Phoniness: Its Effect on Holden Caulfield’s Character and His View on Society
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There comes a time in life when one believes that they are surrounded by nothing but fallaciousness and deception. In J.D Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield, a 16-year-old boy, travels to New York to try to escape the corrupt events that have transpired in his life. While in New York, he encounters many difficult occasions which make him draw to the conclusion that he lives in a world of “phoniness.” Hypocrisy is a concept that Holden constantly refers to throughout the novel. Holden makes reference to the word “phony” fourty-four separate times throughout the novel (Corbett 68-73). Each time he seems to be referring to the subject of this metaphor as — someone who discriminates against others, is a hypocrite about something, or has manifestations of conformity (Corbett 71). He believes that people are superficial and that the world is soiled by “phoniness”. This is Holden`s way of using this as a means to mask his own insecurities and the “phoniness” within his own character. As a result, Holden develops a “phony stigma” that he uses to identify various animosities in his life, including himself.
For one, Holden often behaves like he is bigger than everyone around him, and points out the falsity in everyone else. Throughout the novel he meets many people who to him are nothing but superficial such as: Sally Hayes, Carl Luce, Maurice and Sunny, and Mr. Spencer. They say and do things that keep up their appearances rather than reflecting what their true thoughts and feelings are. Holden spends so much time and energy searching for the aspect of phoniness in other people that he never truly observes it within himself (Phoniness in the Adult World). As a result, Holden tends to be extremely judgmental of people. He views everyone in a negative manner and considers them to be nothing but phony. For example: when Holden calls Sally late at night, he assumes that she just came back home from a date. He develops a mental picture of what her date may act like, in which he says, “All of them saying sophisticated stuff to each other and being charming and phony” (Salinger 151). In addition, when he is out on this date, Sally ends up meeting an old “friend” of hers named George Andover. Seeing how they both interact with each other angers Holden and causes him to rant about the whole situation.
This proves the fact that Holden is extremely judgemental of other people, even people who he hasn’t even met. “You should have seen the way they said hello. You’d had thought they hadn’t seen each other in 20 years. You’d have thought they’d taken baths in the same bathtub or something when they were little kids. Old Buddyoos. It was nauseating. The funny part was, they probably met each other just once, at some phony party…He was the kind of phony that have to give themselves room when they answer somebody’s question…It was the phoniest conversation you ever heard in your life…The worst part was, the jerk had one of those very phony Ivy League voices. He sounded just like a girl” (Salinger 127-128) Holden also believes that the school system and teachers are phony because they pretend to be helpful to students, in order to elevate their own egos. In the beginning, he evidently states his opinion about the educational system. “One of the biggest reasons I left Elkton Hills was because I was surrounded by phonies.
That’s all. They were coming in the goddam window. For instance, they had this headmaster, Mr. Haas, that was the phoniest bastard I ever met in my life. Ten times worse than old Thurmer. On Sundays, for instance, old Haas went around shaking hands with everybody’s parents when they drove up to school. He’d be charming as hell and all. Except if some boy had little old funny-looking parents. You should’ve seen the way he did with my roommate’s parents. I mean if a boy’s mother was sort of fat or corny-looking or something, and if somebody’s father was one of those guys that wear those suits with very big shoulders and corny black-and-white shoes, then old Haas would just shake hands with them and give them a phony smile and then he’d go talk, for maybe a half an hour, with somebody else’s parents. I can’t stand that stuff. It drives me crazy. It makes me so depressed I go crazy. I hated that goddam Elkton Hills”. (Salinger 13-14).
In this quote, Holden is expressing how he felt about Pency Prep and that he believed everyone to be superficial and posturing. He is blaming the teachers for his own failures as a student at Pency Prep, as well as at his other schools. He is projecting his anger and frustration upon others, people who aren’t even the root cause of the problem. He goes on later to say to Sally that boy’s schools are horrible and that they are an insult to today’s society. He points out all of the falsity within that milieu. “You ought to go to a boy’s school someday. Try it sometime. Its full of phonies and all you do is study so that you can learn enough to be smart enough to be able to buy a goddam Cadillac someday, and you have to keep making believe you give a damn if the football team loses, and all you do is talk about girls and liquor and sex all day, and everybody sticks together in these dirty little goddam cliques” (Salinger 131)
In general, Holden seems to find phoniness in every aspect of society. More specifically, he makes reference to the media when he is on the bus travelling to New York.
“If I’m on a train at night I can normally read one of those dumb stories in a magazine without puking. You know. One of those stories with a lot of phony, lean jawed guys named David in it, and a lot of phony girls named Linda or Marcia that are always lighting all the goddam David’s pipes for them” (Salinger 53)
This accentuates the fact that he believes society is soiled by the notion of phoniness. He even begins to make reference to simple words and phrases that he despises “If there’s a word I hate, it’s grand. It’s so phony” (106). His hatred for phoniness has deepened so greatly that it has resorted to him turning against common words in the English language. Finally, when he is talking to Mr. Antolini (his favourite teacher at Elkton Hills) about his abhorrence for society and the people who inhabit it, Mr Antolini responds by saying:
“Among other things, you’ll find that you’re not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. You’re by no means alone on that score; you’ll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You’ll learn from them — if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It’s a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn’t education. It’s history. It’s poetry.” (Salinger 189) He states that Holden is not the only person who sees humans and their behaviour as being despicable. However, the difference between Mr. Antolini and Holden is that, unlike Mr. Antolini, Holden has a great hatred for society and the “phoniness” that dwells within it. Because of this stigma that Holden has branded upon society, he shows animosity for everyone and everything around him. Consequently, his character has gone through a significant change because of this.
As a result of his hatred towards phoniness, Holden becomes hypocritical about everything around him. He doesn’t see the positive side to a situation, only the negative. As a result, by supporting the fact that in his mind the whole world is defective, he is the only one who appears to be in the slightest sense “normal”. This idea is supported when Holden and Sally are on their date at the movies when they decide to go outside for fresh air. He says: “At the end of the first act, we went out with all the other jerks for a cigarette. What a deal that was. You never saw so many phonies in all your life, everyone smoking their ears off and talking about the play so that everyone could hear and know how sharp they were.” (Salinger 126)
In addition, his deceptive nature supports the fact that he is a compulsive liar. For example, on the train to New York, he commits an act of deception on Mrs. Morrow (the mother of Edward Morrow, a boy who attends Pency Prep), in which he showered her with lies and gave her a false sense of pride. While his hatred towards phoniness is very strong, he lies to Mrs. Morrow. He doesn’t consider this act as being malicious; however what Holden doesn’t realize is that when he lies to other people he is technically considered to be his own definition of “phony”. The world is not as simple as Holden wants it to be. Therefore, it affects Holden’s ability to interpret society and control the way he acts, even though he can’t even conform to the same impartial standards that he judges other people.
Holden believes that he is the epitome of truth in a world of phoniness and that he has no issues whatsoever. However his problems recede deeper than what he believes them to be. Holden has many problems which prevent him from seeing the truth of why his life is bad. Although he’d like to believe that the world is a simple place, Holden contradicts the fact that he is only seeing one side of society while ignoring the other, (the world consisting of two sides, in which virtue and innocence rest on one while superficiality and phoniness rest on the other). Because of this, he becomes obstinate of the fact that society is completely fake and that there is no good in the world. Finally, in his overwhelming hatred for phoniness, Holden himself becomes a victim to fallaciousness, which causes him to contradict himself and his relationships with others. In the beginning, Holden sees himself as perfect and that it is society’s fault that he is depressed. But while he is ranting about how society is phony, he ends up calling himself a phony in the process. He says: “I figured that anybody that hates the movies as much as I do, I’d be a phony if I let them stick me in a movie short” (Salinger 77)
This is the first clear indication that he admits himself to be a “phony”. However, he begins to realize that it is not society that is phony; it is actually his character that is getting in the way of him seeing the truth. In addition to calling himself a phony, he also admits to being a liar. He states: “I’m the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life. It’s awful. If I’m on my way to the store to buy a magazine, even, and somebody asks me where I’m going, I’m liable to say I’m going to the opera. It’s terrible.” (Salinger 16) By admitting to the fact that he is a liar, he also admits to a major flaw in his character, that flaw being pretence. As a result of all this, Holden does not open up to others and avoids social interaction wherever possible. He is so scared of becoming what he considers erroneous, that he avoids undergoing new experiences. In the end, Holden comes to terms with the fact that he is far from perfect and that he is the reason behind all of the desolation in his life.
His downward spiral into the world of phoniness caused him to lose those who were close to him and his connection with reality (as per his hallucination involving the Catcher in the Rye). Harrison Smith has defined Holden’s friendships clearly “What was wrong with Holden was his moral revulsion against anything that was ugly, evil, cruel, or what he called ‘phony’ and his acute responsiveness to beauty and innocence, especially the innocence of the very young.” (Smith). Hypocrisy was a key factor in determining Holden’s outcome in his life. Because of Holden’s close connection with hypocrisy, it was concluded that he was the true ‘phony’ of the story. The fact that he considered the whole world and everyone who inhabited it to be “phony”, just proves the insecurities Holden had with himself. He projected his own insecurities upon society and forced those around him to experience his anguishes. The ultimate driving force behind the story is that in order to seek out the truth in society, you must discover the falsity within yourself.
Corbett, Edward P.J. “Raise High the Barriers, Censors.” The National Catholic Weekly Review America. Chicago, 7 January 1961. Rpt. in If You Really Want to Know: A “Catcher” Casebook. Phoniness in the Adult World. n.d. Website. 2 December 2012. Salinger, J.D. Catcher in the Rye. New York City, NY: Little, Brown and Company, 1951. Book. Search Quotes. n.d. Website. 3 December 2012.
Smith, Harrison. “Manhattan Ulysses, Junior.” Saturday Review of Literature. Boston, MA: Little, Brown & Co, 1951. 1. Book.