'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

Holden Caulfield is the sixteen-year-old narrator of the novel. Intelligent and emotional, Holden feels lonely and alienated from the world around him. He considers most of the people and places he encounters "phony"—hypocritical, inauthentic, and pretentious. Holden strives to present himself as a cynical and worldly person who sees through everyone else's tricks, but at times his own youthful naïveté shines through.

Holden's cynicism can be viewed as a defense mechanism, employed to avoid facing the pain of adulthood and its accompanying loss of innocence. Indeed, Holden adores his younger sister Phoebe and cherishes her innocence, which he equates to inherent goodness. His fantasy of playing the role of "catcher in the rye" serves to highlight this point: since Holden cannot restore his own innocence, he yearns to protect the innocence of others.

Holden is an unreliable first-person narrator. All of Holden's experiences and interactions are presented from his own perspective, so the reader never gets objective information about the novel's events. However, there are hints Holden is describing something of a fantasy version of himself, as when the women at the Lavender Room laugh after Holden convinces their friend to dance with him.

Holden is obsessed with death, particularly the death of his younger brother, Allie. Over the course of the novel, his health seems to disintegrate. He experiences headaches and nausea and at one point loses consciousness. These symptoms may be real, but they could also be psychosomatic, representing Holden's increasing inner turmoil as he repeatedly tries and fails to find human connection.

Ackley

Ackley is a classmate of Holden's at Pencey Prep. He has bad hygiene and isn't very popular. Holden claims to despise Ackley, but the two boys go to the movies together, and Holden seeks out Ackley after his altercation with Stradlater. There are hints that Holden views Ackley as a version of himself. Ackley brags about made-up sexual experiences in much the same way that Holden feigns worldliness and life experience. In fact, Holden treats Ackley rather similarly to how other people treat Holden at different points in the story.

Stradlater

Stradlater is Holden’s roommate at Pencey Prep. Confident, handsome, and popular, Stradlater is, in some ways, everything Holden wishes he could be. He describes Stradlater’s inappropriate seduction techniques with breathless admiration, while at the same time clearly understanding how terrible Stradlater's behavior is. Holden is too sensitive to be like 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 that wishes he was.

Phoebe Caulfield

Phoebe is Holden’s ten-year-old sister. She is one of the few people Holden does not consider "phony." Smart and loving, Phoebe is one of Holden's only sources of happiness. She is also unusually perceptive for her age—she instantly perceives Holden’s pain and offers to run away with him in order to help him. For Holden, Phoebe embodies the lost childhood innocence that he is mourning.

Allie Caulfield

Allie is Holden's late brother, who died of leukemia prior to the start of the novel's events. Holden views Allie as a perfect innocent who died before he could be corrupted by knowledge and maturity. In some ways, the memory of Allie is a stand-in for Holden's younger self, the boy he used to be before the loss of innocence.

Sally Hayes

Sally Hayes is a teenage girl who goes on dates with Holden. Holden thinks Sally is stupid and conventional, but her actions don't support this assessment. Sally is well-read and well-mannered, and her self-centeredness seems more like developmentally-appropriate teenage behavior than a lifetime personality flaw. When Holden invites Sally to run away with him, Sally's rejection of the fantasy is rooted in a clear-headed analysis of their prospects. In other words, Sally’s sole crime is not conforming to Holden’s fantasy about her. In turn, Holden covers his hurt at being rejected by deciding Sally is not worth his time (a very adolescent reaction).

Carl Luce

Carl Luce is Holden's former student advisor from the Whooton School. He is three years older than Holden. At Whooton, Carl was a source of information about sex for the younger boys. When Holden is in New York City, he meets up with Carl, who is now nineteen and a student at Columbia. Holden tries to get Carl to talk about sex, but Carl refuses and eventually becomes so frustrated with the incessant questioning that he leaves. Holden also asks about Carl's sexual orientation, a moment that suggests Holden may be questioning his own sexuality.

Mr. Antolini

Mr. Antolini is Holden's former English teacher. Mr. Antolini is sincerely invested in helping Holden, offering him emotional support, advice, and even a place to stay. During their conversation, he treats Holden with respect and acknowledges Holden's struggles and sensitivity. Holden likes Mr. Antolini, but when he wakes up to find Mr. Antolini's hand on his forehead, he interprets the action as a sexual advance and leaves abruptly. It is unclear whether Holden's interpretation is accurate, however, as the gesture could simply signify care and concern.

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.