After a span of some 40 years, I recently got around to rereading J. D. Salinger’s “A Catcher in the Rye”. I came away from this novel with a very different interpretation of its meaning than when I first read it in English class, oh so long ago. I was shocked, not because of the narrator Holden’s Caulfield’s course language, his negativity, or the situations he retells, but by what was left unsaid, the story behind his story that Salinger has woven, like the random patterns on the Nazca Plain of Caulfield’s mind that can only be understood when viewed at a very high elevation.
“Catcher” is a story of the consequence of child sexual abuse.
The character of Holden Caulfield has been interpreted variously, primarily by most as a tale of teenage angst. He is angry, cynical, snarky, tearful, raging, full of sexual energy, confused, depressed, and crazy. He is intelligent, but lies constantly. He alternates between moments of great tenderness and insight, and extremely provocative behavior. He is obsessed by innocence, or rather the loss of it, and he doesn’t know how to deal maturely with adult behaviors. He is bothered by changes in his sixteen year-old body, desirous of women but suspicious of their motives, is outwardly homophobic, but fascinated by perverted behavior. It is from this outward appearance of Holden Caulfield that we think that this is a coming-of-age novel or teenage rebellion.
But novels of this genre, like “Candide” and “David Copperfield,” generally end on a happy and reconciled note. David marries the woman he should have married all along and lives happily ever after. Candide retires to his farm in America, a sadder, but wiser country gentleman. Even in the 1954 movie, “Rebel Without a Cause,” which was inspired, in part, by “Catcher in the Rye,” James Dean’s conflicted teen character, Jim Stark, is reconciled back to his family. Holden Caulfield, on the other hand, winds up in what appears to be a mental hospital, his spirit subdued, perhaps due to the crude psychiatric treatments available in the 1950s. His story is a descent into madness, closer to Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” in character.
Holden’s story is best understood as a long and elaborate tall-tale centered on his relationship with a Mr. Antolini, a friend of his parents and a former English teacher at Elkton Hills, one of three prep schools Holden attended, and the one he hates the most — Pency Prep and the Whooton School being the other two.
As Holden’s emotional crisis in New York City starts to reach its peak, he suddenly thinks to call Mr. Antolini, “the best teacher I ever had,” presumably because he isn’t “phony,” even though it is very late at night, perhaps near dawn. Prior to this point, which is near the end of the novel, Holden makes no mention of this teacher who had encouraged him in developing his obvious writing skills. It also turns out that Mr. Antolini was a friend of Holden’s parents, and presumably a trusted man. It is refreshing to read about an adult character that Holden actually likes. But we are being set up by the author to place our trust in an evil man, just as Holden was misled by Antolini.
In chapter 24, though it is the middle of the night, Antolini invites Holden in and provides him with an understanding ear, some comforting life advice, and a place to sleep. Mrs. Antolini, who is much older than her husband and seemingly in a marriage of convenience, makes them coffee and goes off to bed. Mr. Antolini prepares himself a series of strong alcoholic drinks and smokes several cigarettes.
Fighting off sleep “all of a sudden” and yawning obviously, Mr. Antolini prepares Holden’s bed on the couch. Holden is asleep within minutes.
Holden is startled and awakes only to find Mr. Antolini sitting on the floor beside him and touching him.
“I woke up all of a sudden. I don’t know what time it was or anything, but I woke up. I felt something on my head, some guy’s hand. Boy, it really scared hell out of me. What it was, it was Mr. Antolini’s hand. What he was doing was, he was sitting on the floor right next to the couch, in the dark and all, and he was sort of petting me or patting me on the goddam head. Boy, I’ll bet I jumped about a thousand feet.”
Frightened by this obviously sexual advance, Holden immediately dresses and hurriedly leaves the apartment, while Antolini makes some feeble excuses for his behavior. Holden’s physical reaction is telling:
“Boy, I was shaking like a madman. I was sweating, too. When something perverty like that happens, I start sweating like a bastard. That kinda stuff’s happening to me about twenty times since I was a kid. I can’t stand it.”
Though he has a penchant for exaggerating his numbers, his claim that he has had multiple encounters with pedophiles throughout his childhood is a major alarm bell. Holden seems to want to forget about it, but he can’t. Like many victims of child sexual assault, he start to doubt himself — perhaps he was wrong — wonders if he should return to the Antolini household, and blames himself for what just happened. In Penn Station, he becomes unreasonably afraid to cross the street, has a bout of diarrhea, and collapses unconscious to the floor of a public bathroom.
Although Salinger doesn’t explicitly say so, Holden shows all the signs of having been drugged with a sedative, perhaps in the coffee served by Mrs. Antolini. Rereading chapter 24, Mr. Antolini’s rambling advice on opening up the size of his mind through education. It becomes clear that Antolini is grooming Holden and, through innuendos, leading him into considering the homosexual lifestyle.
“‘Once you get past all the Mr. Vinsons [a reference to Holden’s “Oral Expression” teacher, i.e., an inferior instructor] , you’re going to start getting closer and closer – that is, if you want to, and if you look for it and wait for it – to the kind of information that will be very, very dear to your heart. 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 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.'”
What the hell is Antolini going on about? He pretends to be talking about scholarship, but this is a very abstract and confusing conversation to have with anyone in the early morning hours. Like a typical pedophile, Antolini believes that Holden, who he calls a “handsome boy,” wants to be sexually awakened by an older man. Antolini is reassuring Holden that the man-boy sexual experience, though initially confusing, frightening, and even sickening, is actually beautiful and poetic. He even offers to share erotic literature with Holden.
Antolini touts his own superior qualifications.
“‘I do say that educated and scholarly men, if they’re brilliant and creative to begin with–which unfortunately is rarely the case–tend to leave infinitely more valuable records behind them than men who are merely brilliant and creative. They tend to express themselves more clearly, and they usually have a passion for following their thoughts through to the end…. Do you follow me at all?'”
Read as a pedophile appeal, Antolini is boasting of his broad and sophisticated knowledge of sexual practices. Why bother with having sex with “brilliant and creative” amateurs, when you can have sex with a scholarly man? “Do you follow me at all?”
Holden obviously doesn’t. Even if he were not dealing with the effects of his drugging, Holden is clearly attracted to women. He wants to have sex with young women such as his sometime girlfriend Sally Hayes, stripper Faith Cavendish, his brother’s girlfriend, Lillian Simmons, the prostitute Sunny, and numerous bar flies. Holden is unable to consummate any of these relationships which leads the reader to believe he is probably gay. But in the context of homosexual sexual abuse, Holden’s fantastic obsession with having sex with a woman becomes a form of compensation, a way to “prove” to himself that he not “a flit.” To Holden, these women are props, girls that he doesn’t really care about. He is not really interested in having loveless sex. Holden is bothered by how his roommate Stradlater routinely has forced sexual intercourse with women in the back of Coach Ed Bankey’s car.
Holden has an abiding love for his childhood summer friend, Jane Gallagher. Jane and Holden are the same age, play checkers, tennis and golf, and hold hands on walks and in the movie theater.
“I got to really know her quite intimately. I don’t mean it was anything physical or anything –– it wasn’t ––but we saw each other all the time. You don’t have to get to sexy to know a girl.”
Unlike the self-centered, outspoken, and somewhat frivolous Sally, Jane is introverted, but sincere and scholarly. And they share a secret. Jane is being sexually abused by Mr. Cudahy, her step-father, a failed playwrite and drunken lout who walks around in his underwear and even naked in front of Jane. Holden relates how Jane becomes oddly unresponsive in his presence.
“…all of a sudden this booze hound her mother was married to came out on the porch and asked Jane if there were any cigarettes in the house. I didn’t know him too well or anything, but he looked like the kind of guy that wouldn’t talk to you much unless he wanted something off you. He had a lousy personality. Anyway, old Jane wouldn’t answer him when he asked her if she knew where there was any cigarettes. So the guy asked her again, but she still wouldn’t answer him. She didn’t even look up from the game. Finally the guy went inside the house. When he did, I asked Jane what the hell was going on. She wouldn’t even answer me, then. She made out like she was concentrating on her next move in the game and all. Then all of a sudden, this tear plopped down on the checkerboard. On one of the red squares—boy, I can still see it. She just rubbed it into the board with her finger. I don’t know why, but it bothered hell out of me.”
Holden sits down next to her to comfort her in her distress. This intimate moment is followed by an explosion of passion between them, including kisses all over her face, “except her mouth and all. She sort of wouldn’t let me get to her mouth.” Like Holden, Jane wants a true love making, not the abuse that involved forced kissing about the mouth. Holden claims not to know what was bothering Jane, but, in the same breath, he imagines that Cudahy “tried to get wise with her.”
Holden is unable to bring himself to see or call Jane, even though she is visiting Pencey, literally in the building next door. This can be explained in terms of his own distressed state of mind. He doesn’t want Jane to see him in his agitated state. What is perhaps harder to explain is why he allows Stradlater, a known womanizer, to go out with Jane in the first place. Holden could easily have offered to take Jane out himself. Instead, he attacks Stradlater only after he returns from his date with Jane.
The answer is that Jane knew him “the summer before last” when Holden was thirteen or fourteen, shortly after the death of his brother Allie, and presumably before Holden experienced his own string of victimizations. Jane is an icon of innocence, a bruised flower. He hasn’t seen her in a year and a half. Has she retained her innocence, or has she become a slut, a woman who gives away her sex favors to the BMOC? Does Jane still love him?
When Stradlater returns from his date, it becomes clear––to Holden at any rate–– that he indeed had intercourse with Jane. Stradlater doesn’t boast about his conquest, leading Holden to think that “something had gone funny.” Jane had resisted Stradlater’s seduction. This is why Holden explodes in anger. Stradlater has made her a victim yet again.
All throughout the narrative, Holden hints at his victimization. Holden calls practically every adult and school mate “a phony,” a person who pretends to be something that they are not or who is hiding a shameful truth. Holden’s journey begins long before his adventures in New York. He first encounters sex abuse while he is at the Whooton school.
It is not clear from the narrative who abused him first, but Carl Luce, Holden’s student advisor at Whooton may have been involved. Holden considers calling Luce when he first arrives at Penn Station, but changes his mind, saying “I didn’t like him much.” However, he changes his mind when his date with Sally Hayes goes badly. Holden notes that Luce, who is three years older (19), is an intellectual who had the highest IQ at Whooton. Still, he considered him to be a “fat-assed phony.”
Luce was well-versed in perverse sexual practices, and would enterain the younger boys with titillating stories:
“The only thing he ever did was give us these sex talks and all, late at night when there was a bunch of guys in his room. He knew quite a bit about sex, especially perverts and all. He was telling us about a lot of creepy guys that go around having affairs with sheep, and guys that go around with girls’ pants sewed in the lining of their hats and all. And flits and Lesbians. Old Luce knew who every flit and Lesbian in the United States was. All you had to do was mention somebody–anybody–and old Luce would tell you if he was a flit or not.”
Holden suspects that Luce’s sex talk and carnal knowledge was a cover for his own secret homosexuality. As counselor to the younger boys, Luce was also unusually obsessed with the details of their sex lives:
“He said that you could turn into one [a flit] practically overnight, if you had the traits and all. He used to scare the hell out of us. I kept waiting to turn into a flit or something…. When we were at Whooton, he’d make you describe the most personal stuff that happened to you. But if you you started asking him questions about himself, he got sore.”
On meeting Luce at the Wicker Bar, apparently a meeting place for homosexual men, Holden attacks Luce sarcastically.
“‘Hey, I got a flit for you,’ I told him. ‘At the end of the bar. Don’t look now. I’ve been saving him for ya.'”
“‘How’s your sex life?'” I asked him.
“‘What are you majoring in?’ I asked him. ‘Perverts?’ I was only horsing around.”
Luce, visibly annoyed by this questioning, reveals that he has a Chinese girlfriend, who is in her thirties, a sculptress, and a new immigrant from Shanghai. When asked why, Luce says he prefers “Eastern philosophy” which regards sex as both “a physical and a spiritual experience.” Holden mocks him, suggesting that he, too, should go to China to improve his sex life. Regardless if Luce is gay, he is in an unusual relationship where he is serving the sexual needs of an older, dominating woman. Given Luce’s background, this is just another sexual adventure and possibly a cover for his preference for gay men.
While at Elkton Hills, Holden witnessed the murder of an introverted, and possibly gay student, James Castle. Castle has called another student, apparently a bully, of being “conceited.” The bully and his friends confront Castle in his room to extract an apology:
“…he wouldn’t do it. So they started in on him. I won’t even tell you what they did to him––it’s too repulsive––but he still wouldn’t take it back, old James Castle.”
Castle then “jumped out the window” rather than take back the insult.
The account is hard to understand the way Holden tells it. To call another student “conceited,” meaning excessively vain, is hardly an insult to warrant a severe response leading to a death by suicide. It’s easier to conclude that James Castle was anally raped and the thrown out the window.
This interpretation is reinforced by the appearance of the Elkton Hills teacher and secret pedophile, Mr. Antolini. He verifies that Castle is really dead, picks up the body, and then carries him to the infirmary. In re-reading these passages, it seems likely that Mr. Antolini and Headmaster Hass, “the phoniest bastard I ever met in my life,” concocted the suicide story to prevent the details of his murder from reaching the parents. But the other students would have known what really happened. It was an open secret.
As a teen, I was led to see Holden Caulfield as a rebel against … something. Something was wrong in Holden’s universe. As teenagers would, we took it to mean that there was something wrong with the world as a whole. As in the movie, “A Rebel Without a Cause,” where James Dean’s character Jim Stark is rebelling against something unnamable, maybe his parents, maybe his middle-class suburban upbringing, maybe conformity. But none it makes much sense. If you read “Catcher” in the same way, you will come away with this vagueness. Holden is looking for love, tenderness, real relationships. But everyone he knows, except for his sister, Phoebe, is purely self-centered and is only interested in using Holden. He sabotages virtually all of his relationships and takes on personae of being more mature and sophisticated than he really is. He is as big a phoney as all the phonies he despises.
So, there it sits… until you realize that Holden Caulfield has been sexually abused by his trusted teachers. Holden is a victim, not of society, but of real predators, many times over. He can’t talk about it directly with anyone, not even you the reader. He is revealed in the end to be the resident of a mental hospital. He has constructed the story you have just read for another psychiatrist. Yet, despite his opportunity to be truly honest, he does not mention the cause of his distress directly. He represses his homosexual feelings. He may have even taken pleasure in his repeat sexual encounters. He cannot bear the thought that he might be the very pervert that he rails against.
The phoniness that Holden condemns is caused by our desires to see the world as perfect and perfectable. We resist having open discussions about things that we are ashamed of, but that occur with some regularity. Holden does his best to expose the seamy underside of life among the urban upper middle-class, but he is being unfair. The story is clearly not accurate. The timeline of the story unrealistically packs a month’s worth of experiences into a few days. The encounters seem just too pat, intended to impress and manipulate. We don’t even know if his encounters were partially real or totally imaginary. (Holden boasts about his ability to fool people with his tall-tales.)
Presuming that Holden is not being entirely dishonest, I see this narrative, as manipulative as it is, as a reaction to abuse. He is a teenager whose psychology and personality have been tragically damaged by pedophilia and our tendency to condemn those who expose uncomfortable truths.
Students should read “Catcher in the Rye,” not as a tale of mindless teenage rebellion “against society,” but as an example of how teachers and other trusted adults can manipulate children into madness.