I don’t like Holden Caulfield. In fact, I can’t stand him. He’s everything he despises in other people: phony, a compulsive liar, hypocritical, selfish and self-centered. He’s also pessimistic, cynical, very judgmental, critical, and hopelessly depressing. Is it any wonder why he is always so depressed? He cannot stand his own company. But there are moments I felt some kind of compassion for him. Or is it just pity? It’s pity. Like when we learn that his younger brother Allie died from leukemia. Or the suicide of a boy he knew in school. His brother’s death, more than anything, is what may have propelled him to self-destruction. Being so young (a teenager), it is understandable that he has not learned to cope with his brother’s death. He’s also a self-proclaimed atheist and comes from a family that are atheists or at least agnostic. They really do not believe in anything. This, coupled with the tragic loss of his brother has left him unable to deal with loss. There is nothing for him to grasp onto. He is empty inside, and that emptiness is filled with cynicism that borders on despair. It’s no wonder he has flunked out of so many schools. What’s the point of living? That’s what he is probably thinking. Kids his age are phony. Adults are phony. Life is phony.
This colors his outlook, or rather, drains all color from life itself. He is shuffled around from one school to another, one day to another, one moment to another. The only thing that brings him any joy is his sister Phoebe, just as Allie once did. He obviously loves her. He is capable of some degree of love, but so torn up inside that he cannot deal with anything. Then there is his curiosity about the ducks at the lagoon in Central Park. Where do they go in the winter when the water freezes? He is like those ducks, and his is stuck in a long winter that might have begun with this brother’s death. There is no place for him to go. Though I suspect he was already a cynical person before Allie’s death. Sarcastic at least. The death just made him more so. It would be interesting to see Holden 10 years later. Or 20 even. Would he have changed at all? I doubt it. People don’t usually change. If they have a streak of sarcasm, it often only becomes more pronounced with age. I can imagine Holden as a grumpy old man. If he made it that far. I don’t know. He seemed bent on self-destruction. He might have died in his 20s or 30s. Maybe even have taken his own life. But despite all his cynicism, he seems to also have a survivor’s streak. Maybe he would have eventually emerged from this pit of darkness. Maybe. I certainly hope so. For his sake.
So why do I still love this book? J.D. Salinger did a remarkable job of creating him. The fact that people react strongly to this character speaks of the author’s skill in creating him. Holden’s cynical attitude, his foul language, his shifty distrusting eyes, his body language…. It’s all very real and thoroughly depicted. And this resonates with the reader. It definitely leaves an impression. Even if some people like me don’t like Holden, Salinger pulled it off.