Does Holden Caulfield epitomize Altruism or Misanthropic Nature?

Holden Caulfield, the teenaged protagonist of J.D. Salinger’s much celebrated book “The Catcher in the Rye” is undoubtedly one of the most famous and influential characters of the popular culture. Albeit Salinger has left the phoney world once and for all, his shadow still lives forever in Holden Caulfield. Salinger’s acerbic wit received both hatred and love from his critics and readers. While some may judge Holden Caulfield as a terrible cynic and a troubled teenager, he just could be an altruistic “Catcher in the Rye”, the way J.D. Salinger intended.

Readers may sometimes overlook the significance of the title of the novel, to the protagonist. For the usual reader, there are many negative qualities attributed to the troubled and cynical character. For instance, Holden is a misanthrope as he hates the entire world, which he considers phoney and has a host of adjustment problems due to which, he is not able to pass his exams. He gets the axe three times from three different schools and he remains flippant when it comes to studies and learning anything in school.

Rebellious Holden renegades against everything in the world and uses foul language. He swears at people very often and is also a consummate liar. Lying comes very natural to Holden and thus, from the pettiest matters to the most serious issues, Holden can put up an image and lie to his heart’s content. At 16, Holden already smokes and drinks, and tries to have a fling with a prostitute. Above all, Holden is a terrible loser. As a result, the phoney world labels him “crazy”.

Now, the interesting question is “Does Holden really deserved to be labelled crazy?” The answer predictably seems to be an emphatic “no”. If Holden is a misanthrope outwardly, he is an altruist in the truest sense. The fact that Holden loves children shows conspicuously that he is innocent within. He misses his dead younger brother, and this incident unhinges Holden to a large extent. Surprisingly, nobody in Holden’s family seems to be lamenting the death of his younger brother.

It’s only Holden who carries the sorrow with him and, he misses his brother quite often and appreciates Phoebe’s (his sister) innocence and loves her dearly. Phoebe means the world to Holden. His association with the innocent children is evident enough to justify that Holden is constantly in search of true love, affection and innocence, which the adult world (the phoney world) denies him. Hence, this leads to Holden’s angst.

There are a few instances in the book that proves Holden as an altruist. Although Holden is portrayed as a failure academically, one must also note that he is a genius per se. His love for literature and the fact that he writes creatively proves a point or two that Holden cannot be labelled as a loser. Holden is over-matured for his age and is able to gaze the adult’s world from its clearest picture. He understands that he will also one day fall into the same dirty phoney world and become a phoney himself. This affects his behaviour tremendously and, his wanting to be a recluse increases all the more.

When Holden tells his girlfriend that they should run away into the woods and live in a cabin, he means it from the heart. Holden believes running away from the phoney world is the only way to get away from it. Unfortunately, this simple dream never gets fulfilled.

Another incident that one can bring forth is Holden’s experience with the two nuns in the train. He truly appreciates the simplicity of the two nuns, and acknowledges their nobility. As it’s easy for Holden to strike up a conversation with anybody, he does it with ease with the nuns. When he finds out they work in some convent, he immediately assumes that they might need some charity. He quickly offers ten dollars to them. This simple act shows that Holden feels for them deeply as he is convinced that the nuns are polite and not phoney (most importantly).

His genuine answer to Phoebe of his wanting to be “The Catcher in the Rye” when asked by her what he wants to become in life proves that Holden clearly loves innocent souls (children). Holden is very concerned about the little innocent children falling into the adult’s phoney world. The only dream that he has in his life is to save these innocent children from becoming phoney. This is so evident when he saves some children from falling into the rye just in time. Another incident that can be brought in this light is when Holden removes the “Fuck You” sign printed on the wall of his sister’s school. He is so possessive about the innocent children that he fears they will be spoilt and influenced to become phoneys by the phoneys around.

Holden admits he misses his friends terribly including Ackley, Stradlater and even Maurice. This proves enough that Holden doesn’t hold any grudge against anybody. He weeps for the entire world as he sees it falling further into an abyss. Just like W.B. Yeats’ falcon, in his famous poem “The Second Coming” Holden is constantly trying to find the hook to hang his soul but doesn’t find in the phoney world. Just like the falconer in the same poem, the world fails to hear Holden’s voice and moves deeply into their phoniness leaving Holden completely shattered and psychologically handicapped (if the labelling theory means anything). Holden’s gyre is to obliterate the phoniness and make everybody innocent and not phoney but he fails.

Holden is terminally trapped in the vicious cycle of the phoney world leaving him no door to escape from it. Hence, his search for love and affection never gets fulfilled in this phoney world. On the contrary, the world is quick to judge Holden and label him as a deviant, a rebel, a cynic, a failure, etc. The question, “Does Holden Caulfield do justice to the title of the book?” can only be answered with a positive clarifier, “YES” and this is evident in Holden’s hidden image of an altruist beneath his outward appearance of a misanthrope. However, it’s the phoney world around Holden that fails to comprehend and accept Holden’s simple innocent world.

The book may be several decades old, but the character remains fresh and relevant to this day. It is perhaps Holden’s altruistic nature that makes every reader see a piece of himself or herself in the character. Cynical Holden turns out to be cynical because he is baffled by the shallowness of the world, and how people around him are trapped in a cycle of lies that society spins. This misfortune of getting trapped within the “system” is sadly a part of growing up, unless one consciously decides to not be a part of it.

In the name of societal obligations, civilization and being an adult, people tend to overlook the importance of innocence and the joy of simplicity. Holden feels terrible for those stuck in this system, but cannot articulate in a manner that the phonies can understand. It is this inability of his that leads him to being labelled a cynic, and a troubled truant.


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