Another e-mail I wrote, relating somewhat to Preference Falsification, focused on Holden Caulfield from the book, The Catcher in the Rye.
I had a strong reaction to your analysis that Holden is basically afraid of the future and has been pretending he simply hates adults in order to have an excuse to remain disengaged from life. So, I reread The Catcher in the Rye for the third time now, on paper with, I would say, a high attention to detail. Overall, I tried to think about whether he was actually the phony, as you claimed, or whether it was the adults. I was also interested in whether his phoniness caused him to distort his view of the adult world since you claimed his view was distorted.
I particularly paid attention to Holden’s character flaws. I made a list of 34 times he was either phony or hypocritical. I noticed 18 times when he accused others of being phony in a significant way. Of these accusations, three of them seem to be reasonably confirmed by a solid description of actual behavior or my own knowledge and opinions of the real world. I’ve attached the document of all the occurrences (not necessary to read) but overall Holden was extremely hypocritical, himself.
In my mind, the meaning of the book lies in why Holden is stuck, what is keeping him stuck, and what is getting him unstuck. For this, I think I’ve made my point in previous e-mails about the importance of listening and telling the truth. However, in reading the book again, I noticed some more subtle points on this subject.
In the first place, I feel that Holden desperately needed to connect with himself and whatever confusing meaning lay within him. Especially, to connect with his memories of Allie and various childish experiences and ideas. He may indeed be extremely traumatized. Not only due to Allie’s death, but also because of his witnessing James Castle’s defenestration. The defenestration alone could have severe implications on a person’s psychology, as I could personally attest to when that occurred in my apartment building in New Haven and more recently, when my friend witnessed a murder. However, Holden rarely finds himself in a situation where people want to hear about these things. When he writes the essay about Allie’s glove for Stradlater, Stradlater doesn’t appreciate it.
My view is that as long as Holden doesn’t deal with what’s important to him, such as the trauma, he will remain unable to deal with what is required of him by his environment. I believe that this is why he is so repulsed by adults. Because they don’t seem to either understand or have the capacity to accommodate these needs. Mr. Spencer wants to tell Holden about how he failed to learn anything about history and give him examples like their study of ancient Egypt. Mr. Antolini himself asks a few questions, but overall jumps too far ahead past Holden’s present needs. He is excessively worried about Holden’s absence from school bringing about his demise, not understanding that Holden has an overriding need that trumps “adult responsibilities”: Holden is traumatized - he needs to process that trauma.
How can he process that trauma? In part, by engaging in discursive and free-flowing conversation that occurs when Holden speaks to someone that is really listening and interested in his well-being. This is the state he is in when speaking with Phoebe. She is the only character that he explicitly claims is listening to him. He is able to admit what he actually wants to her (to be the catcher in the rye), a level of vulnerability and honesty that is uncommon for him in the outside world.
To your point of “who is the real phony?” and your example of his gratuitous lying to Ernest Morrow’s mother, I asked myself whether that situation could have been transformed into a healing one. Potentially, by speaking candidly about everything. It was complicated, however, by his complicated relationship with Ernest Morrow. Holden seems to have very few places of refuge where he feels safe enough to actually be truthful.
Holden himself is an extremely poor listener. Including to Phoebe, when she would tell him her stories. Holden completely disregarded what Phoebe told him about her plays and was instead preoccupied with when their parents would come home. When Carl Luce recommended psychoanalysis, Holden was left only with the impression that Carl had a large vocabulary and didn’t retain Carl’s suggestion.
Moreover, Holden does not listen to himself and so repeatedly fails to align his behavior with his internal voice. The best example of this is when he met up with Sally, “the queen of the phonies” for a date, only to be surprised that she gravitated towards other phonies. Sally is an incredibly socialized person and it is no surprise that she refuses a wild and chaotic plan like the one he proposed to her to run off into the forest. While I personally didn’t dislike his plan because it could have been a nice way to get his thoughts in order in peace, she certainly wasn’t the person to do it with. The fact that he spent so much time with her, when his first impression was already set, led him to snap at her.
I believe the last paragraph of the book is the most significant one. “About all I know is, I sort of miss everybody I told about. […] I even miss that goddam Maurice. It’s funny. Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.” To me, the point here is that honest speech leads him to get over his hatred. He causally links “telling” with “missing” people by saying “If you do [tell], you start missing.”