In J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, the narrator, Holden Caulfield often expresses his hatred towards “phoniness” and phony people. In accordance with the story, calling a person “phony” can mean that they are not honest, and do not have an authentic personality. A “phony” will put on an act when they are in public, and pretend that they are a better person than they truly are. To put in modern terms, a phony person is someone who is “fake”.
Holden pays very close attention to those he meets and is constantly pointing out who the phony people are. This has become an obsession for Holden, and while he does dislike these dishonest people, he realizes that even he himself can be a phony at times. In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden obsesses over the hatred he feels towards phony people such as the adults that he has met, the students at Pencey Prep, and even himself.
Holden believes that adults are the most phony people he has met. Near the beginning of the story, when Holden goes the see Mr. Spencer, the teacher asks him why he had left his previous school, Elkton Hills. Holden answers him saying that it is a long story that he does not want to get into. The real reason why Holden had chosen to leave his old school was mainly because of the headmaster, Mr. Haas. Holden describes him as, “the phoniest bastard I ever met in my life. Ten times worse than old Thurmer.” (Salinger, J. D. Ch.2) Holden also explains that Mr. Haas would only be nice to the more wealthy and sophisticated parents from the school.
“He’d be charming as hell and all. Except if some boy had little old funny-looking parents.” (Salinger, J. D. Ch.2). Holden is deeply upset at the fact that Haas is only really interested in the wealthier parents and believes that he is above those who are not like him. Even with his teacher, Mr. Spencer, Holden points out some of his phony habits. While talking about Holden’s parents, Spencer uses the word “grand” to describe the couple.
“I had the privilege of meeting your mother and dad when they had their little chat with Dr. Thurmer some weeks ago. They’re grand people.” (Salinger, J. D. Ch.2) Holden agrees with him but then goes on to explain how he detests that word. “Grand. There’s a word I really hate. It’s a phony. I could puke every time I hear it.” (Salinger, J. D. Ch.2). Holden makes it very clear that he does not like words that are used to over exaggerate.
Mr. Spencer most likely used the word “grand” to exaggerate what he thought of Holden’s parents, but Holden picked up on it right away. In one instance, when Holden meets his older brother’s ex girlfriend at the bar, she acts very phony towards him, most likely hoping that Holden will say something good about her to his brother. Holden mentions that his brother is in Hollywood currently, so Lillian gets even more excited.
Holden can tell that he is most likely being used when he says to himself, “You could tell she thought it was a big deal, his being in Hollywood. Almost everybody does. Mostly people who’ve never read any of his stories. It drives me crazy, though.” ( Salinger, J. D. Ch.12). He is annoyed with her from the moment she approaches him, and she even causes him to leave the bar. Holden does not appreciate this dishonest kind of behavior that he notices from most of the adults in his life, and is constantly pointing out the phony things that they do and say.
While attending Pencey Prep, Holden notices that nearly all of the other boys attending school with him are phonies as well. One of the senior students, Robert Ackley, who lives next door to Holden, is constantly overstaying his welcome in Holden’s room and is seen as a nuisance. On Holden’s last day at Pencey, Ackley had once again invited himself into Holden’s room and laid down on his bed, and told Holden all about his experiences with girls.
Holden says, “All he did was keep talking in this very monotonous voice about some babe he was supposed to have had sexual intercourse with the summer before.” (Salinger. J. D. Ch.5), and then goes on to mention “It was all a lot of crap, naturally. He was a virgin if ever I saw one.” (Salinger. J. D. Ch.5). Holden clearly knows that Ackley is lying, and creating these stories to make himself sound “cool”, but Holden does not fall for it.
Holden’s roommate, Ward Stradlater, is also a phony. Holden says that he is a “secret slob”. ‘He always looked all right, Stradlater, but for instance, you should’ve seen the razor he shaved himself with. It was always rusty as hell and full of lather and hairs and crap.” (Salinger. J. D. Ch.4) Although Stradlater seems very handsome and put together on the outside, he is not very organized. Holden notices that it is at this age where many people begin to act phony.
The most prime example of phoniness in The Catcher in the Rye comes from Holden, himself. Holden is just a young person growing into an adult (who are the phoniest), and trying to understand himself. He often exhibits the same phony behaviour that he says he hates so much. While Holden is on the train, a woman sits down next to him who happens to be the mother of one of his classmates at Pencey.
She asks about her son and Holden agrees with her that her son is a shy and sensitive person. Holden does not really think this, and then goes on to say, “Sensitive. That killed me. That guy Morrow was about as sensitive as a goddam toilet seat.” (Salinger. J. D. Ch.8). He also lies about his name to the woman. There was really no reason for him to lie. He simply lies because he can, even though realizes that he probably should not have lied.
Holden also calls himself “the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life.” He then says, “ It’s awful. If I’m on my way to the store to buy a magazine, even, and somebody asks me where I’m going, I’m liable to say I’m going to the opera. It’s terrible.” (Salinger. J. D. Ch.3). Holden knows that lying, as well as his phony behaviour is wrong, yet he still decides to lie when he has the chance.
Holden Caulfield expresses his hatred towards the phony personalities that he sees in others. He believes that adults are the most phony, and will act this way to get what they want, whatever that may be. He also sees people his own age begin to exhibit the same kind of phony behaviour that he sees in adults. What he fails to notice at times, is his own phony behaviour. Holden constantly points out and judges people who are fake, and insincere, and he obsesses over doing this to the point where he even causes himself to become miserable. Ultimately, Holden expresses much of his hatred towards the one thing that he has become.
Salinger, J. D. The Catcher in the Rye. Little, Brown and Company, 1951.
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