We Really Are Phony.
I feel for Holden Caulfield: smart enough to identify the problem, but not able to reconcile it within himself.
This book made me deeply sad.
I had read the book when I was 16 for a required essay on banned books, and I remember as a youth identifying the message of the novel as that you couldn’t survive as an outcast. At some point, you had to rally around something, no matter how phony.
On this reading, almost double my life later, I felt Holden was my old self while the phony Adults me now: I have learned to accept how much of our lives are rigid formalities and empty, sweet nothings.
Holden Caulfield is getting kicked out of school — again. He’s leaving the football game to go to his dorm room, knowing that no one will be around. He runs into a couple door mates, Robert Ackley and Ward Stradlater, and everything is strained and awkward. Holden dislikes everyone and everything. He decides leave in the middle of the night to return home early, even though by doing so he will be letting his parents know that he’s been expelled again.
What follows is a series of events within New York City. He runs into the parent of one of his fellow classmates, and he decides to build up their son as on of the favorites for no reason. He goes to dance clubs looking for human connection, but mostly runs into older ladies that he dislikes but uses them to at least feel some companionship. He calls up a couple old friends, Sally Hayes and Carl Luce, but he somehow manages to irritate both of them, leaving himself alone again.
He decides to return home late at night so he can see his sister, Phoebe, who immediately realizes that he’s been kicked out of school. She puts it to him, identify that he seems to like nothing nor no one. He decides that he’s going to escape out west, and wants to meet Phoebe one last time before he leaves. He has a change of heart with her, and the books ends with his redemption, attending another school with a different outlook on life.
Holden Caulfield is a man beyond his years. He’s able to identify everyone’s motivation for what they do. He quickly ascribes this with the phrase “phony;” everyone is fake and they are only doing things for ulterior motives.
The problem is that Holden is pretty fake himself, telling lies to other characters trying to create illusionary warmth with people he meets. He’s very lonely, and he’s trapped in a hell he has created for himself. By calling out other people’s fakeness and attributing it with the worst possible interpretation, he’s boxed himself in when he does the same kind of thing. The cognitive dissonance is very really within Holden, and you can see him trying to cope with alcohol and any kind of human connection. He does dislike everything, including himself.
There is one part of the story where the title of the book comes. He imagines himself stopping kids before the fall over a cliff after exiting a field of Rye (“A Catcher in the Rye”). This sense of purpose, exposing Holden for his true and pure form, is touching and instantly melts the hatred that builds from having a protagonist that is such a hypocrite. We now realize he’s just trying to find his place in the world and wants to protect kids from losing their innocence.
Superficial: We live in a very superficial world. No one says what they mean or expresses how they feel. This tears Holden up even though he isn’t able to do this himself. We all need some superficial aspects of our lives — being completely exposed is not a way to live.
Loneliness: There tends to be an arc in relationships: we begin in the “phony” stage, exchanging trite expressions, but as we continue to see one another we become more comfortable and share our inner feelings and desires. No doubt most of our interactions on a day-to-day basis stay on that superficial level, but it is usually a requirement before reaching the next stage. Holden doesn’t want this first stage to exist, and because of it, no one ever gets to see the inner beauty he possesses.
Conformity: So for us to have these meaningful relationships, we have to conform some what, giving up a part of our individuality. When Holden wanted to retain all of his opinions and thoughts on others, he was the most lonely he had ever been. At the end, when he shares that talking about others makes you miss them, he starts to realize that he did have opportunities for connection if he would just allow himself to move through the ritual of relationships.
Reading this way after my own coming of age made me realize how much I’ve changed. Once a vigilante against the insincere and staged, I realized that I have floated in the other direction. I recall a time in my life when I acted like Holden: self-medicating and reaching out to anyone just to feel a part of something while at the same time refusing to participate in what I viewed as artificial interactions.
I felt sad for Holden much like I felt sad for my previous self. This world isn’t made for all types — we have to be willing conform, if even just a little.
Other People’s Takes:
- The Bibliophagist: “All I want is to give him a hug and tell him that everything is going to be okay.”
- Thinking and Inking: “But looking back, Holden’s emotions and uncertainty and attitude is not extraordinary, but is portrayed in a way which almost makes them so.”
- The Age of Escapades: “Of course, now I realise Holden is an unreliable narrator, unable to be critical of himself in the same way he is of the supposedly ‘phony’ people around him.”