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To What Extent Does Salinger Make You Sympathize With Holden Caulfield

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J.D Salinger has made the main character and narrator, Holden Caulfield, very complex. He has many good qualities that help the reader to sympathize with him. However throughout the novel the reader comes to realize that Holden’s behaviour around other characters often contradicts the opinions he has expressed to t he reader. This makes us see that, at times, Holden is no better than the characters he dislikes. It makes him seem “phoney.” However his use of colloquial language helps the reader to realize that Holden is still quite young and has a childish and immature view of life.

You can see how immature he is because even though he is sixteen he still made a snowball and tried to get on a bus without realizing that the bus driver would make him throw it out.

“The snow was very good for packing. I didn’t throw it at anything,”

Holden then complains,

“But he wouldn’t believe me. People never believe you.”

This is a very childish thing to say, if he doesn’t get his own way then Holden believes that it’s the other person’s fault. He never considers that the bus driver is just doing his job or that eventually the snowball would melt on the bus creating more work for the bus driver who would probably have to clean it up. He instead immediately assumes that everyone is biased against him instead of maturely just accepting that you have to follow the rules and you can’t just create your own. Holden is disillusioned and sees everyone as being cynical and believes that everything is either black or white; Holden Caulfield sees childhood as being ideal and he thinks adulthood is filled with corrupt people.

Another immature thing Holden does is he can never seem to stand up for himself or tell someone directly what he was thinking or what he wanted them to do,

“I dropped about a thousand hints, but I couldn’t get rid of him,”

Holden could have easily just asked Ackley to leave, but instead he simply puts up with him. This could also be interpreted as Holden simply being kind and not wanting to hurt Ackley’s feelings.

He also does childish things just to get on people’s nerves and he knows that what he is doing is childish

“Besides I did it to annoy Stradlater. It drove him crazy when you broke any rules. He never smoked in the dorm. It was only me.”

But he still criticizes other people when they do similar things,

“His name was Commander Blop or something. He was 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. God, I hate that stuff.”

This is another example of him being a “phoney.” Even though he admits his flaws he still criticizes others faults in private but is deceptive by being polite to them to their face. He lies to the mother on the train about how sensitive and caring her son is. Yet Holden admits to the reader, “That guy Morrow was about as sensitive as a toilet seat.” Morrow’s mother is given an impression of him that is conflicting to everything Holden really believes. Holden is more than willing to forfeit the truth in exchange for the innocence he tries so hard to preserve. Holden, who sees himself as the catcher in the rye, has made it his aim to protect others, even the people he doesn’t really like, from the severity of reality. This could make you sympathize with Holden as he is generally a reasonable and kind person to other individuals. There are certain events that force you to sympathize with Holden. For example he is very dependant on other people and has to have someone to talk to all the time. He hires a prostitute and when she arrives he only wants to talk to her,

“‘don’t you feel like talking for a while?’ I asked her. It was a childish thing to say, but I was feeling so damn peculiar.

‘Are you in a very big hurry?’

She looked at me like I was a madman. ‘What the heck ya wanna talk about?’

This makes you realize that Holden might just be lonely. As he doesn’t conform to what people expect of you, does things differently from everyone else and doesn’t really care what other people think of him, this makes you show compassion for him. The language used in this section of the book is very clever, Salinger uses dialogue and inner monologue as well, this adds to the humour in what could have been a serious paragraph.

When Holden is around Stradlater it makes the reader see that Holden is a more pleasant character than him. Salinger does this by characterizing Stradlater as a womanizer. As Holden knew the girl Stradlater is going out with, Jane Gallagher and because the reader knows about Stradlater’s past relationships it makes you feel more sympathy for Jane and for Holden,

“‘I oughta go down and at least say hello to her, at least.’

‘Why the hell don’tcha, instead of keep saying it?'”

This shows that even though Holden wants to go and say hello to Jane he is quite shy and won’t.

“‘Listen. Give her my regards, willya?’

‘Okay,’ Stradlater said but I knew he probably wouldn’t.”

This makes you feel empathy for Holden as even though he knows Stradlater won’t mention him to Jane he still hasn’t got enough courage to go down and talk to her. Holden genuinely wants to talk to Jane and cares about her, he knows that Stradlater is just using her and yet he still doesn’t interfere. I think that Holden was really undecided on what to do in that situation as he was torn between caring about Jane and his friendship with Stradlater. I think that he was angry later as he had done Stradlater’s homework and that was under appreciated and that caused Holden to feel that he had made a wrong decision and become extremely angry with Stradlater.

Holden seems to have an obsession with the fact that Jane always kept her kings on the back row when they were playing checkers, and all Holden seems to think about through out the book is Jane. This could mean that he has difficulty letting go of his past. He often mentions his dead brother, Allie. I think that Holden feels guilty that he hasn’t managed to live up to Allie’s standard this could be the reason he doesn’t want to give up his past as he would feel like he was betraying Allie. The way that Salinger spends so long describing Allie’s baseball glove suggests that Holden still feels that he can bring back his brother through owning his glove full of love poems. And can share some of the love Allie has missed through the years. Information about Allie stays mysterious and private to Holden so when Stradlater denies the essay he has written and he becomes angry it shows how he is hiding his emotions about his brother’s death that he has only been able to show through anger,

“The night he died I broke all the goddam windows with my fist. I even tried to break all the windows on the station wagon.”

Stradlater seems to make these repressed emotions resurface by insulting Holden through his lack of respect for Jane and the hard work Holden had just put into writing that essay for him.

I think that Salinger is mainly successful in his attempt to make the reader sympathize with Holden. Although at the beginning of the book Holden appears to be fake and uncaring towards several of the other characters, as the book progresses the reader is shown how he has been through the tragic loss of his brother and suppresses any emotions he had about him, and how Holden really wants to fit in with the “Adult world” even if some of the things he is doing he disagrees with. Holden is just a normal person with flaws like anyone else, the difference is that Holden can admit his faults and doesn’t judge others immediately by theirs.

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