7 November 2014
WE ARE ALL JUST A BUNCH OF PHONIES
In J.D. Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye, protagonist Holden Caulfield struggles to find his place in the world as he oscillates between childhood and adulthood. At thirteen, his younger brother, Allie, passes away which hinders Holden from moving on with his life because of his inability to mourn successfully. Holden’s “behavior discourages readers from identifying
[him] as purely [immature] or purely [mature]” which classifies him as a “morally ambiguous character.” Calling everyone a phony and ordering a prostitute at seventeen illuminates Holden’s childish ways; however, despite those actions, he also donates to nuns and erases profanity off the walls of an elementary school. Holden can be viewed as morally ambiguous through his fluctuating characteristics as he encounters several different experiences over the span of two days which elucidates the theme that there is no definitive point when one reaches adulthood.
As Holden reflects back to his days at Pencey Prep, he explains how he decided “to say goodby to old Spencer, [his] history teacher” which seems to be a mature and ethical decision; however, “the minute [he] went in, [he] was sort of sorry [he’d] come” which proves him to still be immature and somewhat rude (3, 7). He treats Mr. Spencer with respect by calling him “sir,” answering all of his questions, obeying what he asks him to do, and picking up the “Atlantic
Monthly” after he drops it (710). At the bottom of his exam paper, Holden “dropped a little note” to Mr. Spencer explaining how he “can’t seem to get very interested about the Egyptians”
and that it “is all right” if he chooses to flunk him because “[he is] flunking everything else except English anyway” (12). This letter verifies Holden’s sincere respect for old Spencer because he takes the time to write a legitimate explanation as to why he could not compel himself to finish his paper. Juxtaposingly, “he wasn’t even listening” to what old Spencer had to say and was constantly complaining about his appearance, room, and words he used like “grand”
(9, 10). Throughout his time at the Spencer’s home, Holden’s thoughts and actions classify him as both sincere and judgmental which contributes to his moral ambiguity because he kindly takes the initiative to see old Spencer, but once he arrives, “he [wants] to get the hell out of the room”
After Holden chooses to leave Pencey early because “it made him too sad and lonesome,” he takes a train to New York and genuinely converses with Ernest Morrow’s mother, but he childishly “[shoots] the old crap around” as he usually does which contrasts his authenticity and implies that he will always return to his normal behaviors (51, 55). He commences his fabrications when Mrs. Morrow asks for his name and he tells her “Rudolf
Schmidt” — “the name of the janitor of [their] dorm” (54, 55). After talking for a while, she asks why he had left Pencey before the scheduled break and Holden deceivingly explains that he
“[has] to have this operation” because of “this tiny little tumor on [his] brain” (58). This artificial conversation and explanation reveals Holden’s absurd fascination with deception to which he
“can go on for hours if [he] feels like it” and his immature amusement he receives from it demonstrating the constant fluctuation in his mannerisms (58). Although he misleads the mother,
Holden speaks to her innocuously which confirms that he obtains some amount of benevolence
showcasing his moral ambiguity and also presents his progress in his transition to adulthood since he takes the initial step towards maturity.
While staying at the Edmont Hotel, Maurice, “the elevator guy,” asks Holden if he wants
“a little tail” that night and without giving it much thought, Holden agrees to ordering the prostitute which primarily infers adult activities;