Questions for Exploring the
1. Comprehension and Interpretation
J.D. Salingers 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. Holdens 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.
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.
1. How has Holden ruined the day for the fencing team?
2. Does Holdens 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
Stradlaters 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 Holdens memories of Jane Gallagher good or bad? Why?
13. What does Holden think of all the people (including Ernie
himself) in Ernies Bar?
14. What happens to Holden in the elevator back in the hotel?
15. How does Holden feel when hes 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
23. What was (and still is) Luces 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
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 hed 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 spookywhen hes walking
down Fifth Avenue?
36. What is Holdens latest escapist plan?
37. How does Holden react to the obscenities he sees on the
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?
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 Holdens spendthrift
attitude towards money.
3. What is it that Holden likes so much about the
(a) Allie (Ch.5)?
(b) Jane (Ch.7)?
(c) Phoebe (Ch.21)?
4. What is Holdens 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 Holdens 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 Holdens 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
(c) his night with the prostitute (Ch.13)
(d) his fight with Maurice (Ch.14)
(e) his night at the theatre with Sally
(f) his school days (Ch.22)
(g) the episode with Mr Antolini (Chs.
(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
(c) his escapism
(d) the self-image he tried
12. What is Holdens attitude to his parents
and his older brother?
13. Explain the significance of literature and the
arts in Holdens 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
(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
(d) the carousel
(e) Allies baseball
(f) New York
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?
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?
Life is a game, says teacher
Mr Spencer (p.13). What is Holdens cynical private view
of his conventional wisdom?
Holdens contempt for phonies
comes out strongly as he listens to old Spencers advice
and thinks about some of the people at his various schools.
What is a phoney, and why does it depress him so much?
Stradlater represents the sort of person
Holden might aspire to be. Yet Holden detests him. Why?
The descriptive essay written for Stradlater
turns out to be about Allies baseball mitt. It introduces
something terribly important into our understanding of Holden.
What is revealed here?
Among other confusions, Holdens attitude
towards sex is interesting (see page 66, and also Chapter 10).
What conflict is he experiencing, and what does it suggest about
In Chapter 10, Holden mentions his sister
Phoebe. Like Allie, she is important to him. What qualities
in Phoebe does he so admire?
Holdens encounter with Sunny the prostitute
is also revealing. What does it tell us about him?
The nuns he meets are a refreshing change
for Holden after all the phonies in New York. What
does he like about them?
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?
Also in Chapter 16 is Holdens comment
about why he likes museums, and what he wishes for so far as
time is concerned (p.128). How do you understand this?
What do you make of Holdens fantasy
of getting away with Sally (pp.137-138)?
The Christmas Show is yet another example
of what pet dislike of Holdens?
In Holdens 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?
When Phoebe asks him to name one thing he
likes, his answer is revealing. In what way?
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?
Although Mr Antolini gives sound advice,
his gesture shatters Holdens last shred of trust. How?
What is Holdens last fantasy (p.205ff),
and how realistic is it?
It seems that Phoebes involvement in
Holdens 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?
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 authors 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 Holdens parents
and brother in the introductory comments, as well as what
he is saying about Hollywood?
What do the opening chapters reveal about
Holdens personality? How do they provide initial understanding
of Holdens discontent and isolation, and assist us in trying
to work out whether Holden is either:
A likeable and idealistic rebel worthy of admiration,
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,
Holdens attitude towards the competitive spirit
at the school, as well as his dislike of corruption in both
the adolescent and adult worlds there.
Holdens cynical private view of Mr Spencers conventional
wisdom about life being a game: (what does their lack of
communication tell us about their relationship?).
Holdens reaction to Stradlaters sexual
interest in Jane Gallagher. (What is revealed here about
Holdens sense of morality?; what evidence is there
of Holdens virginal loneliness through
his references to sexuality?; what does Holdens attitude
towards sex suggest about him and the conflict he is experiencing?).
Holdens references to his concern for the Central
Park ducks in New York (what could they symbolise?; what
could Holdens sympathy for them illustrate?; is Holden
almost identifying with the ducks?).
Consider Holdens contempt for phoneys
as he listens to Mr. Spencers 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 Holdens world and breakdown?
Consider the relevance of Salingers observations
in the novel about phoniness in the 1950s
to our society in the 1990s (are people more or less
Comment on the possible relation between
Holdens violent reaction to the death of his young
brother Allie and his remark that Im seventeen now,
and sometimes I act like Im about thirteen.
Evaluate the genuineness of Holdens
professing to really care for others, to reach for humane
values. How believable, moving and impressive is Salingers
portrait of an apparently sensitive, troubled, lonely and
depressed teenager at a crisis point in his adolescence?
With whom do Holdens 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
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 Holdens running away from yet
another school (Pencey), and seeming to be so lonely, depressed
and alienated. What was his problem? Why does he instinctively
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 Allies 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
Ackleys room; what is revealed about Holden?
What sort of things are on Holdens mind when
he wakes Ackley to ask: Whats the routine on joining
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
How successfully does Holden handle the
crisis he meets in these chapters? Is his first venture
into the adult world a happy one?
Is Holdens 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
In some ways is his behaviour illustrating that he
shares the phoney characteristics he criticises
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, theyre not just
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
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 Holdens 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
does Holden consider that becoming an adult compromises
ones integrity to survive in a fundamentally phoney
Group 3: Chapters 11 to 15
Why do you think Holdens thoughts revert
at this point to Jane Gallagher and Stradlater?
What is the significance of Janes leaving the Kings in
the back row when she played checkers (draughts) with Holden?
(would she still do so?).
How almost childlike (pure?) does Holdens relationship
with Jane seem to be?
If Holden hadnt 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 Holdens encounter with Sunny reveal about
To what extent is Holdens encounter with the prostitute
humorous or sad?
How did Holdens 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 Holdens further reference
in Chapter 12 to the Central Park ducks. Why is he so persistent
One of Holdens 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 Holdens 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 Holdens 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 Holdens 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
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 Holdens attitude towards movies,
particularly his discomfort with actors. To what extent
could actors remind him of how insubstantial he feels sometimes?
Consider Holdens comment about
why he likes the Museum and what he wishes for as far as
time is concerned. To what extent can we relate Holdens
liking of a museum for its un-changingness to his feeling
(mentioned twice) of nearly disappearing?
Examine Holdens memories of previous visits to the
Museum (why doesnt he want them disturbed?).
To what extent could Holdens 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 Holdens memory, Allie always remains innocent and un-corrupted
by adult society).
To what extent do you see a connection
between Holdens 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
Carl Luce seems to be a rather unsavoury
What do you suppose was Holdens 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 Holdens personality is revealed in
What do Holdens questions to Luce relate to earlier
in the novel?
What is it about Holdens 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
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 hasnt he reckoned on?
Holden is always worried about the phoney
aspect of peoples 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
Phoebe is aware of Holdens 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
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
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 wifes 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 Holdens 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 Holdens last fantasy?
Suggest how Phoebe has influenced Holdens change
of mind when he concedes that children must be allowed to
grow up and face an imperfect, dangerous, phoney
Phoebes involvement in Holdens fantasy
seems to have made him realise that its 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 hes 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. Antolinis 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 Holdens experience, is
Salinger suggesting that we either:
totally reject an immoral society? or,
accept an immoral society at the expense of compromising
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
How well does the author portray minor teenage
characters in the book? Mention Sally, Ackley, Stradlater and
How are women portrayed in the book? Mention
Mrs Antolini, the various mothers, the nuns, Sunny.
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?
Which aspects of Holdens personality
do you find most sympathetic, and which do you find annoying?
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
- It has been said that the dominant theme of The Catcher in
the Rye is Holdens search for love. Discuss the various
types of love in the novel.
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?
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?
Describe the function of the museum in the
What are the various aspects of society
that Holden is in conflict with?
Do you consider Holdens obsession
with phoneys to be extreme?
Although much of the book is funny, Holden
lacks humour. Do you agree?
Questions on structure
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?
- The structure of the novel is circular, in that the ending is
mentioned in the initial chapter. Does this have any effect on
the readers perception of Holdens experiences?
The novel ends without appearing to resolve
Holdens conflicts. Why did Salinger not finish it off
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?
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
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?
Do you consider that there is too much use
of obscene language in the book? Why did Salinger include so
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?
Some of Holdens 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.
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
Authors 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,
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 Salingers choice of first person narration
enables the reader views into Holdens thoughts and emerging individuality,
it is problematic. Is Holden Caulfield a reliable and trustworthy
Salinger hooks the readers 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
; Im not going
to tell you
Ill just tell you about
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.
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 Holdens
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 Holdens issues about
youth, aging and growing up, and reminds us that the narrative
is told retrospectively.
Qualifiers signifying emphasis and clarification
are scattered throughout Holdens 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
; It really is;
and Im 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 Holdens 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
Holden is an academic failure;
Holden has poor interpersonal skills;
Holdens perspective is adversely influenced by his
increasing depressive mood;
Holden lacks experience and often misses the point;
Holden is a compulsive liar;
Holdens 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 Holdens narration suggest about human identity?
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 characters 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
- 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 Holdens looming
The red hunting hat is a central visual character
tag for the novels value of individuality, uniqueness and independence.
Holdens 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 hats
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
Character and setting
In the novel, settings are constructed as projections
of Holdens 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 doesnt 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
- Why is the word different
- What do you think Holden means by different?
- What does this say about the nature
of Holdens 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 Holdens 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
Key character interactions
Read the section I have a feeling that youre
riding for some kind of terrible, terrible fall . . . . Youll begin
to know your true measurements (Ch.24), Holdens encounter
with Mr Antolini.
This section represents the classic didactic encounter
between protagonist and mentor, typical of the bildungsroman
- 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 Holdens progress?
- Why does Mr Antolini quote Wilhelm
- 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 Holdens
reaction. Can you recognise a pattern in the way Holden relates
to others? In your view, is Mr Antolinis action a sexual advance
or a paternalistic gesture?
5. Close Reading – Passages for
» Read pages 11-13 from,
“They each had their own room ...” to “people notice everything.”
Why does Holden think Spencers life
is not worth living?
(a) In what ways does Spencer irritate Holden?
(Refer to the whole extract.)
(b) What do you think Holdens reactions
reveal of his character?
What is Holden’s attitude to Mr Turners
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?
(a) In what ways does Holden criticise adults?
(b) How do these criticisms inadvertently
reveal what Holden expects from adults?
Do you think Holden is unkind to Mr Spencer?
Support your opinion.
In what ways do Holdens behaviour
and thoughts reveal his wealthy background?
» Read pages 153-154 from,
“I was getting ...” to “You know that.”
How would you describe Holdens relationship
What do we learn about Holdens attitude
to sexuality from this extract?
What do you think Holdens overall
attitude to sexuality is?
Read pages 179-180 from, “You know Id like to be ...” to
“I know its crazy.”
Explain in your own words what you think
Holden mean by “The catcher in the rye”.
What was the connection between the death
of James Castle and Holdens desire to be a “catcher in
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).
What does Mr Antolini mean by “some kind
of terrible fall”?
Where else in the novel does the theme of
Explain the meaning of the following:
(a) “troubled morally and spiritually”
(b) “they have more humility than the unscholarly thinker”.
On what grounds does Mr Antolini defend
the educated and scholarly man?
What did he mean by “dress your mind accordingly”?
- In your view, why doesnt this speech have any impact on
- What do we learn about Holden from this extract?
» Read pages 198-200 from,
“I woke up all of a sudden ...” to “I cant stand it.”
Is there substantial evidence to suggest
that Mr Antolini is homosexual?
What is Holdens attitude to homosexuality?
Is there any evidence in the novel to suggest that he has homosexual
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
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.