Loss of Childhood Innocence: The Transition to Adulthood
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Society is filled with corrupt adults, which makes it inevitable for the loss of childhood innocence as children enter into the adult world. Some say that society can change and take a turn for the better, and though it may not be filled with honest, pure hearted people, it can be more genuine and more about the heart and less about success and materialistic pursuits. Others say that society cannot change and that it will continue to be corrupt and filled with selfish individuals, regardless of whether or not there are a few who are truly honest. In J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield categorizes anyone, usually an adult, who is insincere as phony and runs away from the corrupt adult world, ultimately demonstrating that the world would be a better place if it’s filled with children’s innocence and purity; however, he finds that such a world is impossible, for people can’t help but to grow up into the phony world of adults no matter how much they don’t want to.
Most teens or adolescents are already corrupted or tainted by society for they have already accepted and embraced the ways of adulthood and are old enough to understand how society works; thus, they are phony starting from a relatively young age. For example, Holden’s classmate and roommate, “Ward Stradlater, initially appear[s] sophisticated, but [he is really a phony]. Stradlater seems good-looking, but he is secretly a slob who never cleans his rusty old razor. He also appears to be a successful student but is really an ungrateful egotist who gets other people to do his assignments” (“The Catcher in the Rye” 4). On the outside Stradlater seems like a perfect citizen – clean, well-groomed, handsome, charming, smart, and hard working. In reality, however, he is actually a slob who doesn’t clean his daily necessities, such as his razor, and contrary to how he appears to be an intellectual individual, he arranges for another student to finish the assignments for him. The fact that he acts and looks differently in front of others than his true personality defines him as a phony member of society; though he is only a teenager, because he already follows the phonies of society, he is grown up and entered into the adult world of corruption and deception.
In addition, because he is handsome he is popular among girls and finds himself going on dates with many of them. All of the girls think he genuinely likes them for he whispers flattering words into their ears that makes it sound as if he loves them with all of his heart; however, “he has only one thing on his mind, and that is sexual conquest” (Alsen 3). Stradlater prides himself with the fact that he has had sex with many girls and that he is popular with the girls. He continues to try to prove to his peers as well as himself that his sexual prowess is one to be jealous of, entailing him to lie and deceive girls’ hearts and minds and acting like he loves them when he doesn’t. Stradlater’s actions further prove that adolescents fully grasp the phoniness of adults demolishing the pure child-like innocence within them. Virtually all adults in society are phony because in order to survive in society, they live lives that are not sprung from the genuine feelings of the heart but out of personal want and gain. Holden Caulfield gives the example that “lawyers are all right if they are committed to saving innocent people’s lives. But that’s not what lawyers do.
All they do is make tons of money, play golf, buy expensive cars, and drink Martinis” (Alsen 3). Caulfield brings to light the fact that people pursue careers and other goals not to help others but to help themselves. If someone becomes a lawyer to truly help those in need, then he/she is a truly honest person; however, most people become lawyers for the rich benefits they can receive from being a lawyer such as a lot of money, expensive cars, and a high ranking status in society. Because they view materialistic pursuits more important than saving people’s lives, they are phony and corrupt. It is important to remember that the concept of phoniness does not only relate to lawyers – it relates to almost all of society for people pursue careers not because they genuinely want to but because they want to have personal gain, accentuating the fact that adults in society are phony and corrupt. Children are not phony because all of their actions and words are genuine, from the heart, pure, and innocent.
For this reason, Caulfield loves children since they are the total opposite of the adult world and its phoniness. Phoebe, Caulfield’s younger sister, “represents the innocence and honesty of childhood, which is all Holden truly respects” (“The Catcher in the Rye” 8). Phoebe loves Caulfield and speaks the truth, no matter how brutally honest. She tells directly that he hates virtually everything and everyone. Because of her childhood innocence, she is not afraid to tell the truth as it is instead of sugar coating it to make it sound more pleasant than it actually is. Therefore, Holden embraces that honesty and purity of childhood and wishes that all of society would have such characteristics. Children are honest to the heart and their actions come from genuine love, not selfish want; thus, according to Caulfield, children are not phony but the second they enter the adult world, they are corrupted and phony. In the adult world, only the ones who do not live for themselves but for others are not phony. Such a person is Mr. Antolini, Caulfield’s teacher.
He “takes Holden’s rebellion seriously and recognizes it as a moral and spiritual crisis. And even though Holden recoils when Antolini expresses his fondness for him by stroking his head, he recognizes that Antolini is a caring individual and not a phony” (Alsen 4). Antolini realizes how mentally and emotionally Caulfield needs help and gives him advice not out of his own selfish wants but because he sincerely cares for Caulfield. Many readers believe that Antolini is phony because of his stroking of Caulfield’s head leads them to think that he is a pedophile/pervert. However, that is not the case, for Antolini merely cares for Caulfield and his wellbeing. Caulfield realizes this as well for he feels bad for running away from Antolini after the incident and wishes to apologize to him. In addition to Antolini’s sincerity, he also does not care about his outer appearance in the manner that his physical appearance is not important enough for him to worry about that more than his inner self.
Mr. Antolini “ha[s] on his bathrobe and slippers” when Caulfield goes to meet him (Salinger 181). The fact that Antolini is not concerned about making himself look socially acceptable in order to please and impress others shows that he is genuine, not phony, unlike Stradlater who only cared about his appearances. The only other adults that Caulfield views as genuine are two nuns that he meets by chance. The nuns are living a simple life by eating at an inexpensive restaurant when they could have been acting like they were sophisticated and rich by going to an expensive restaurant. Also, nuns devote their lives to religion and to helping others which is why they are not categorized as phony. Therefore, only adults who don’t live for material and personal pursuits such as Antolini and the nuns, who don’t have pretense and act like they are socially accepted in the aspect of money and success are not phony – they are happy without such pursuits.
All children have difficulty transitioning from childhood to adulthood and this does not exempt Caulfield. Caulfield’s problem is “between [himself] and the adult world. It is due to Holden’s unwillingness to become part of this world because most adults he knows are phonies, that is, people who claim to be something they are not” (Alsen 3). Caulfield finds it difficult to grow up to be an adult because he doesn’t even want to be a part of the adult world in the first place. As mentioned multiple times, he views adults as insincere and morally unrighteous, and he doesn’t want to end up meeting the same demise. In order “to deal with harsh reality, [he] lie[s]” (Blythe 1). His solution to avoiding becoming an adult, he continuously lies in order to fabricate reality to fit his fancy, which becomes a complicated fantasy that he traps himself in; he also alienates and isolates himself.
His imaginative and evasive mindset causes him to dream of unrealistic fantasies in order to stay within the realms of innocent childhood. One such fantasy is one where he will “be somewhere out West where it was very pretty and sunny and where nobody’d know [him] and [he’d] get a job. Just so people didn’t know [him] and [he] didn’t know anybody… [He’d] pretend [that he] was one of those deaf-mutes. That way [he] wouldn’t have to have any goddam stupid useless conversations with anybody…and then [he’d] be through with having conversations for the rest of [his] life. Everybody’d think [that he] was just a poor deaf-mute bastard and they’d leave [him] alone” (Salinger 198, 199). He frequently creates stories in his mind where he will be alone forever – isolated. Because he doesn’t want to be a part of the corrupt adult society, he wants to be alienated from the world where he can be untainted – innocent.
The fact that he goes to such lengths to create bizarre fantasies in his mind stresses the mental and emotional toll the transition to adulthood is giving him, and it is all due to society’s corruption. His wanting to escape society not only shows his hatred for the phoniness of the world, but it also represents his want to be an individual, a non-conformist. His red hunting hat is a symbol of his individuality, for it is a flamboyant red color which stands out from the crowd and contrasts with his own outfit; also, “by turning the visor backward Holden suggests that his values are the reverse of what everybody else’s are” (Alsen 11). Holden wants to be different from everybody else by being pure and untainted by society. He wants to prove to everyone that he is different and that he can see the phoniness of adult society. His efforts to escape society show how much Caulfield wants to escape from the tainted adult world even if it means to go as far as to harming himself in the long run emotionally, mentally, and physically.
No matter how hard one tries, one cannot escape becoming phony and this fact is accentuated and brought to light by Caulfield himself. “He hates lies, phoniness, pretense, yet these are often his own sins;” though he tries to avoid the adult phoniness that he despises so much, he himself reflects the very actions and thoughts that he finds to be phony (Seng 1). He becomes furious at Stradlater for having sexual relationships with all of the girls that he has interest in. Taking sex not as a bond between two lovers but just viewing girls as sex objects and thus exploiting them of their childhood innocence is what makes Caulfield so angry even going so far as to punching Stradlater and getting into a fight with him. Meanwhile, when Caulfield goes to New York, the first thing he does is try to get in touch with a prostitute. Also, he hates to say things when he doesn’t mean it, such as “saying ‘Glad to’ve met you’ to somebody [he’s] not at all glad [he] met” (Salinger 87). Yet, when he meets a Navy soldier for the first time, he tells him that he’s glad to have met him.
He says one thing, but does another when throughout the whole novel he expresses his distaste for phoniness, proving the inevitable loss of childhood purity. In addition, when he “buy[s] drinks for the girls from Seattle he puts on a pretense of New York-ish world-weary sophistication. On the other hand he cannot bear that sort of pretense in others, and has only contempt for the kind of people who say that something is ‘grand’” (Seng 2). Just as how Caulfield views saying things one doesn’t mean as phony but he himself does, he also views pretense as well as putting on airs as dishonest, but he does it in order to build and create relationships with others. Caulfield continuously contradicts himself showing his confused state of mind from the difficulties and stresses from transitioning into an adult; the fact that he can’t help being phony himself shows that no matter how one tries to avoid reality and the hardships of adult society, he/she will have to grow out of the shell of childhood purity into the harsh reality of the adult world.
The loss of childhood purity is impossible to evade and therefore, there is nothing one can do to prevent children from losing their purity. Throughout the course of the novel, Caulfield has trouble grasping this concept, for his wish is to “catch [the children] if they start to go over the cliff…. If they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going [he’d] have to come out from somewhere and catch them” (Salinger 173). Caulfield’s dream is to become a catcher in the rye where he would watch all of the children play, and if they fall, he catches them, symbolically representing him preventing children from falling into the abyss of the adult world. He has such a dream for he himself is trying to avoid adulthood, and he wants to preserve childhood innocence not only in himself but in all children, demonstrating the fact that the world would be a better place if such an event occurred because everyone would be pure, innocent, and honest rather than deceitful and morally rotten. He wishes that children could stay the way they are just as how in a museum, nothing every changes – their positions, poses, expressions, etc. always remain the same.
However, society is too complex for it to become an innocent utopia. Caulfield finally starts to realize this fact when he visits the Museum of Art and sees the words “Fuck you” written into the wall. He quickly rubs it off of the wall, but then he sees the same phrase engraved into the wall into the knife; he realizes that no matter how much time he spends trying to erase it he will not be able to. “The graffiti [is] proof that it is impossible to find a place to be in the world without having to face man-made ugliness;” this realization awakens him to the concept that there will be no such place in the world where there is nothing but peace and purity, meaning that children will have to depart from their innocence — it is impossible to cleanse the world (Tolchin 3).
The finally awakening where he realizes that he cannot escape from adulthood forever is when he is with his sister. As his sister rides a carousel, she tries to reach for a golden ring on the carousel horse. He wants to stop her from reaching out so that she will not fall, but he realizes that “if they fall off, they fall off, but it’s bad if you say anything to them” (Salinger 211). Caulfield officially comes to terms with the fact that children must enter adulthood, causing them to enter the phony world of society; no matter how much he tries to catch the children from falling into the abyss of corruption, he can’t and that includes himself as well. All children must enter adulthood, no matter how much they want to stay as innocent, fun loving kids; the transition is difficult, and in the end, the loss of purity is inevitable and society will continue on its corrupt patch, for no one is able to escape it.
Growing up into a corrupted, phony society is a given, for all children lose their innocence once they become adults. As Caulfield expresses his views on who is phony and who is not, he himself develops the characteristics of the phony people that he despises so much, emphasizing the fact that escaping the harsh realities of adulthood is impossible, no matter how one tries. Caulfield goes to great lengths to preserve his childhood, but he still becomes phony while having insights of adult phoniness. Therefore, all children must grow up into an adult society, and because of this fact, society will never be able to cleanse itself and be filled with child innocence and purity, for that is the way life is; society will continue to be filled with corrupt individuals who always act for their own benefits rather for others.