'The Catcher in the Rye' Characters

J.D. Salinger’s classic filters people through epic adolescent angst

The Catcher in the Rye remains a singular creation, a novel that is wholly tied to the intelligent, immature, and tortured point-of-view of its main character, Holden Caulfield. In some ways Holden is the only character in The Catcher in the Rye, as everyone else in the story is filtered through Holden’s perception, which is unreliable and often self-indulgent. The end result of this technique is that every other character and their actions must be judged in terms of Holden’s evolution or lack thereof—are the people he meets really "phonies" or does he only see them that way? The fact that Holden’s Voice still rings true today, while his unreliable nature makes understanding the other characters a challenge, is a testament to Salinger’s skill.

Holden Caulfield

In many ways, Holden Caulfield is the only character in the novel. While he does think about and interacts with other people, they are presented to the reader solely through Holden’s impressions and thoughts—there is no objective information offered in the entire story. Holden is very clearly an unreliable narrator. Aside from references to therapy and a possible hospitalization in his past, he very obviously interprets events to position himself as either a victor or a victim, usually with less than convincing results.

Holden is clearly intelligent and barely maintaining his emotional balance. At the beginning of the novel he has been expelled from his fancy private school, and he has no idea how to handle this event. It is equally clear that Holden is desperately lonely. The entire plot of the novel centers on Holden’s search for a connection. Every action he takes is meant to connect to other people, whether it’s his friends at school, the girls at the bar he infiltrates, or the prostitute he encounters. By the end of the novel the cause of Holden’s isolation is arguable—is everyone around him truly as phony and mean as they seem, or is Holden himself the cause?

One hint is the disintegrating physical state that Holden experiences. In the beginning of the novel he is nervous and anxious, but over the course of the story he becomes increasingly ill, experiencing headaches and nausea, and he loses consciousness at one point. These symptoms might be real. Holden is obsessed with death, especially that of his younger brother Allie, who died of leukemia years before the events of the novel, establishing a family history of cancer. But they might be psychosomatic, representing his fragmenting mindset and increasing psychological instability. After all, his physical state worsens as his efforts to connect with someone—anyone—meet nothing but frustration and rejection.

It is interesting to consider how Holden is perceived by the people around him. Though we only have Holden’s point of view to consider, there are hints, as when the girls at the Lavender Room laugh when he convinces their pretty friend to dance with him. Holden struggles to present himself as a cynical, intelligent, and worldly person who sees all the tricks others try to play, but to others he likely appears to be a scrawny teenage boy very much out of his element pretending to be an adult. In other words, the contrast between the way the reader perceives Holden and the way others perceive him is telling. The reader is trapped in Holden’s point of view, but there are hints that he is not being entirely honest with himself, that the reality he is presenting is actually a fantasy, despite its negative and humiliating moments.

Ackley

Ackley is another student at Pencey Prep. He has terrible acne and poor dental hygiene, and Holden claims to despise him, but invites him to the movies with him, and seeks him out after his altercation with Stradlater. There are hints that Holden views Ackley as a version of himself; notably, Ackley brags about his sexual experience, none of which seems credible, but which matches up with Holden’s habit of feigning life experiences he’s never actually obtained. In fact, if you pay close attention, Holden and others treat Ackley very similarly to how people treat Holden at different points in the story.

Stradlater

Stradlater is Holden’s roommate at Pencey, and represents everything Holden wishes he was. While Holden is very smart and deeply emotional, Stradlater is an idealized adolescent boy—handsome, confident, athletic, and popular. While Holden outwardly hates Stradlater, he also describes Stradlater’s creepy seduction techniques in a breathlessly admiring way, even as he clearly understands how terrible it all is. Holden is far too sensitive to ever be a Stradlater—notice how he describes the girl he likes in terms of her interests and feelings, not her physicality—but there is a part of him who wishes he was.

Phoebe Caulfield

Phoebe is Holden’s younger sister. She is one of the few people that Holden holds in high regard, considering her to be an almost ideal human being—smart, kind, and innocent. When Holden visits Phoebe she lives up to the hype. She is an incredibly kind and loving child who instantly perceives Holden’s pain and situation, then offers to run away with him in order to help him. Phoebe is in many ways the lost innocence Holden is mourning. His railing against the phonies of the world can be seen as the shock of knowledge, of knowing the grimy details of being an adult, and his desire to be a child again, before his brother died. Phoebe embodies this desire. Again, we see everything through Holden’s filters, so Phoebe’s untarnished beauty and innocence is significant.

Allie Caulfield

Holden’s younger brother does not appear in the novel, being dead by the time the story begins. It is pretty clear that Holden experienced a nervous breakdown of sorts when Allie died. Similarly to Phoebe, Allie is regarded as a perfect innocent by Holden, as he died before he could be corrupted by knowledge and maturity. Holden seems to view Allie as a stand-in for his own younger self, the boy he used to be before he was ruined by experience.

Sally Hayes

Sally is an older, very pretty girl that Holden spends time with and offers to run away with despite viewing her as a stupid and sadly conventional person. Sally is, in other words, a "phony," but her actions don’t really support this. She is certainly self-centered, but her concerns seem typically teenage, and her manners are very proper, and her rejection of his fantasy about running away is rooted in a clear-headed analysis of their prospects. In other words, Sally’s sole crime seems to be not conforming to Holden’s fantasy about her, and he covers his hurt at being rejected by deciding she’s not worth his time—a very adolescent reaction.

Carl Luce

A childhood friend of Holden’s, three years older and memorable to him mainly because he often gave "sex talks"’ to the younger boys. There is a hint that Carl may be homosexual, despite his heterosexual experiences. Holden meets with him in desperation, hoping to talk about sex, but mainly hoping to have some company. Carl is nineteen and pretentious, and serves to underscore just how unsophisticated and limited Holden is; for all his supposed erudition, Holden is obsessed with Carl’s sexual orientation, and is reduced to abject begging when Carl grows tired of his company and wishes to leave. Holden’s reaction to Carl’s possible homosexuality is a hint that Holden himself might be struggling with his sexual identity.

Mr. Antolini

A friend of Holden’s parents, Mr. Antolini takes Holden in, but gives off some seriously creepy vibes. He touches Holden in weird ways, and Holden wakes up to find him sitting next to him, studying him. On the other hand, Mr. Antolini seems to take an authentic interest in helping Holden, offering emotional support and advice. He is another character that hints that Holden may be waking up to his own homosexuality, as Mr. Antolini’s "flirty" behavior is filtered through Holden’s perceptions, and Holden’s claim that he’s had dozens of similar experiences could indicate that Holden sees sexual advances where there are none.

Sunny

Sunny is a prostitute that Maurice, the elevator operator-sum-pimp at the hotel sends to Holden. She appears to Holden to be quite young and immature, and he loses interest in having sex with her after observing some of her nervous habits. Holden comes to see her as being worse off than he is—a lone moment of sympathy for the character. She becomes, in other words, a human being to him instead of a sex object, and he can’t bring himself to do anything. At the same time, his loss of sexual desire could be seen as a lack of interest in the female gender.