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Holden Caufield has been expelled from a prep school yet again. His parents will be notified. In order to give them time to process this news, Holden decides to go to New York for a few days, getting a room in a cheap hotel. The rest of the novel is just a series of events and incidents that occur during that time, along with flashbacks that Holden has of his life so far.
In reality, this is a psychological novel, showing how events, both past and present, have impacted Holden’s mind. During his time in New York, Holden encounters a number of people, in nightclubs, in taxi cabs, etc. He even has a brief encounter with a prostitute, set up by the hotel elevator operator, but is unable to perform. He also hooks up with an old girlfriend, takes her ice-skating and tries to get her to run away with him. Everything he does and experiences is basically a failure, as he faces rejection on every front.
Finally, in a fragile mental state, Holden goes home. But things do not improve. He tells his younger sister Phoebe that all he would like to do is be a “catcher in the rye,” saving children who are playing in a field of rye from falling off a cliff. He also visits a former English teacher, who comes onto him sexually.
Ultimately, Holden has a full mental breakdown and is sent to a psychiatric center in California.
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There are multiple themes in this novel – all related to a young person’s perception of the world around him and how he attempts to deal with that world.
Alienation as a form of self-protection
Holden cannot deal with the world in which he lives.
And so, he attempts to protect himself against that world by embracing alienation from it. He doesn’t fit in anywhere, and his only self-protection is to claim that everyone is “wrong” and therefore he will not interact with them.
Pain in growing up
All adolescents experience some pains as they move into adulthood. They often feel isolated, not understood, and often fearful of moving into adulthood.
Hypocrisy and “phoniness”
Holden believes that all adults are hypocrites and phony and justifies that throughout his days in New York through the interactions he has with adults. He uses this condemnation to isolate himself from all adults. Certainly, young people often proclaim that adults are hypocrites and phony, but they do not isolate themselves and do not condemn adults in total.
For many reasons – trauma, a sense of defeat, depression, etc. – people become unable to take action.
Inaction manifests itself in Holden’s inability to have any positive interactions with others, in his inability to consummate a sexual encounter, and his inability to face his parents.
But it goes deeper. He is even unable to come to grips with his brother’s death. This inaction leaves him in a vacuum and fully isolated from the world.
First and foremost, you must read this book in its entirety. You cannot possibly write an essay on it from summaries and reviews written by others. You need to be able to react personally to the events in the story. Given that, your essay should follow the format and structure of any other essay you have written and have a strong thesis statement that you will support with details from the novel.
For example, you may have a thesis statement such as: “Holden is all talk and no ‘do,’ continually condemning society and people and yet unable or unwilling to take any action to correct it, even in himself.” You will then have points to make, each in a separate paragraph, showing his inaction, even in the face of events that have occurred to him.
Preparing a rough outline with each of your points and the details that support them will ensure that you are organized and that you do not leave anything of importance out.
Your introduction must include a thesis statement, and your body paragraphs must each provide a point in support of that thesis. In some cases, you will need to some research, possibly in psychology, the banning of the book, and certainly, if your topic involves the life of the author, J.D. Salinger.
You can certainly find any number of sample essays all over the web, and these will provide some insights, as well as resources. And it is fine to get ideas from others – just be careful that you make your essay on your own.
Below is a sample Catcher in the Rye essay question and accompanying thesis statement, as well as the evidence that would be used to support it. This may provide a jumping off point for you as you think about what to include in and how to organize your response to Catcher in the Rye essay prompts your instructor might provide
Question: In what ways does Holden not understand his own feelings?
Topic Sentence: In The Catcher in the Rye, Salinger does an expert job of showing how Holden observes things, yet fails to understand them.
Evidence #1: As Holden narrates his experience in the night club at the Edmont Hotel, he attempts to present himself as suave and sophisticated.
Analysis: The mocking behavior of the three women whom he attempts to impress, however, indicate that Holden looks like a jackass.
Analysis: Add in the fact that the waiter refuses to serve him alcohol, despite Holden's insistence that he looks older than he is, shows he fails to understand the significance of the events in his life.
Evidence #2: Holden cannot make sense of his depression and frequent crying.
Analysis: The reader understands that Holden is experiencing a mental breakdown and engaging in self-destructive behavior.
Analysis: Holden fails to recognize that he is the cause of his isolation and suffering, that he brings torment with him wherever he goes.
Conclusion: The reader, unlike Holden, recognizes a contrast between Holden's ideals and Holden's actions, making him just as "phony" as the "phonies" he criticizes.
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