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The Catcher in the Rye - Happiness and EthicsThe Catcher in the Rye - Happiness and Ethics


The Catcher in the Rye (1951)

Classic novel about teenager, Holden Caulfield, written by the American, J.D. (Jerome David) Salinger (1919-2010), pictured right.


Fun factsThe Catcher in the Rye - Happiness and Ethics

  • Holden Caulfield became a role model for many young people.
  • Mark Chapman asked ex-Beatle John Lennon (pictured right) to sign a copy of the book hours before killing him in 1980.


Major characters

Holden Caulfield, tall (6 feet, 6 inches), skinny and shy 16-year-old American schoolboy and the story’s narrator

Sally Hayes, his girlfriend

Phoebe Caulfield, his ten-year-old sister

Mr Antolini, his English teacher


The storyThe Catcher in the Rye - Happiness and Ethics

The book is told in flashback by a 16-year-old boy, Holden Caulfield, to his psychoanalyst in a mental hospital about the few days before Christmas after the end of term at his boarding school in 1950’s Pennsylvania.

Having been expelled for failing 4 out of 5 of his classes, Holden visits his elderly history teacher, Mr Spencer, to say goodbye. But, he is annoyed when Spencer criticizes him for his poor academic performance.

Holden then fights his roommate, Ward Stradlater, because he is dating his ex-girlfriend, Jane Gallagher, whom Holden still likes. He questions him insistently about whether he tried to have sex with her and attacks him after being teased.

This fight makes him determined to leave school early and go to Manhattan, New York City where his family lives.

He arrives at a hotel there, after annoying the cab driver by asking him where the ducks in Central Park go in the winter.

In the opposite hotel wing, he sees a male guest dressing up as a woman, and a couple hysterically spitting drinks at each other. He interprets this as sexual foreplay and is both aroused and annoyed by it.

He then calls Faith Cavendish, a friend’s acquaintance, whom he believes is a stripper and will have sex with him. She agrees to see him the next day, but he backs out.

He goes down to the bar where he flirts and dances with three women in their 30’s and feels he is “half in love” with the blonde one.

But they joke about his age and leave him to pay the bill. He remembers his ex-girlfriend, Jane Gallagher, who allowed him to kiss her on her face but not on her lips.

A cab driver (whom he also asks about the ducks) takes him to Ernie’s jazz club in Greenwich Village, where he critically observes the other customers.

He meets Lillian Simmons, one of his older brother’s ex-girlfriends, who invites him to sit with her and her date. But, feeling awkward, he says he has to meet someone and walks back to his hotel, lonely and depressed.

Maurice, the hotel elevator operator, offers to send a prostitute to Holden’s room for five dollars and he agrees. A teenager, calling herself Sunny, arrives at his door.The Catcher in the Rye - Happiness and Ethics

She pulls off her dress but Holden feels “peculiar” and tries to make conversation with her. He claims he has had recent back surgery and can’t have sex with her. But he pays her anyway.

She returns with Maurice, demanding another five dollars. When he refuses to pay, Maurice punches him in the stomach and leaves him on the floor, while Sunny takes five dollars from his wallet.

The next morning (Sunday) he gives two nuns ten dollars at a sandwich bar and meets Sally Hayes, an ex-girlfriend. They split up after Holden insults her and suggests they run away and live in a log cabin.

He again fails to contact Jane and then calls Carl Luce, his old student adviser and now a university student. They meet in a bar but Luce leaves in disgust after Holden makes some juvenile remarks about homosexuals and Luce’s Chinese girlfriend.

Holden, now drunk, sneaks into his parents’ Manhattan apartment. He wakens his sister, Phoebe, who is mad at him for being expelled. When he tries to explain why he hates school, she accuses him of not liking anything.

He tells her his fantasy of being “the catcher in the rye” who catches little children as they are about to fall off a cliff, while playing in a rye field.

He then calls his old English teacher, Mr Antolini, who invites him to his apartment. He asks Holden about his expulsion and advises him to live humbly with realistic aims.The Catcher in the Rye - Happiness and Ethics

Holden falls asleep on his couch and awakens to find Antolini stroking his forehead. Thinking he is a homosexual, he leaves abruptly and sleeps for a few hours on a bench at Grand Central Station.

The next day he goes to Phoebe’s school, sending her a note that he is moving out West and she should meet him at the Museum of Natural History.

She arrives there, carrying a full suitcase of clothes, and asks him to take her with him. He refuses angrily and so upsets her that he agrees not to leave home. He then happily watches her ride on a carousel at the zoo.

Holden finishes his story there, refusing to say how he went home and got “sick”. He plans to go to a new school in the fall and is cautiously optimistic about his future.


What are its lessons for happiness and ethics?

 The Catcher in the Rye - Happiness and Ethics

1. Fight phoniness


  • hates “phoniness” (being hypocritical, shallow, pretentious and dishonest)
  • believes that you should live your own life (being true to yourself, your principles and your uniqueness as an individual ,which is why he loves his red hunting hat).
  • wants to rebel against his rich parents and their high expectations of him.


2. People aren’t perfect

Holden idealizes some people (like Phoebe) and ignores their weaknesses.

But, after his conversation with Mr Antolini, he begins to realize that people aren’t perfect and sometimes “phony” (see point 1)

 The Catcher in the Rye - Happiness and Ethics

3. Live well and don't self-destruct

Mr. Antolini tells Holden that happiness is dependent on: 

  • love and humility.

  • interesting work.

  • realistic aims.

  • positive thinking.

Holden must reject his self-destructive isolation that results from his:

  • belief that people are no good (see point 2). 
  • fear of sex. 
  • idealization of girlfriends, like Jane Gallagher, who don't live up to his high expectations 


 The Catcher in the Rye - Happiness and Ethics

4. Face reality

The “Caul” in Holden’s surname is a membrane that covers the head of a foetus during birth. This represents his constant running away from the emotional complexities of adult life like:

  • sex.
  • fear.
  • guilt.

For example, he asks Sally to run away to a log cabin.

To avoid facing reality, he lives in a fantasy world, clinging on to the innocence of childhood.

So he wants to be a “catcher in the rye” who stops children falling off a cliff (representing the perils of adulthood) after playing nearby in a field of rye (the idyll of childhood).

Mr. Spencer tells him that he must:

  • accept the world for what it is.
  • live by its rules (for example, acting responsibly and getting an education).

 The Catcher in the Rye - Happiness and Ethics

5. People make you happy

Holden is unhappy because he:

  • runs away from meaningful relationships with other people (like his ex-girlfriend, Jane).
  • isolates himself by being cynical and superior.

He is happiest when he feels close to others, as when his sister, Phoebe, is riding on the carousel in the zoo.

He doesn't understand that happy relationships come from common interests.


6. Know yourself

Holden needs to:The Catcher in the Rye - Happiness and Ethics

  • be more honest with himself.
  • accept his weaknesses.
  • do something about these weaknesses.

But he must also give himself credit (and so self-respect) for his strengths, particularly his kindness and sensitivity

For example, he gives to the nuns and refuses to use girls as sex objects.

 The Catcher in the Rye - Happiness and Ethics

7. Be kind

In contrast to the horrible elevator operator, Maurice, Mr Antolini is a hero, because he:

  • is kind.
  • gives Holden a bed in his New York apartment.

 The Catcher in the Rye - Happiness and Ethics

8. Life is change

Holden likes the unchanging displays at the Museum of Natural History, because he’s terrified by change and loss (prompted by his beloved brother, Allie’s tragic death).

He must:

  • learn that change, people’s unpredictability, and even conflict, can be wonderful.
  • accept the ending of childhood (but after childhood he wants to be a catcher in the rye saving himself and other children from this inevitability)


9. Curiosity is cool

One of Holden’s strengths is his childlike curiosity.

He asks the New York cab drivers where the ducks in Central Park go in winter.


10. Make the most of your life

Mr Antolini is worried that Holden will end up doing a boring job, if he continues to be rebellious and lazy.

 The Catcher in the Rye - Happiness and Ethics

11. Think for yourself

Holden is a better person when he

  • questions his beliefs.
  • finds the truth for himself.

For example, he:

  • challenges his prejudice against homosexuality (after Mr Antolini shows him that gays can be great people).
  • questions the Bible (believing that Jesus was too kind to send Judas to hell).
  • dislikes prejudice against people who are neither attractive nor socially accepted.


Key quotes on life

How do you know what you’re doing till you do it?, Holden Caulfield

Life is a game, boy. Life is a game one plays according to the rules, Mr. Spencer.


Two literature websites to recommend 

1. sparknotes.com

2. litcharts.com

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