The role of women (and girls) in the novel 'The Catcher in the Rye'

The Catcher in the Rye
The Catcher in the Rye. Little Brown & Co.

Whether you are reading J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye for school or for pleasure, you may wonder what the role is of women and girls in the famous novel. Is love relevant? Are relationships meaningful? Is Holden able to make any real (and lasting) connections with any other female character--young or older? Here is a breakdown of all of the major female characters and how they relate to Holden Caulfield.

 

Who is Holden

Holden is a 16-year-old boy--in a coming-of-age novel, The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger. So, his viewpoint is colored by adolescent angst and awakening. So, who are the women/girls in his life?

Holden's Mother

She is a presence in his life (but not a very nurturing force). She appears to have issues of her own to deal with (Holden says that she never got over his younger brother's death from leukemia). We can picture her sitting there--"nervous as hell," as he describes her. Neither she nor his father seems to attempt a connection with their son; instead, they ship him off to one boarding school after another and remain emotionally and physically distant/removed.

His Sister Phoebe

Phoebe is a grounding force in his life. She's a smart 10-year-old kid, who hasn't lost her innocence yet (and he'd like to keep it that way).

Here's how Holden describes his sister:

" You'd like her.

I mean if you tell old Phoebe something, she knows exactly what the hell you're talking about. I mean you can even take her anywhere with you. If you take her to a lousy movie, for instance, she knows it's a lousy movie. If you take her to a pretty good movie, she knows it's a pretty good movie."

It appears that the events in her life have caused her to grow up too quickly, but she still retains some of her wonderful, kid-like charm.

She truly cares for Holden, something he does not seem to experience from any of the others in his life. She offers a real connection.

Jane Gallagher

Holden seems to think a great deal of this girl. He says that she reads "really good books." She also appears to be strategic: "wouldn't take her kings out of the back row." She's a tough girl, but still sensitive (wiping away the tear). She still has an innocence about her, which would be attractive to Holden. But, when he reaches out to her, she's not there.

Sally Hayes

Holden calls her "one of those little skirts." She refuses to run away with him, saying: "You can't just do something like that." And, as she also points out: they're "practically children."

Mrs. Morrow

He meets her on his train ride into New York City, but he lies to her.

Here are some more resources to help lead your reading and discussion of this novel:

Review: 'The Catcher in the Rye'

Terms / Vocabulary

Questions for Study & Discussion