“The Catcher in the Rye” Themes

Marissa L.
6
min read
Jul 27, 2021

Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger is one of the most influential books of the 20th century. The struggles of the protagonist Holden Caulfield have resonated with millions of people around the world. Teenagers, as well as adults, have been deeply influenced by the novel. This coming-of-age story deals with themes like loneliness, isolation, depression, society, sex, innocence, and loss, making it relatable to people across the decades. Let’s go over the main themes in The Catcher in the Rye.    

Alienation

Holden feels alienated from everything in society and it is a major theme of Catcher in the Rye. He doesn’t want to grow up and rather than face the realities of the world, chooses to alienate himself from complicated situations. He uses alienation as a way of standing apart and feeling special, which allows him to develop a distorted worldview; one where everyone else is at fault but he ends up with the most negative repercussions.

Holden struggles with the desire to belong, but like many people, he finds it tough to come across someone that he can connect with. He sees adults as phony and fake and doesn’t respect them and feels disconnected from most of them. His classmates at Pencey Prep don’t like him and he doesn’t get along with them, making him feel lonely. Despite his best efforts and intentions, women don’t seem to be attracted to him. He views society as fake and feels disconnected from it as well. Even when he tries to make conversations with taxi drivers, they seem disinterested in conversing with him. Holden tries to make connections and feel less alienated, but even those efforts don’t work. He feels alienated from everything around him, and this contributes to his deteriorating condition.          

Innocence

As a 16-year-old, Holden is at a coming-of-age point where he is transitioning away from being a child and growing into an adult. A loss of innocence is a regular theme in coming of age stories, but Holden is a unique case. He views innocence as a virtue and the phoniness of adult life as a problem. Although he sometimes behaves like an adult, he is innocent and naive as well. He is obsessed with sex though he is a virgin. He knows that he wants to flirt with women, but fails every time he tries. He hires a prostitute but doesn’t have sex with her and is later robbed because of it. 

The death of his younger brother Allie weighs heavily on Holden. Allie represents all that is good about youth and innocence. Holden has a soft spot for children because he views them as innocent and pure, unaffected by the phoniness of adulthood. They are genuine in his eyes and he admires them for it because he himself is losing his innocence and he doesn’t want to.     

Some of his favorite adults are the three nuns he comes across while having breakfast in New york. Nuns choose a different life than most people, which makes them less phony in Holden’s eyes. They are trying to raise money for children, humans that are innocent and authentic in Holden’s opinion. As nuns, they don’t have sex, another mark of innocence to Holden.

Coming of age tales often deal with the loss of innocence, but Holden also views innocence as a virtue making his transition more complicated.


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Sexuality 

Despite hating adults and considering them phonies, Holden is obsessed with sex. From the beginning of the story, women and sex are important elements of his psyche. He gets angry when Sradlater goes on a date with Jane Gallagher and then refuses to tell him whether he had sex or not. He flirts with the mother of one of his classmates on a train, he continuously tries to set up dates with women he knows. When he does meet women though, he ends up self-sabotaging and is unable to successfully maintain their interest. When a prostitute is sent to his room, he would rather talk to her than have sex. 

As a teenager and a virgin, one can understand his obsession with sex but his reluctance to act on his desire goes back to his struggle with giving up innocence and coming to terms with being an adult. Whereas Holden says he hates adults, he still behaves in ways that are associated with adulthood like drinking and smoking. Sex can be considered a very adult thing to do, and Holden struggles with actually doing the act even when presented with the opportunity because he subconsciously does not want to give up his innocence. 

He is getting physically older and his body is telling him to be attracted to women, but his disdain for adulthood and his love of innocence makes him conflicted about having sex. This complicated situation makes Holden miserable and conflicted.               

Adulthood

Holden views adults with disdain. He believes that everyone who decides to play the game and bow down to society’s requirements is a phony and that most adults do it. He used to respect his brother DB when he was young and an independent writer, but when he joined Hollywood he sold out and became a phony. Adulthood means being inauthentic and putting up a front, concepts that Holden despises. Every interaction he has with adults leaves him feeling disappointed. 

The few adults he respects end up disappointing him. Though he initially likes his history teacher Mr. Spencer, when he visits him after being expelled he is disappointed when the teacher tells him to focus and “play the game”. He is also disturbed by the old man’s physical state. Another reminder of how getting old affects people and the human body. 

The adult women he meets in New York are all either disinterested in him or are interested in adult men that Holden sees as phony. His reluctance to go back home and see his parents show that he doesn’t have a trusting relationship with his parents and doesn’t have a positive adult role model at home either. When he is in a desperate situation in New York, he reaches out to one of the adults he respects, Mr. Antolini. He is grateful when Mr. Antolini immediately tells him to come over and spend the night but is disappointed to hear what he has to say when he is drunk. Holden wakes up to find Mr. Antolini stroking his head, which Holden immediately thinks is a sexual act. 


Holden is turning into an adult, but he hates the idea of growing older and having to fit into the world that most adults seem to inhabit, contributing to his dissatisfaction in life.       

Helplessness

Holden feels like he has very little control over what happens to him in his life. As a child, he was sent from school to school without anyone including his parents trying to understand the root causes of his dissatisfaction. The death of his brother Allie was one of the first times he faced the harsh realities of the world, and how helpless people actually are. He sees himself as an outsider and is helpless to change that perception so he has embraced it fully. 

He views people who fall into the expectations of society as helpless mindless phonies without realizing that he is helpless himself. The few ways he can exert control he does. He smokes and drinks, behaves however he wants, and thinks how he wants. All of this can be seen as a desperate way of trying to control at least a few things in his life.  

Even though he feels sexual attraction to women, he is unable to capture and maintain their interest in him. When there’s a prostitute in his room, he feels helpless again and chooses to talk rather than have sex because he subconsciously wants to stay innocent. He is helpless even when it comes to his own desires. His eventual plan to leave everything behind and move out west can be seen as an attempt to take control of his life and overcome the helplessness that he feels, but it is an extreme decision made under times of stress and pressure.


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Loneliness

Loneliness is an emotion that everyone has felt, but Holden’s form of teenage loneliness is at an extreme, making it one of the main Catcher in the Rye themes. Holden feels disconnected from not just people, but the entire world and society around him. Holden holds himself apart from everyone around him because he is afraid of getting hurt. He feels as if nobody understands him, but he refuses to take personal accountability. Holden self sabotages every time he tries to alleviate his loneliness because if he doesn’t get close to people then he can’t be hurt. 

He has never dealt with the death of his younger brother Allie, and the loneliness he felt after that incident haunts him. He believes that it is better not to get close to people rather than get close to someone and then lose them. When his loneliness becomes overwhelming, he tries to take steps to meet people, but he always finds a way of ruining it. He calls Sally but hangs up before saying anything. He meets friends at a bar but says rude things. He goes on a date with a girl but acts like an idiot. 

Holden has lived with loneliness so often in his life that he has incorporated it as a core part of his personality. His loneliness leads him to think of himself as different from everyone else, and he, therefore, feels a sense of superiority over everyone. Rather than try to fix himself he thinks that other people and society at large are the problem.     

Authority   

Holden doesn’t respect authority because he views most authority figures as fake. The adults in his life have always disappointed him including his own parents who though loving and kind, never made the effort to understand him. His disdain for adults leads him to disrespect his teachers and get kicked out of several schools. Holden considers himself different from everyone else, and as such does not believe that the same rules apply to him. Authority figures are mechanisms of society, people who have bought into the way society operates and have learned to play the game. 

He sees that people in positions of authority find ways of abusing that authority, at least in his opinion. His parents don’t give him the attention he desires. His teachers tell him how to behave rather than try to understand him. Taxi drivers who have authority in their taxis don’t want to have conversations with him. Attractive women don’t want to interact with him. Prostitutes try to cheat him and their pimps beat and rob him. Authority gives people power and Holden believes that power makes people behave in horrible ways.     

Depression

We meet Holden in a sanitarium where he is recovering from the events that he narrates. We never know exactly why he is there, but it is quite likely that clinical depression was a big part of his condition. Oher themes and motifs like alienation, loneliness, a lack of control are typical signs of depression. Holden’s heavy drinking and smoking could also be a sign of a substance abuse disorder, which is another contributing factor to depression.

Holden says several times through the book that he is depressed, or crazy, or a madman. He expresses a romanticized view of suicide when he talks about a boy he respected because he killed himself. Initially, Holden’s statements can be seen as normal teen angst and unhappiness, but as the story progresses it becomes clear that he is struggling with serious issues. 

The first time we hear about the depths of his depression is when he talks about the death of his brother Allie. Holden says “What I really felt like, though, was committing suicide.” Holden never deals with the emotional issues that were brought up by the death of his brother, and his thoughts of depression and suicide have intensified over the years. 

Catcher in the Rye themes are powerful and varied, but if asked what is the theme of Catcher in the Rye, a possible answer is loneliness. Holden is a character that so many people can relate to because his story is one everyone has experienced in some way or the other. At its core life has made him desperately lonely. His loneliness has led him to struggle with feelings of alienation and depression. As a young man at the age of 16, he feels the loss of innocence more intensely because he is so lonely and doesn’t have a support system around him.  

Most people can relate to Holden's fears of losing innocence, and everybody recognizes that society is inherently unfair. Holden sees through the illusions and decides to deal with the world his own way. Even though it ends up disastrously, many people would like to do the same thing Holden does. Catcher in the Rye may have been written over 70 years ago but its themes are as relevant now as they were then. Essays about Catcher in the Rye can be difficult and complicated to write but don’t worry, Studyfy has experts that won’t let you down! If you need any help with homework, essay editing, or proofreading, Studyfy is your one-stop website for all your needs.


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