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A Character Analysis of Holden Caulfield

Updated on March 5, 2013

Essay

Holden Caulfield's Weaknesses

Holden Caulfield is one of the most interesting and confusing characters in all of literature. He is the seventeen year old narrator and protagonist in The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger. Holden tells the story of a weekend spent in New York after he was kicked out of his fourth school for bad grades and a lack of effort. Holden is a very opinionated boy who has been related to by teenagers over the last 60 years. Throughout the book, he begins to understand that childhood innocence cannot be protected forever and everybody must learn to grow up at some point in their lives. Holden is unique in many ways. Unfortunately, his many weaknesses, that are brought to center stage throughout this novel, overpower his strengths.

Holden reveals to the reader that he is irresponsible in the first two chapters. After being asked by Mr. Spencer how his parents would respond to him being kicked out of school he said, "This is about the fourth school I've gone to"(9). Without his parents there to guide him, he does not get any schoolwork done. This is the main reason Holden is considered irresponsible. Another example is during his last few days at Pencey, Holden causes the school's fencing team to forfeit their match by leaving the team's foils on the subway. Again, his lack of responsibility shows as he blames the lost foils on his team for boarding the wrong subway when really it was all his fault.

Besides being irresponsible, Holden has a unique type of self-inflicted loneliness. Most lonely people prefer hiding away by themselves and are too shy to have a lot of human-interactions. Holden is the complete opposite; he makes it clear that he is lonely by openly making plans with other people every chance that he can get. He always finds a flaw about them that he dislikes which leads to him being let down and wishing he never would have asked them in the first place. For example, Holden says this statement; "almost every time somebody gives me a present, it ends up making me sad" (52). This reversal of a stereotype is much like a depressed person always acting happy to avoid being noticed. Holden states that he is lonely too many times to count in the book. He desperately interacts with other people to fulfill his longing for a person he enjoys being with. He seems to be lonely because he isolates himself from the world of "phonies" which is basically everyone he meets.

One of Holden's traits that is often overlooked by readers is his outgoing and eccentric personality. Holden is a very good conversationalist when he is with other people, even when he is with someone he says he does not like. One day Holden sets up a date with Sally Hayes to see a theater production. Before the date, he admits that he does not overly enjoy being with her. Then during the date, he tells her he loves her and asks her to run away to the west with him and live together. This event shows how eccentric Holden really is. Part of the reason he is eccentric is because he is so desperate and lonely that he will do anything with anyone as long as he is not alone.

One way to understand Holden's unique combination of weaknesses is to look at the traumatic events in his childhood, most importantly the death of his brother, Allie. How Holden reacted to his brother's death, by smashing all of the windows in the garage that night, shows that this event has had the most impact of any on his life. Holden receives another taste of death when he is in the dorm during the death of James Castle. Because of these horrific events, Holden is plagued with thoughts of mortality throughout this novel. Holden deals with his own mortality in a unique way; he does not seem to care about the direction of his life at times and seems to possess almost a death wish. He even talks about suicide after the depressing Sally Hayes incident, saying "I'm sort of glad they've got the atomic bomb invented. If there's ever another war, I'm going to set right the hell on top of it. I'll volunteer for it, I swear to God I will" (141).

Overall, Holden Caulfield remains lost the entire book and never finds his straight path in life. He does not have much of a future in store for him at this point in his young life. When Holden travels home and talks to his younger sister, Phoebe, he finds a shining sliver of hope in life. This exemplifies a strong point in his character which is the never-dying urge to keep trying to find happiness. Unfortunately, his weaknesses overpower his strengths in the end, causing his life to spiral out of control.

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    • Elyse Thomas profile image

      Elyse Maupin-Thomas 4 weeks ago from North Carolina

      I somehow missed out on reading Catcher in the Rye during my high school experience, so I read it myself not long ago. Holden is certainly a powerful character, and I could only take small doses of him at a time. Your character study certainly helped me process him more easily!

    • letstalkabouteduc profile image

      McKenna Meyers 2 years ago from Bend, OR

      Thanks for the hub. I'm currently reading Catcher in the Rye to my son so this is quite helpful. I read that so much of Holden's confusion and cynicism and hopelessness is based on J.D. Salinger's experiences upon returning home after his horrific experiences during WW2. It's easier for me to understand Holden knowing this.