Foundations II Honors
24 January 2014
Existentialism in Holden Caufield
“Existence precedes essence” (Sartre). This short phrase was adopted as the slogan of a philosophical movement that became popular during the World Wars. In post World War II
America, Holden Caulfield, from the book
The Catcher in the Rye
by J.D. Salinger, is a character who represents the existentialist movement that was followed by many rebellious intellectuals of his era. Although this is not explicitly stated in the physical text, it is implied, through his thoughts, actions, and views on society, that Holden would agree with Søren
Kierkegaard’s doctrine. Existentialist ideologies proclaim that human beings are free of the chains of conformity that restrain all people to the expectations created by society. Human nature is completely different for every person. This means that outside influences should not affect one’s purpose in life. People have absolute freedom and independence from the “phony” culture that is completely man made and therefore imaginary. Human beings are not born with any predetermined nature. Nothing in one’s life is set in stone on the day that a person is born.
People decide what they will accomplish and what is valuable to them. Holden Caulfield absolutely hates the mainstream view of success. The idea that one must have a high paying 9 to
5, a wife, a few kids and a nice house in a swanky area makes him sick. He thinks everything is phony and wants to escape Manhattan, which is full of rich judgmental snobs. When asked what
he would like to be in life, Holden responds that he would like to become the catcher in the rye in order to save the youth from the evils of society. J.D. Salinger presents the ideology of existentialism through his portrayal of the character Holden Caulfield.
The first existentialist scene that appears in
The Catcher in the Rye is at the football game at Pencey Prep School. Holden is standing alone “way up on Thomsen Hill, instead of down at the game” (Salinger 3). because he is “ostracized” by his fencing team. The importance of
Holden being way up on the hill and being ostracized by his peers is to express the severity of his alienation from the Pencey Prep environment. Standing above all of the students who are down watching the game illustrates how Holden feels superior to everybody else. His way of thinking does not mimic any other students that attend his school making Holden stand out and feel different. The anger he has towards society makes him believe everything that he stands for is better than other peoples ideas and morals. He dislikes the people at his school because he doesn't seem to have any real friends and he always seems to be calling his classmates phoney’s when he describes them. Existentialism stresses the idea of “individualism” (David Banach).
An existentialist believes in self freedom which goes against the “goddam cliques” that categorize every student into separate social groups. These cliques take away the students individual identity and make them just part of a larger group rather than a free thinking person.
Holden has no such clique. He is distanced from all the other kids and has no way to express himself giving him even more displeasure with the atmosphere at Pencey Prep. His drive towards individuality makes him a true existentialist.
Religion is believed to be non existent in the mind of an existentialist. Holden is “sort of an atheist” (Salinger 99). He says that he likes Jesus but doesn’t “care much for most of the
other stuff in the bible” (Salinger 38). In existentialism the Bible would be viewed as just a book of fictional stories. When Holden says that he likes Jesus he never states that he believes everything that is in the bible about him is true. More like, he agrees with Jesus’s morals. Jesus