The Catcher in the Rye’s protagonist Holden Caulfield detests adults, his peers who act like someone they’re not, and pretentious things. His school’s headmaster Mr. Haas, a businessman named Ossenburger, insincere handshakes and anything else done for show or half-heartedly, models and movies, and even Lieutenant Henry of A Farewell to Arms and the book itself—he describes all these as “phony.” His view of them as hypocritical, dishonest, or fake colors his perception of growing up and adulthood, making him wish he could preserve the innocence of children.
Perhaps Ossenburger is a phony, who, according to Holden, tells the students of his school “how he was never ashamed, when he was in some kind of trouble or something, to get right down his knees and pray to God,” or that he “talked to Jesus all the time. Even when he was driving his car [that everyone knows is ‘this big goddamn Cadillac’].” Although stated to encourage the students to pray often, these claims sound like brags and sound more exaggerated than inspirational, so Holden mocks: “I just see the big phony bastard shifting into first gear and asking Jesus to send him a few more stiffs.”
Yet the others that Holden dismisses as phonies don’t necessarily warrant it, especially the harshness that comes with it, for two reasons. The first is that Holden is biased against people he dislikes: the adults. Take for example the firm handshakes and friendly-looking smiles given by Mr. Haas or the Navy officer Holden was introduced to at a bar. Holden calls Mr. Haas the “phoniest bastard [he has] ever met in [his] life” for reportedly entertaining only the rich; and he quickly judges the Navy officer as “one of those guys that think they’re being a pansy if they don’t break around forty of your fingers when they shake hands with you.” Holden “hates” them. But when it comes to Stradlater, his roommate he often criticizes and isn’t fond of, who greets their next-door neighbor Ackley who dislikes Stradlater, Holden holds back, so much so that he’s able to find some good in Stradlater: “He was at least a pretty friendly guy…. It was partly a phony kind of friendly, but at least he always said hello to Ackley and all.” Holden doesn’t do the same for the adults. Of Mr. Haas he doesn’t say “At least he always shook the hands of and smiled at the other parents” when Mr. Haas does.
The other reason is that the clear-cut distinction between black and white in the eyes of a child or the naïve, especially the insistence that this is the right perspective, makes it difficult for Holden to understand contradictions, no matter how petty or slight these are. In his tirade about his hatred of New York,
I hate living in New York and all. Taxicabs, and Madison Avenue buses, with the drivers and all always yelling at you to get out at the rear door, and being introduced to phony guys that call the Lunts angels, and going up and down in elevators when you just want to go outside, and guys fitting your pants all the time at Brooks…
take the line “going up and down in elevators when you just want to go outside,” where he alludes to corporate life. It’s as if he or other people could just eschew responsibility of oneself or one’s family by not working. Or that D.B., who hates war, could like a book set in World War I, as if finding it well-written meant supporting war:
What gets me about D.B., though, he hated the war so much, and yet he got me to read this book A Farewell to Arms last summer. He said it was so terrific. That’s what I can’t understand. It had this guy in it named Lieutenant Henry that was supposed to be a nice guy and all. I don’t see how D.B. could hate the Army and war and all so much and still like a phony like that. I mean, for instance, I don’t see how he could like a phony book like that and still like that one by Ring Lardner, or that other one he’s so crazy about, The Great Gatsby.
Perceiving all contradictions to be bad, Holden is frustrated with dishonest people and people who don’t do what they want to do, and desires consistency. When he felt like he “ought to sock” the guy who stole his gloves but admitted that he couldn’t do it, Holden urged, “What you should be is not yellow at all. If you’re supposed to sock somebody in the jaw, and you sort of feel like doing it, you should do it.”
After venting about D.B. liking Hemingway’s novel and desiring to prove that he detests war so much he doesn’t want anything to do with it, Holden said, “Anyway, I’m sort of glad they’ve got the atomic bomb invented. If there’s ever another war, I’m going to sit right the hell on top of it. I’ll volunteer for it, I swear to God I will.”
Through these statements, we see that Holden doesn’t consider the impropriety and foolishness of acting on impulse and passion. The consequences of rash behavior are lost to him due to his shortsightedness, which lets him focus only on personal and current feelings or desires.
More than that, Holden fails to see that not all phony acts are hateful and wrong. Considering his assertions on the phoniness of Lieutenant Henry or his future self going up and down elevators with a suitcase in hand, he completely forgets that there is such a thing as duty or role, the nature of which compels people to abide by it, and which does conflict with people’s own beliefs, feelings, or other roles. Lieutenant Henry, like other men in history, is forced to serve in the War and give up his freedom and his life to follow orders. It’s not as if the soldiers taking part in a war want to be torn from their loved ones to kill or help kill other people. There is honor in taking up one’s duty for a cause or a country—something other than oneself. What does it say about Holden if he avoids responsibility, especially by killing himself, when a war breaks out and he is needed? Or if he one day refuses to make a living and contribute to society because he still thinks all jobs make him a phony?
As for Mr. Haas, who knows? Assuming he truly entertains the wealthier parents more, there could be a handful of reasons behind it. It’s possible that the wealthier parents are more outspoken, so it’s much easier for him to converse with them. It’s possible that he does it to make stronger connections for whatever ambitions he has. It’s calculating, and some would deem it disagreeable. But one can also argue that it’s pathetic to have goals and not do anything to achieve them.
The Catcher in the Rye blurs the line between maturity and phoniness through Holden himself.
As we read his coming-of-age story—as he tells it to us—we see that Holden himself at times exhibits phoniness too as he begins to conform with polite society, albeit very slowly and with much reserve and denial. He replies, “Glad to’ve met you” to the Navy officer and confesses “I’m always saying ‘Glad to’ve met you’ to somebody I’m not at all glad I met. If you want to stay alive, you have to say that stuff, though.” He says he can’t punch the student who stole his gloves, even if he thinks he should. And not resorting to violence to resolve conflict is part of maturing and knowing better. However, since he hates contradiction and growing up, Holden resists admitting this by making excuses where he ironically contradicts himself, and by calling himself a coward instead:
I’d rather push a guy out the window or chop his head off with an ax than sock him in the jaw. I hate fist fights. I don’t mind getting hit so much—although I’m not crazy about it, naturally—but what scares me most in a fist fight is the guy’s face. I can’t stand looking at the other guy’s face, is my trouble. It wouldn’t be so bad if you could both be blindfolded or something. It’s a funny kind of yellowness, when you come to think of it, but it’s yellowness, all right. I’m not kidding myself.
Through Holden’s rants and his interactions with older people, we see then that maturity and being an adult involve knowing one has to do things even if he doesn’t want to do them, for reasons of manners or civility, duty, ambition, or just plain survival. In addition, they involve understanding that other people have their own obligations too.
We’re all thrown into situations we don’t ask for, so we have roles or duties that we have to take up. People who set aside their own feelings for their duty do deserve some respect, if only because the decisions aren’t always easy, as these require sacrifices. There is strength in doing what one must, and oftentimes selflessness too.
Not everyone has the luxury of not being a phony, of living a life without contradictions. The 17-year-old Holden may have an elite background, the luxury to hate the adults who have various responsibilities and roles thrust upon them, and the luxury to not be in school for a while. But even he would have to contend with life’s complexities that will challenge him to bend or do away with his self-righteousness. Will sticking to it result in happiness or a sense of fulfillment? That depends on how self-centered he remains, yet staying that way will also bring its own set of problems and frustrations. On the other hand, while it means having let go of ideals and embodying dissonance, the phoniness that some adults exhibit yields results they want, from making a good impression (or at least not a bad one), food on the table for themselves and their families, to a life and complicated world they learn to be at peace with.
New Essays on The Catcher in the Rye, ed. Jack Salzman. Cambridge University Press. 1992. Book.