Holden Caufield, the protagonist of J. D. Salinger’s iconic coming of age novel, cycles through various emotional states towards people, places, items, and events throughout the story. However, most of his feelings can be categorized under the umbrellas of either contentment or dissatisfaction. For most of the novel, he exists in a state of deep depression that overshadows him and skews his view of many events. Holden’s emotions are very contradictory as well; he simultaneously abhors and desperately wants to be a part of the world he lives in.
He is both fascinated and disgusted with the people he meets on his journey and finds himself in situations that make him feel many emotions, whether that emotion is joy, disgust, or just plain contentment. Holden is thrown into a state of maladjustment when dealing with two other boys at his school: Ackley and Stradlater. He sees both boys as slobs, but their slovenliness manifests in different ways. Ackley is more openly disgusting with his mossy teeth and tendency to cut his fingernails all over the floor, with Holden viewing him as “sort of a nasty guy… [that he] wasn’t too crazy about” (Salinger 19).
Stradlater, however, is described as more of a “secret slob,” as he “always looked alright…[but his] razor…was always rusty as hell and full of lather and hairs and crap” (Salinger 27). Holden looks down on these habits and sees the two boys as phonies who are trying to conceal their true feelings from the world although he is doing the same though his pretentious veneer. Stradlater later returns after a date with Jane Gallagher, a girl who Holden previously saw, and refuses to tell Holden any of the details.
This enrages Holden, since he holds Jane as a paragon of innocence and virtue in his mind, and he attacks Stradlater, “[trying] to sock him with all [his] might, right smack in the toothbrush, so it would split his goddamn throat open” (Salinger 43). He is tormented because of his lingering affection for Jane, and this torment expresses itself when he tackles Stradlater to the ground. He escapes from the school soon after to try and distance himself from what he does not want to confront, a theme that repeats itself through the story.
Holden still harbors affection towards Jane Gallagher as evidenced by his rage at Stradlater’s nonchalance about his date with her. Once he gets himself settled in the city, he remembers a summer that he spent with her in Maine. Holden describes her as funny, but not conventionally beautiful. He is drawn to the way her mouth moves, though, in that “[it] sort of went in about fifty directions, her lips and all” (Salinger 77). The two never had sex though, as Jane wouldn’t let him kiss even her mouth.
She did, however, hold hands with Holden quite often, as he describes holding hands with her as wonderful. This is a rare situation that does not make Holden nervous or uncomfortable, as he states that “you never even worried with Jane, whether your hand was sweaty or not. All you knew was, you were happy” (Salinger 79). Spending time with Jane is a pastime that makes Holden feel truly happy, an emotion he rarely experiences throughout the novel. He does hold the memory of Jane on a pedestal, which leads him to ignore his want to call her because it would ruin the perfect image that he has.
The act of sex and other sexual situations are events that evoke multiple conflicting feelings from Holden, even though it is not something he did with Jane. Just thinking about sex brings him a sense of wonder and happiness, evident in that he claims himself to be “the biggest sex maniac you ever saw” (Salinger 62), but only in his own mind. He is excited and aroused when thinking about sex, but the act itself brings him apprehension and discontent. He hires a prostitute soon after arriving in New York City and immediately begins to reconsider his decision.
He reminisces on past near-sexual experiences and his nervousness regarding his lack of experience. This feeling of nervousness prevents him from having sex with a girl, as Holden himself states “I’m a virgin…I’ve had quite a few chances to lose my virginity and all, but I’ve never got around to it yet” (Salinger 92). His experience with Sunny the prostitute goes sour once he states that he only wants to talk to her and doesn’t pay her the full price of her visit. She calls him a crumb-bun, which Holden resents, making the experience sour.
He discovers that people consider sex a casual affair when he perceives it as a very important event, which upsets him. Still, Holden may have been relieved when this rejection took place. He claims to be a sex freak, but soon after goes on to admit “sex is something [he] just [doesn’t] understand” (Salinger 63). As an inexperienced teenager, Holden takes both contentment and dissatisfaction from the idea of sex. Only the thought, not the action, brings him ease, albeit a curious ease. One of the few things in the world that makes Holden happy is his little sister, Phoebe Caulfield.
Her childish innocence brings joy to Holden since it serves as a stark contrast to his dreary and depressing worldview. He is interested in preserving innocence and keeping childhood last forever, as seen in his desire to be the “catcher in the rye” figure, “[catching] everybody if they start to go over the cliff…[coming] out from somewhere and [catching] them” (Salinger 173). When he meets up with Phoebe once again towards the end of the novel, he is shocked to find her maturing with a desire to run off west with him.
When Holden refuses to let her go with him in a last-ditch attempt to save her innocence, she “took off [his] red hunting hat…and practically chucked it right in [his] face” (Salinger 207). Holden is devastated by this act and does everything he can to soothe her, such as tricking her into following him to the zoo. Phoebe eventually takes a ride on the carousel like she used to when she was younger, and Holden sits on a bench marveling at her enjoyment.
He sees her as “[looking] so damn nice, the way she kept going around and around, in her blue coat and all” (Salinger 213). It fills him with joy to see Phoebe reveling in happiness and innocence like she used to when she and Holden were younger. The happy emotions Holden feels during this experience differ from the depression and sadness that he dealt with through a large portion of the novel in that he is finally celebrating the innocence that he has been striving to find.
The characters Holden meets throughout the novel mainly have negative influences on how he feels about the world. Ackley and Stradlater make him uncomfortable with their sloppy tendencies and in turn, Holden sees the world around them as careless and unrelenting. Sunny the prostitute confuses him regarding his sexuality and her abrupt departure makes him feel unwanted and childlike. These emotions are shoved aside once he reunites with Phoebe, as he truly loves her childlike view of the world and can once again feel happiness that cuts through the fog of his depression.