Explain the idea “Holden is a great rescuer, but fails to rescue himself.” How does Holden’s character change during the course of the novel?
In The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger perfectly captures a teenage boy’s struggle with adolescence. The story is told from the perspective of Holden Caulfield, who is widely regarded as “…the original sullen teenager” (National Public Radio 2008). Throughout the novel, Holden takes the reader through a few days of his life, in which he flaunts his hostile attitude to the reader. Over the course of his journey, there is a subtle, yet important, pattern. The Catcher in the Rye includes the constant motif of Holden Caulfield rescuing others, while failing to rescue himself.
In the novel, Holden finds opportunities to rescue others, but he never focuses on bettering himself. For example, he highly respects women when it comes to sex. He explains that, when girls tell him he is going too far with them, he always stops because he “…get[s] to feeling sorry for them…they tell [him] to stop, so [he] stop[s]” (Salinger 50). Later on, when Holden has his encounter with the prostitute, he pities her and does not desire to do anything sexual with her. He treats women as though he is trying to save their sexual purity. However, this does not help Holden at all. He saves these girls, but, as a result, he never has the opportunity to lose his virginity.
Another, less superficial, example of Holden’s rescuing others instead of himself is the way he acts toward his little sister, Phoebe. Specifically, when Phoebe claims she is not going back to school, he insists, “You have to go back to school” (Salinger 112). Although he sets himself up to ruin his life by quitting school, he cannot allow Phoebe to follow his same destructive path. He saves her academic opportunities, but fails to save his own.
Holden’s desire to rescue Phoebe supports the ultimate example of him being a great rescuer, but failing to rescue himself. Toward the end, when Phoebe asks him what he would like to do with his life, he explains his desire to be a “catcher in the rye” (Salinger 93). His aspiration to save children from falling off a cliff greatly represents his desire to save innocence. He wants to rescue Phoebe, as well as these children, so he can rescue the purity he believes can only be found within an innocent child. However, he has given up on saving his own purity, as he believes it has been lost. As a result of this, “Holden channels his grief into altruistic fantasies of protecting those whose existence remains unmarred by graffiti, phoniness, certainty, and death” (Tolchin 37). He fantasizes about saving the children in the rye field because saving them means preserving the purity left in the world.
Consequential to Holden’s desire to rescue others, specifically their purity, he loses sight of the importance in rescuing himself. He does not believe himself to be pure, so he gives up on himself. Because of this, it seems that Holden’s character does not change throughout the novel. He remains static, his “…voice is the same at the end of his retelling as it is at the start,” and “He seems to have learned very little…” (Brooks 357). By the end of the novel, it seems as though Holden will continue to rescue others and fail to recognize that it is he who needs rescuing.
Brooks, Bruce. “Holden at Sixteen.” Contemporary Literary Criticism, 80(3), 2004, pp. 353-357.
National Public Radio “Holden Caulfield: Giving voice to generations.” National
Public Radio Books, 20 Jan. 2008, www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=18225406.
Salinger, Jerome D. The Catcher in the Rye. Penguin Books, 1994.
Tolchin, Karen R. “Optimism, Innocence, and Angst in the Catcher in the Rye.” Children’s
Literature Review, 181, pp. 33-45.
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