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What the Female Catcher in the Rye Characters Tell Us About Holden Caulfield
The main theme of The Catcher in the Rye is isolation, which is interesting coming from a guy who spills his guts to the world for 200 pages. Nevertheless, the contradiction perfectly characterizes Holden Caulfield; he can’t decide whether to call all his friends over for drinks and chat or run off into the woods for an Into-the-Wild-style escape.
This is just the tip of an entire iceberg of narrative inconsistency. Holden hates fakers but lies constantly, hates Hollywood but pretends to be the star of a gangster movie, wants people to like him but intentionally irritates for fun and complains that everyone overgeneralizes all the time. Holden’s narrative presence so fully dominates the story that it’s difficult to get an accurate read of any situation, meaning that whatever passes through Caulfield’s Perception Machine must be reverse-engineered before we can make sense of it. Let’s look at Holden’s relationships with the other two most important characters in Catcher in the Rye.
According to Holden Caulfield, Phoebe is the (second) best person in history (right after her little brother, Allie, who died of leukemia). She is the nicest, smartest, prettiest, most superlative sister a person could ask for. So what does this tell us? Nothing without evidence. Here’s a more nuanced approach to the sibling relationship:
Exhibit A: Phoebe takes Holden seriously. When Holden says he’s going to “hitchhike west,” Phoebe packs her bag, sneaks out of the building, takes her for the day, and meets him at the museum with his red hunting hat on and everything they need except the car getaway Compare that to the reception Holden gets when he asks Sally to run away with him. (He gets the running part, just in the wrong direction.) Which isn’t to say that running away with Sally would be a good idea, but the point is that pretty much everyone laughs/tells Holden off like he’s a complete idiot, which we (and Phoebe) know we couldn’t be further from the truth.
Appendix B: Phoebe gives things to Holden. Which might not seem like a big deal, except that he’s the only person in the novel who does. Holden constantly lends/gives things to people around him, who often don’t offer so much as a thank you in return. In the first ten chapters alone – and there are 26 – he is robbed of a coat, an essay, a typewriter and thirteen dollars worth of drinks. Phoebe, on the other hand, not only shows immense gratitude for his gifts (remember when she lovingly kept the broken pieces of the record in a drawer?), but also lends Holden her Christmas savings when she finds out he’s broke and returns it to him . his red hunting hat when he feels blue. It’s a sad day when a 10-year-old boy shows more generosity than the entitled teenagers of an entire prep school.
Appendix C: Phoebe wants to hear about Holden, even if he doesn’t want to. Holden hates that people “never notice anything” and while he’s busy making brilliant behavioral and emotional observations about everyone he meets, they’re so busy trying to be impressive that they can’t think of anyone but themselves. Phoebe, however, wants to know what time Holden arrived, what he’s doing, whether or not he’ll come to see her play, why he’s a few days early, what classes he failed, and why he didn’t try harder. Even though she’s crazy, Holden “could tell by the back of her neck that she was listening. She always listens when you tell her something.” Also, she’s the only person paying enough attention to find out he’s been kicked out of school. Not bad for a 10 year old.
Besides Allie, Jane is the most tempting and elusive figure in the novel; although Holden’s thoughts often wander to her, she never physically appears in The Catcher in the Rye. Holden is careful not to reveal too much about Jane, but it’s obvious she likes him. Maybe even the mistress. Let’s review the evidence.
Exhibit A: Holden can’t be too sexy with her. According to his philosophy about sex (ie, sex is inherently degrading), the only women in the novel he sexualizes are the ones he can’t respect. Remember the stupid-but-cute ballerina whose awesome rear “squirmed so nice and all”? Or what about Holden’s Luntz-loving friend with the “little blue dress that catches”? (Apparently, she has a type.) Instead, the closest Holden comes to sexualizing Jane is to reveal that she has a “fantastic figure,” but he only divulges this information because he suspects her stepfather is sexually abusing her. Holden certainly makes a point of avoiding Jane in all this “crazy stuff,” but just remember that the key word in “respectful distance” is “respectful.”
Appendix B: Jane keeps all her kings on the back row. Why is it important? It’s not, but the fact that Holden thinks so says a lot about their dynamic. The things Holden thinks are important enough to tell us are that he plays checkers and golf, that his mouth is always open, that he’s great at holding hands, that his stepfather is a terrible hound, and that his red sweater “knocked it out”. .” Knowing that Stradlater doesn’t care about any of that (or whether her name is Jane or Jean, for that matter) drives Holden up the wall.
Appendix C: Holden doesn’t complain about Jane. Not once And Holden complains about literally EVERYTHING but Allie. Even Phoebe “can be very bratty at times,” but when it comes to Jane’s faults, she is suspiciously silent. And coming from Holden, that’s saying something.
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