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The Catcher in the Rye | Study Guide

J. D. Salinger

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The Catcher in the Rye | Discussion Questions 41 - 50


What question do people keep asking Holden in Chapter 26 of The Catcher in the Rye, and why does he think it's a stupid one?

The psychoanalyst working with Holden and others keep asking him whether he'll "apply" himself when he starts school again in the fall. Holden can't and won't try to answer the question because no one can know what they'll do "until you do it." All Holden knows is that he's sorry he talked so much about his experiences. He's still alienated from his future, but he now misses his past in new and specific ways.

In The Catcher in the Rye, Chapter 1, Holden refuses to discuss his childhood. Although in Chapter 26 he reveals some details, he keeps his childhood fairly hidden. Why might this be?

Holden considers childhood a time of special innocence that must be defended. His own childhood, which now exists only in memory, is no exception. By revealing only a few details, he keeps readers and himself from examining it, since close examination would likely undermine his idyllic recreation of it. When Holden does speak of his childhood in Chapter 26, it's easy to see cracks in the perfect memories. Holden's insistence on holding back details about his childhood may also reflect his desire to control and shape his life as he grows into adulthood.

Holden's descriptions of New York City in The Catcher in the Rye evoke the adult world he perceives. What settings does he describe? How do they represent that world?

The adult world, as Holden sees it, is filthy and intimidating. He sits in hotel lobbies that smell bad; at Ernie's club, he gets stuck at a "stinking" table. Holden finds himself in crowds that disgust him and induce loneliness. The city also has sanctuaries—the museum, Phoebe's school, and Central Park—but these, too, have corrupt elements. Holden encounters the upsetting graffiti first in the school and then in his beloved museum, and when he visits the park he knows so well by day to find the ducks in the middle of the night, he finds it a different and threatening place. The city as Holden experiences it is disorienting and frightening since it stands in for his journey toward a future he dreads.

Mr. Antolini explains in The Catcher in the Rye, Chapter 24, that thoughtful people often experience yearnings and despair. How do his comments address boredom, a problem Holden often experiences?

Often in the novel, Holden complains of boredom. Mr. Antolini's comments address Holden's yearning to engage with knowledge directly and reveal them to be important and valuable. He suspects that Holden is a lover of learning and perhaps one day will help others who follow in his path. Mr. Antolini worries that the alternative will be a terrible fall—the very delusion that afflicts Holden when he walks down Fifth Avenue. It is interesting that Chapter 26 ends ambiguously. Holden has clearly remembered Mr. Antolini's words, yet he still refuses to say whether he'll commit to school in the fall.

Throughout The Catcher in the Rye, Holden tries on adult roles and identities. What does he learn about himself from this acting out of some adult roles?

Over three days Holden tries out many adult roles, such as ordering drinks and dancing with older women, hiring a prostitute and tangling with her pimp, and guiding kids through the museum and teaching them history. These and other roles help Holden sort through ambivalent feelings about his place in the adult world and his emerging adult identity. He learns firsthand how adults interact and what might threaten him in the adult world. He discovers, too, roles that cause him to feel "phony" and those that appeal to his genuine interests and caring nature.

Trace Holden's comments about movies, plays, and actors through The Catcher in the Rye. Why do these art forms strike him as "phony"?

In Chapter 1 Holden criticizes his brother for writing movies and hates to see people going to movies and plays. Luce reinforces the phoniness of actors by telling the boys at school that many married actors are "flits." In either case Holden can't attend to the story because he must scrutinize every word and gesture for phoniness. It's possible that Holden's objections are a screen for other issues. Movies present intimidating adult issues. Actors play roles that Holden may have to take on for real someday. Movies bring up questions of identity and love, subjects that make Holden anxious. Perhaps Holden finds movies too real for his comfort.

In The Catcher in the Rye, what does Holden's wildly exaggerated numbers about people and events suggest about his thought processes?

Holden exaggerates numbers, as a few examples show: Stradlater pins Holden down for "around ten hours." Holden sees "millions of people standing in line" for the movies. Holden could look at the museum exhibits "a hundred thousand times." Holden's exaggerations may reflect his creative nature and the enjoyment he gets from reading and telling stories; he never identifies them as "phony." They may, on the other hand, reflect a tendency to skew the facts so that they favor his interpretation, in which case his exaggerations may hinder his developing understanding of the adult world and his place in it.

Holden often makes generalizations using words such as never or always in The Catcher in the Rye. What do they suggest about how he interprets people's motivations?

Holden's tendency to make sweeping statements may indicate a lack of maturity in his thought patterns. Yet the contexts of these statements provide a single example at most (the bus driver makes Holden throw away his snowball although Holden says he won't throw it at anyone) or no evidence (Holden assumes that the headwaiter didn't give his message to the singer, but he may have). Holden suspects that adults' "phoniness" leads them to say one thing but do another; he feels put upon personally when, in all likelihood, the people in question are hardly thinking of him at all.

In The Catcher in the Rye, how does Holden use his red hat to connect with Phoebe?

From the moment Holden buys his red hunting hat, he likes it. The hat goes on when Holden's feeling good about himself; it comes off when people may be eyeing it, and him, critically. When Holden cries before leaving Phoebe, he gives her the hat as a token of himself. After he agrees to go home with her, Phoebe kisses him and puts it on his head, where it partially protects him from the sudden downpour as he watches Phoebe on the carousel. Again, it functions as a symbol of his own best self, because the protection it offers is less from the rain and more from his own self-destructive tendencies. The hat also symbolizes Holden's emerging adult identity, so fragile that he must sometimes hide it, except from Phoebe, who loves him and sees that, as he puts it earlier, it looks good on him.

In Chapter 22 of The Catcher in the Rye, how does the incident with James Castle connect to Holden's desire to be the "catcher in the rye"?

James Castle, a young student, was badly bullied and decided to jump from a window. Castle is on Holden's mind when he tells Phoebe his idea about being the "catcher in the rye." No one was there to "catch" James Castle, and he fell. Holden seems to sense, and Phoebe silently agrees, that people, especially young people, sometimes need to be caught. Someone must be there for them. The idea underpins Holden's desire for connection even in the midst of his loneliness and alienation.

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