“The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently” Friedrich Nietzsche German Philosopher and Philologist. This is a view that is echoed well through J. D. Salinger’s antagonist, Holden Caulfield, in The Catcher in the Rye. Holden, a prep school dropout, constantly feels that people are phony and conform to what society tells them to. He especially feels that this is the case in the education system which he has repeatedly refused to whole heartedly participate in. Through the depiction of Holden as both a caring, smart kid and a total screw up, Salinger explains to the reader that a total disregard for society’s rules and academic standards is impractical if success is the goal, but that one must still guard their values and ideas lest they be lost to the conformity of life.
Throughout the novel Holden’s non-conformity leaves him lonely and unsatisfied but he proves that virtue is imperative. During the course of the story he has many opportunities of necking or going all the way with a girl but he is never in the mood. Alone at the hotel Holden invites a prostitute thinking he would have some fun but when the time comes he goes on the contrary, “I know you’re supposed to feel pretty sexy when somebody gets up and pulls their dress over their head, but I didn’t. Sexy was about the last thing I was feeling. I felt much more depressed than sexy” (Salinger 95). The fact that Holden mentions that he knows what his attitude is supposed to be during such a situation means he recognizes how to socially conform but by not being in the mood suggests that a value he protects is virtue. Holden not being aggressive as other males in society is feeble and unable to successfully handle or control relationships.
While sitting alone Holden reminisces about the chances he had of going all the way: “The thing is, most of the time when you’re coming pretty close to doing it with a girl, she keeps telling you to stop. The trouble with me is, I stop. Most guys don’t. I can’t help it. You never really know whether they want you to stop or whether they’re just scared as hell, or whether they’re just telling you to stop so that if you do go through with it, the blame’ll be on you, not them. Anyway, I keep stopping. The trouble is, I get to feeling sorry for them” (Salinger 92). Again we can clearly distinguish the fact that Holden knows what he does wrong, when he says the phrase, “The trouble with me is, I stop. Most guys don’t,” he believes that he can accomplish his goal by acting as other men in society, but unlike other men he cares and feels sorry for the women. Holden’s loneliness comes at the cost of being selfless.
As well as using Holden’s personal life, Salinger also uses Holden’s academic faults to reinforce his point. After flunking, Holden heads over Mr. Spencer’s house. There, Holden gets questioned about his goals in life. Mr. Spencer says “Life is a game, boy. Life is a game that one plays according to the rules” (Salinger 8). Holden believes that only phonies abide by the rules and therefore fails to conform to the normal’s of society and flunks out of Pencey Prep. Teachers like Mr. Spencer and Mr. Antolini see potential and intelligence inside Holden, but do not understand his motives for misbehavior. Holden does not like the way the information is presented in school, and the teachers who present it, nor does he do anything to actually “apply” himself. His behavior is explained by him trying to stand out as a unique figure in every situation possible. He tries to resist doing anything done by phony people and ultimately secludes himself from the social norm. Consequently, he has flunked out of three prep schools already. He doesn’t play by the rules and sees himself as unique from other students. Had Holden actually put forth some effort, meaning he would have had to conform just a little, he would have done a lot better in school.
All through The Catcher in the Rye Holden has trouble fitting in with society, but every so often he succeeds and feels accepted, at least for a little while. On his way from Pencey, Holden catches a train and runs into the mother of another student. Although Holden thinks the boy is a complete jerk, he tries to make her feel better by telling her how her son is “so darn shy and modest and all” (Salinger 57). Even while Holden continues to “shoot the bull” his lying is his attempt to keep the conversation going. He uses his lies to protect himself from society’s displeasure but once he feels close to Mrs. Morrow, Holden tells how he “was beginning to feel sort of sorry I’d told her my name was Rudolf Schmidt” (Salinger 56). While the entire story tells of how Holden always tell it how it is and does not like someone who lies to himself, he still conforms to the point of stretching the truth in order to make someone feel good, not just for personal gain or amusement.
Through Holden’s conversation with Mr. Antolini and his comments about education it is shown that while education may not fit well with one’s personal beliefs and learning abilities it is necessary in order to have a good chance to succeed. Throughout the book and especially while talking to Mr. Antolini, who is always a voice of reason regardless of latter questionable events, it becomes clear that Holden is not a genius or successful, most of the problems that he has are caused by his own refusal to agree with or follow the rules set before him.
This is illustrated well when Mr. Antolini mentions a letter that was sent from his headmaster to his father that said he was “making absolutely no effort at all. Cutting classes. Coming unprepared to all [of his] classes” (Salinger 186). While Holden may not have liked his subject that can hardly be considered an excuse for simply giving up on them. Had Salinger truly wanted to say that the American education system and its conformity was horrible he likely would have done so through the depiction of a bright successful student who was simply held down by his school. However he does not.
He even comments on the rewards of education through Mr. Antolini’s comment that “educated and scholarly men, if they’re brilliant and creative to begin with-which, unfortunately, is rarely the case-tend to leave infinitely more valuable records behind them than men do who are merely brilliant and creative” (Salinger 189). This shows that Holden is not truly in the right about flunking out of school and could actually gain an enormous amount from it whether or not it is how he prefers to go about things. While we know he has some measure of brilliance and creativity as can be seen through his compositions and reading he has little in the way of a good education and thus his chances of at least leaving behind things of value are minimal.
This is a fact that is realized by Holden as the book goes on and can especially be seen by his growing maturity near the end. Generally, while living by his own rules and standards Holden finds himself in miserable situations. He does not agree with or cooperate well with those who do conform which places him at odds with them. Through the use of Holden, in The Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger makes the observation that society and education do require conformity and thus are infertile ground for anyone unwilling to follow its rules. However Salinger also gives the impression that if success is the goal than assimilation cannot be ignored, but it may come at the cost of losing one’s individualism or at least feeling as if one is.