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Holden As An Unreliable Narrator

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 2121 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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 J.D.Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye tells the story of Holden; A young man struggling with the responsibilities and reality of growing up. The story takes place in New York City in where Holden’s interactions with society, as well as his observations, reveal in him the belief that the adult world is completely corrupt with the only innocence being children. However, evidence throughout the novel hints at the flaws in his statements. In J.D Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye Holden displays his unreliability as a narrator through his unstable mentality and hypocritical actions which put into question the accuracy of Holden’s views on society.

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 First of all, the most basic facts about Holden’s mentality should be brought to light. The most clear cut information on his instability comes from Holden himself. At the end of the book Holden’s admits that he has been admitted into a mental institution and that he has yet to be let out. However, even before this straightforward revelation, his fragile mentality was demonstrated during his walk down fifth avenue where he almost suffered a nervous breakdown. More subtly hidden was the author’s use of phrases throughout the book. Holden is quite excessive in his use of his catchphrases of that “killed me” and “crazy” which he uses to subconsciously display his inner turmoil.

 This mental unstability of Holden’s stretches deeper than the surface. The one event that impacted Holden’s life the most, and the one that he constantly refers back to is the death of his brother, Allie. Allie’s death is a major cause to Holden psychosis. He is traumatized by this event and it causes him to be burdened by guilt. As Peter Shaw stated in his article Love and Death in The Catcher In The Rye “The most striking double entendres, redolent both of guilt over Allie’s death and an attempt to fob off that guilt on someone else is a remark about his sister Phoebe containing the words, ‘she killed Allie, too’…. his unconscious understanding is that Phoebe (like himself) is somehow responsible for Allie’s death (Shaw 1-2)” He attempts to rub his guilt off on others but it still left with a sense of hatred towards himself as well as the people around him for his brothers death. This manifested in him a biased hatred towards the world that couldn’t save his beloved brother Allie. The trauma that Holden experienced also arose in him a desire for death. In the scene where Phoebe asked Holden to name something that he liked he had trouble thinking of an answer. Instead, he found his mind wandering to memories of James Castle, a student he had known who had committed suicide. This scene suggests that Holden clearly has a fascination with death. Another mentionable moment is when he went to visit the museum. In the tomb exhibit he stated that he “liked it” there and that “it was so nice and peaceful.” This combination of guilt and desire for death warp his views into biased ones. His guilt, constant throughout the story, and his desire for death, perhaps as punishment for Allie’s death, prohibit Holden from seeing the world in a positive way. His views on society are negatively biased and he refuses to see any good in society at the risk of moving on from his guilt and seeing the world through clearer eyes.

 The thing that Holden hates most in society are adults. This has much to do with his childhood experiences which also led to his current warped mentality. Holden reveals to the audience that he had a “lousy childhood” and that “[his] parents were occupied and all before they had [him].” This already suggests that growing up Holden did not have good experiences which made biased his views towards adults. When further discussing his parents Holden chooses selective information to reveal to the reader. He describes his parents as distant and even criticizes his father’s profession as a lawyer as “phony” even though there really isn’t anything “phony” about being a lawyer. Holden demonstrates further issues with his parents in that of failed affection. In the scene where Holden was sneaking out of his parents apartment after talking to Phoebe, Holden comments “I didn’t give a damn anymore if they caught me…I almost wished they did, in a way (Salinger).” Holden wants to be caught by his parents and to be comforted, however his parents fail to be there for him. In addition, when fooling around with Stradlater he comments “Mother darling everything’s getting so dark in here….mother darling, give me your hand, why won’t you give me your hand. (Salinger)”. Although he says this jokingly this statement connects deeper to his parental issues. The most major event during the story that shows Holden’s problem with childhood is during his walk down Broadway. Holden comments on a boy walking down the street with his family:

[They] were just walking along, talking, not paying attention to their kid… He was singing that song ‘If a body catch a body coming through the rye’… The cars zoomed by, brakes screeched all over the place, his parents paid no attention to him, and he kept on walking next to the curb and singing… It made me feel better. It made me feel not so depressed any more (Salinger).

It was this moment that inspired Holden to want to become the catcher in the rye after witnessing a moment so alike his own childhood through seemingly careless parents. He wishes that someone would come and save him from the perilous situation he is currently in and likewise wishes to do the same for other children. This moment also further fuels his idea that adults are bad although in truth, not all adults behave in that careless manner.

 A major issue when reading the story is determining whether Holden’s views are reliable enough to be trusted, mentality set aside. Holden’s views in general are simply problematic. In Susan K. Mitchell’s article To Tell You the Truth…, Susan mentions two types of perceptions. Readerly and writerly. Readerly refers to perceiving information in a straightforward manner while writerly refers to perceiving the text in a way that is deeper than the apparent meaning. Mitchell states that “Holden perceives reality readerly, seeing only the surface differences between people, not the underlying differences within each person (Mitchell 2-3).” Holden looks down on others for being phony but he doesn’t seem to realize that a person is more than who they appear to be. He only sees the actions of the people around him rather than the motive behind them. To add to his flawed way of thinking is his idea that children equal innocence. Just as Holden cannot accurately categorize all adults as corrupt he cannot categorize all children as innocent. This is clearly demonstrated by his younger sister Phoebe. Phoebe displays wisdom beyond her years. She sees through Holden’s false statements and even lies to her mother about smoking a cigarette even though it had actually been Holden. Although Holden fails to accurately perceive reality, his basic way of thinking is not necessarily wrong but rather unreliable. His way of thinking is different than that of socially accepted views, the like of which he calls “phony” and causes him to view “normal’ situations biasedly. Just like how thinking differently from society he is considered mad, he also considers society’s norms as crazy and seeing their obliviousness to it makes him depressed (4-2). Holden is not technically wrong but his way of thinking is like that of me versus everyone else. In this way, his way of thinking is flawed as he sees “normal” people as degrading because of their conforming natures. Just because Holden has different views on society doesn’t mean that those who disagree with them are phony. His way of thinking causes bias towards everyone and therefore makes his claims unreliable.

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 To add further to proof against his reliability, is his habit to lie to both others and to himself. An unreliable narrator is defined as a narrator that does not follow the author’s norms as shown depicted through the novel. Holden sets the norm by repeatedly identifying society as phony and yet he constantly breaks this by lying to himself (Mitchell 2-1). Holden is often contradictory in his actions compared to how he says he feels. While he says that movies are phony he still goes to see many of them and knows them well enough to act them out. He even invites Ackley, a fellow student he dislikes to see one. He expresses his hatred for the Lunts and yet still invites Sally, an old friend who he has classified as phony, on a date to the Lunts. He hates “phony” conversations and yet has many “phony” conversations of his own. He clearly displays a need to be connected with people although he often feels dislike towards the people he surrounds himself with. His need for attention causes him to act against his own norms and therefore makes him an unreliable hypocrite. 

Aside from completely ignoring his principles, he also tends to distort reality and subconsciously lies. Duane Edwards, in his article Holden As The Unreliable Narrator mentions how “[Holden] isn’t even able to quote accurately the one line he heard a small boy recite; …Holden changes the word ‘meet’ to ‘catch’ and talks about not of love(the original meaning behind the poem) but of potential death(falling off a cliff), he reveals his willingness to distort the truth by ignoring – or even changing – the facts (3-2) .” Holden often acts like a phony himself without even being aware of it. Holden also partially lies to himself when he is talking about how he left his fencing gear on the subway and refuses to take responsibility for his actions by adding at the end of his admittance that it “It wasn’t all my fault.” He can barely tell the difference between a lie and a truth at times such as on his date with Sally when he told her he loved her and yet stated right afterwards “It was a lie of course, but the thing is, I meant it when I said it.” The phrase “to tell you the truth” follows many of his inner statements. This leaves the reader wondering if this implies that he was previously lying.

 Not only does Holden lie to himself but to others as well. In one scene, Holden has a conversation on a train with one of his classmates mother. Holden first lies about his name and then tells the mother that her son is a great student who is quite popular while in actuality, Holden knows that it is a complete lie and rather the opposite is true. Throughout the book, Holden also attempts to seem older than his actual age. At one point, he calls up a girl on the phone to invite her out. He deepens his voice in order to try to sound older than he actually is and later also admits that he looks older than his actual age and he uses this in order to try to get drinks even though he is underage. He even lied to his sister Phoebe about getting kicked out of school in order to avoid upsetting her. This is not the only time he acted falsely in order to gain the favor of others however, even if it’s the attention of people he dislikes. He straight out admits that “I’m the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life (Salinger 5-3).”

 Overall, Holden is an unreliable narrator through his unstable mentality caused by childhood issues and Allies death as well as through his hypocritical actions, lies, and problematic views. Although Holden seems to be telling the truth, what he believes to be true is not necessarily true. When reading J.D Salinger’s, The Catcher In The Rye, one has to be careful to determine the accuracy of  Holden statements as many of his points, although seeming logically sound, are actually quite irrational.

Works Cited

  • Bahar, Dashti. “Resistance as madness in The Catcher in the Rye.”Theory and Practice in Language Studies. Accessed 3 May 2017.
  • Edwards Duane. “Holden As The Unreliable Narrator.” J.D Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Bloom’s Guides. Accessed 28 April 2017
  • Mitchell Susan k. “To tell You the Truth…,” Contemporary Literary Criticism. Accessed 28 April 2017.
  • Salinger, J.D. The Catcher In The Rye. Little Brown. 1951.
  • Shaw, Peter. “Love and Death in The Catcher in the Rye.” Contemporary Literary Criticism. Accessed 3 May 2017.


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