) are very important in understanding how Holden manages to cope with unpleasant truths he’s tried to avoid.
• What do you make of these changes in him?
In the final chapter Holden recognises that “About all I know is, I sort of miss everybody I told about”. What do you think Holden has gained and lost by the end of the novel?. Consider:
• How Holden has benefited from his recent experiences by writing about what happened to him (to what extent has he fulfilled Mr. Antolini’s view that someone who is gifted but morally/spiritually troubled needs to keep a record of their troubles for others to learn from.
• Whether there has been a fairly consistent commitment by Holden to sincerity (how successfully has he, despite his failings and problems, to dissociate himself from “phoney”.
• The degree to which Holden has demonstrated a great deal of moral courage, and retained your sympathy.
• How successfully Holden has tried to retain the child in himself while trying to develop the self-confidence needed to press on with life and face emerging adulthood.
How confident are you that Holden will be able to summon the degree of self-acceptance needed to “set the ball rolling?
• How successful will Holden be in developing the greater ‘team spirit’ that could bring greater respect and support from others?
In describing Holden’s experience, is Salinger suggesting that we either:
• totally reject an immoral society? or,
• accept an immoral society at the expense of compromising our values?
• To what extent does the novel suggest that it will be possible for Holden to maintain his integrity while at the same time belonging to an imperfect, “phoney” society?

3. Deep Questions

Questions on character

  1. How well does the author portray minor teenage characters in the book? Mention Sally, Ackley, Stradlater and Luce.

  2. How are women portrayed in the book? Mention Mrs Antolini, the various mothers, the nuns, Sunny.

  3. Write a character study of Phoebe. Does the fact that she is the only person Holden can turn to have any effect on your perception of her?

  4. Which aspects of Holden’s personality do you find most sympathetic, and which do you find annoying?

  5. How far do you think that Holden brought his breakdown upon himself, and how much do you think was related to factors beyond his control?

Questions on themes

  1. It has been said that the dominant theme of The Catcher in the Rye is Holden’s search for love. Discuss the various types of love in the novel.  

  2. Discuss the theme of religion in the book. It occurs in various forms, such as the nuns, the idea of joining a monastery, the Christmas show. Why is it so often mentioned?

  3. There are several recurring symbols in the book; the ducks, the red hat, the record and of course the Catcher in the Rye himself. What is the purpose of these ideas, and how are they connected or reflected elsewhere?

  4. Describe the function of the museum in the novel.

  5. What are the various aspects of society that Holden is in conflict with?

  6. Do you consider Holden’s obsession with phoneys to be extreme?

  7. Although much of the book is funny, Holden lacks humour. Do you agree?

Questions on structure

  1. The Catcher in the Rye is a picaresque novel, in which the hero has many experiences in the course of a journey. Would it make any difference, in your opinion, if the episodes with Sally and Luce or Mr Antolini had been placed in a different order?

  2. The structure of the novel is circular, in that the ending is mentioned in the initial chapter. Does this have any effect on the reader’s perception of Holden’s experiences?

  3. The novel ends without appearing to resolve Holden’s conflicts. Why did Salinger not finish it off more satisfyingly?

  4. The interviews with Mr Spencer and Mr Antolini are remarkably similar in several ways; one beginning and one ending the book. In what ways do they differ?

  5. Do you, like Holden, enjoy digressions? What is the purpose of the astonishing number of digressions in the book? Are there some we could have done without?

Questions on language

  1. What difference would it make to the book if it were written in the Australian idiom? Would the character of Holden be any more or less credible?

  2. Do you consider that there is too much use of obscene language in the book? Why did Salinger include so much?

  3. This book has been hailed as an authentic rendering of teenage American speech of the nineteen-fifties. Do you find it very dated? Are there any areas that you find difficulty in understanding? Is it now just a historical document?

  4. Some of Holden’s remarks are witty: many are clichéd. Give examples of his imaginative use of simile, and his creation of expressive words. Look also for his occasional use of clich6 in imaginative terms.

  5. There are many instances of poor grammar throughout the book. Is there a pattern to this, or does it occur at random?

4. Style: Understanding the Author’s Linguistic Structures and Features

Holden Caulfield as narrator

Narrated in the first person by Holden Caulfield from a psychiatric care institution, The Catcher in the Rye is told in flashbacks through a series of chronologically ordered episodes and some ‘digressions’. On the suggestion of Mr Antolini, his former English teacher, that “… many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are now … some of them kept records of their troubles” (Ch.24), Holden writes a stream-of-consciousness style self-reflection on “this madman stuff that happened to me” (Ch.1). Whilst Salinger’s choice of first person narration enables the reader views into Holden’s thoughts and emerging individuality, it is problematic. Is Holden Caulfield a reliable and trustworthy narrator?

  • Brainstorm lists of the advantages and disadvantages of first person narration. Give examples from the text.

Salinger hooks the reader’s empathy and identification with the protagonist through his conversational, colloquial expression. From the outset, Holden addresses the reader directly: “If you really want to hear about it …”; “I’m not going to tell you … I’ll just tell you about …” (Ch.1). Whilst this approach is intimate and positions the reader as a confidante, the reader should be cautious - clearly, Holden will be selective about what will be written and the persona he will construct.

  • In the final chapter, Holden writes, “That’s all I’m going to tell about. I could probably tell you what I did after I went home … Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody” (Ch.26). As a reader, are you satisfied that Holden has told all there is to tell about what he has already told? Do you want to know what happened after he went home? Why? Why is the sixth crisis, Holden’s breakdown, omitted from the telling?

  • What does this suggest about the construction of Holden’s identity?

The use of verbal tags, qualifiers, 1950s teen speak and profanities build a picture of Holden as a realistic juvenile narrator with typical teen behaviours and concerns. The repeated verbal tag “…and all” highlights Holden’s tendency towards generalisation, his incomplete knowledge and understanding of himself, peers and society. His references to people as “old” is a term of endearment and his sense of connection to them; however, it signals Holden’s issues about youth, aging and growing up, and reminds us that the narrative is told retrospectively.

Qualifiers signifying emphasis and clarification are scattered throughout Holden’s narration as he seeks to make sense of who he is through his experiences of isolation and interaction: “I mean …”; “If you want to know the truth …”; “It really is”; “…always…”; and “I’m not kidding …”. Since publication, the novel has attracted controversy and has been periodically banned because of its use of teen speak and profanities. Slang like “crumby”, “flit” and “phony” and profanities like “bastard”, and “goddam” locate Holden in his teen peer group — a link of belonging. These also represent his judgements and labelling of others and the world around him.

  • Make a glossary of meaning and usage of Holden’s common verbal tags, qualifiers, slang and profanities. What view does his speech project about teenage-hood?

  • Whilst these linguistic factors make Holden sound like a credible narrator, critics present various arguments which question his veracity. Can you support any of the following arguments with evidence and quotes from the text?

—Holden is too traumatised to tell the truth;
—Holden is an academic failure;
—Holden has poor interpersonal skills;
—Holden’s perspective is adversely influenced by his increasing depressive mood;
—Holden lacks experience and often misses the point;
—Holden is a compulsive liar;
—Holden’s memory of events and feelings is imperfect;
—Holden is excessively judgemental and this impairs his ability to present reality;
—Holden always “digresses” at important points in the story he does not want to tell;
—Holden is drunk through several chapters.

  • Is Holden is a reliable narrator?

  • What does the controversy about the truth of Holden’s narration suggest about human identity?

Character tags

Writers build clusters of tags to signify their characters’ personality and their central, motivating concerns. A tag is a specialised and recurring label which may manifest in the character’s appearance, abilities, speech, mannerisms and attitudes. Salinger builds two key visual appearance tags in the assembly of Holden Caulfield: gray hair (Ch.2) and the red hunting hat (Ch.3).

  • Read the section “I act quite young for my age sometimes …People never notice anything” (Ch.2). What does his gray hair represent to Holden? What is his attitude about it? How does this passage illuminate Holden’s looming identity crisis?

The red hunting hat is a central visual character tag for the novel’s value of individuality, uniqueness and independence. Holden’s hat signifies his desire to be different and his rebellion against the pressures to live life according to socially prescribed rules and banal norms. The hat sets him apart, a visual representation of his isolation and incapacity to fit in.

Holden tells Ackley, “I shoot people in this hat” (Ch.3). Indeed, he often wears the hat when he is expressing a cynical, judgemental mindset denigrating others or scorning conventions.

The colour red is of significance as it connects Holden with his red-headed siblings, the much admired Allie and Phoebe who represent the unadulterated world of innocent childhood against the phony world of adults.

  • The red hat is introduced in Chapter 3. Create a chart tracing the red hat’s appearance throughout the text. Note who wears it, what they do/say/“shoot” in it, what this says about identity and a sense of belonging or exclusion.

Character and setting

In the novel, settings are constructed as projections of Holden’s central concerns about growing up and his sense of belonging. Of significance is the Museum of Natural History with its static tableaux of people and fauna (Ch.16). Holden is attracted to the orderly, predictable and comprehensible view of life presented here because “Certain things should stay the way they are” (Ch.16). His responses highlight his resistance to the processes of change and, ultimately, he doesn’t enter the museum for fear of disrupting his idealised memories and confronting how he might be “different” from them.

Read the section “The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was . . . . Anyway, I kept thinking about all that while I walked” (Ch.16).

  • Why is the word “different” repeated?
  • What do you think Holden means by “different”?
  • What does this say about the nature of Holden’s identity, and identity in general?

Although Holden inhabits and travels through a range of settings, it is worth investigating a few.

  • Ducks in Central Park: read references to the ducks in Chapters 2, 9, 12 and 20.
  • What parallels can you draw between the frozen pond and the environments Holden encounters?
  • In what ways is Holden’s preoccupation with change explored through the cyclical migrations of the ducks?New York versus “Out West”: compare and contrast what New York city (including nightclubs, hotels and street life) represents to Holden with his fantasy of living “out west” (Ch.17 and 25).

Key character interactions

Read the section “I have a feeling that you’re riding for some kind of terrible, terrible fall . . . . You’ll begin to know your true measurements” (Ch.24), Holden’s encounter with Mr Antolini.

This section represents the classic didactic encounter between protagonist and mentor, typical of the bildungsroman novel.

  • What cautions does Mr Antolini give Holden? Are these reasonable?
  • Note the repetition of the word “fall”. What does Mr Antolini mean by this term? Find other references to “falling” throughout the text (e.g. Ch. 25) — when do these occur and what is implied about Holden’s progress?
  • Why does Mr Antolini quote Wilhelm Stekel?
  • What advice does Mr Antolini give Holden? Is this practical?
  • What does Mr Antolini mean when he says “what size mind you have”? What does this suggest about the formation of identity?
  • Could Mr Antolini be perceived as “the catcher in the rye”?
  • Towards the end of Chapter 24, Holden wakes to find Mr Antolini stroking his hair. Describe Holden’s reaction. Can you recognise a pattern in the way Holden relates to others? In your view, is Mr Antolini’s action a sexual advance or a paternalistic gesture?

5. Close Reading – Passages for Analysis

» Read pages 11-13 from, “They each had their own room ...” to “people notice everything.”

  1. Why does Holden think Spencer’s life is not worth living?
  2. (a) In what ways does Spencer irritate Holden? (Refer to the whole extract.)
    (b) What do you think Holden’s reactions reveal of his character?
  3. What is Holden’s attitude to Mr Turner’s little talk on life being a game which should be played according to the rules? Explain this attitude. Consider whether life is for Holden “no game”. In what ways does Holden play, or not play, the rules? What does Mr Spencer mean when he says life is “a game”? What are the rules he is referring to?
  4. (a) In what ways does Holden criticise adults?
    (b) How do these criticisms inadvertently reveal what Holden expects from adults?
  5. Do you think Holden is unkind to Mr Spencer? Support your opinion.
  6. In what ways do Holden’s behaviour and thoughts reveal his wealthy background?

» Read pages 153-154 from, “I was getting ...” to “You know that.”

  1. How would you describe Holden’s relationship with Carl?
  2. What do we learn about Holden’s attitude to sexuality from this extract?
  3. What do you think Holden’s overall attitude to sexuality is?

» Read pages 179-180 from, “You know I’d like to be ...” to “I know it’s crazy.”

  1. Explain in your own words what you think Holden mean by “The catcher in the rye”.
  2. What was the connection between the death of James Castle and Holden’s desire to be a “catcher in the rye”?
  3. Holden sees himself standing on the edge of a cliff. Why is this significant?

» Read the conversation between Holden and Mr Antolini (pages 193-198).

  1. What does Mr Antolini mean by “some kind of terrible fall”?
  2. Where else in the novel does the theme of “falling” occur?
  3. Explain the meaning of the following:
    (a) “troubled morally and spiritually”
    (b) “they have more humility than the unscholarly thinker”.
  4. On what grounds does Mr Antolini defend the educated and scholarly man?
  5. What did he mean by “dress your mind accordingly”?
  6. In your view, why doesn’t this speech have any impact on Holden?
  7. What do we learn about Holden from this extract?

» Read pages 198-200 from, “I woke up all of a sudden ...” to “I can’t stand it.”

  1. Is there substantial evidence to suggest that Mr Antolini is homosexual?
  2. What is Holden’s attitude to homosexuality? Is there any evidence in the novel to suggest that he has homosexual tendencies?

6. Reflection

Here are some statements that have been made about the novel. Think about them carefully.

Decide how accurate you think each of them is in capturing the essence of the book; justify and support your opinions with evidence from the novel.

It is a novel about a disturbed teenager.
Holden cannot cope with people, with school, or with everyday problems that people his age must face. He avoids reality by living a fantasy life, and every forced contact with reality drives him deeper into himself. According to this analysis, he is anything but a typical teenager, and he certainly is not a good role model for young people.

It is about a teenager who refuses to grow up.
He has a fixation on childhood, which shows itself in his glorifying of children, his inordinate admiration of his younger sister, his idealisation of his dead younger brother, and the joy he gets from reminiscing about his own childhood. He brings on his illness so he will have to face his approaching adulthood.

It is a comment on the insensitivity of modern society.
Holden is a hero who stands against the false standards and hypocrisy that almost all others accept. As much as he would like to accept the world and be comfortable like almost everyone else, he cannot pretend that his society is worthwhile.

It is a comic novel about the way the adult world appears to an intelligent literate teenager.
Holden subjects everyone he meets to a probing examination, and almost everyone fails. His comments are more about human nature in general than about individual people, which helps explain why the book remains popular.

It is about a boy who struggles to remain faithful to what he sees as the truth.
His version of truth, however, is very subjective, and not necessarily correct. In his mind even good or beautiful things can be tainted because of the true motives of their creators.


Chapter Analyses

Deep Questions
Stylistic Features
Passage Analysis