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Who is Holden Caulfield?

Niki Acker
Updated May 23, 2024
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Holden Caulfield is the main character of J. D. Salinger's renowned coming-of-age novel, The Catcher in the Rye (1951). He is both an antihero, a protagonist with qualities at odds with the stereotypically "heroic" image, and an everyman, whose experiences are to some degree "universal," at least in his respective culture. Caulfield also appears in some of Salinger's short stories, though he is most well known as the narrator of The Catcher in the Rye.

At the time of events in the book, most of which span two days, Holden Caulfield is 16 years old. The novel takes place just before winter break, and he has been kicked out of his preparatory school. He leaves school a day early and spends two days in New York without telling anyone where he is, though he secretly meets with his little sister twice throughout the novel. At the end of the novel, Caulfield decides to hitchhike west, and it is implied that he is telling the story from a mental institution in California.

Caulfield is an unreliable narrator, a literary device in which the narrator is contradictory and the reader cannot take his or her words at face value. Throughout Catcher in the Rye, he rails against "phoniness" and what he sees as threats against innocence, personified by his younger sister Phoebe, but he is hardly a model character in either of these respects. His moral standards are impossibly high, but he does not apply them to himself. Throughout the novel, he emerges as an alienated, disillusioned, and cynical character.

Holden Caulfield is both one of the most memorable characters in American fiction and one of the most controversial. As an anti-hero, he is similar to Travis Bickle in the 1976 film Taxi Driver. Both of these characters served as an inspiration for famous assassins, and The Catcher in the Rye has often been banned because of the fear that it glorifies delinquency and a deranged personality. Many people have been inspired by the character in a more positive sense, however, and he is referenced in innumerable artistic works, from literature to television, rock music, and cartoons.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Niki Acker
By Niki Acker
"In addition to her role as a Language & Humanities editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide range of interesting and unusual topics to gather ideas for her own articles. A graduate of UCLA with a double major in Linguistics and Anthropology, Niki's diverse academic background and curiosity make her well-suited to create engaging content for WiseGeekreaders. "
Discussion Comments
By anon307725 — On Dec 06, 2012

When I first read the novel "Catcher in the Rye," it was amazing, but I wish that I was there. I know that Holden is a hell of a liar at all times throughout the novel but what's best about him is that he cares about his sister Phoebe so much.

Even though he never attended Allie's funeral, who died of leukemia at 10 years of age, he still love Allie. He did not attend the funeral because he went to the hospital to treat the injuries on his hand.

The life that Holden lived was not that easy for him throughout the novel that I read, but at least he is alive, even with with all the bad luck that came his way. The best part is when he was spending time with his little sister.

By helene55 — On May 16, 2011

When I first read The Catcher in the Rye, I really hated it- until I got to the end and saw how much Holden Caulfield cared about his sister. As I remember, it turns out he did some of the things he did to help her or try to protect her from what he saw as the phoniness of their parents, which to me showed he was way more interested in life than he wanted people to believe.

By recapitulate — On May 15, 2011

I think Holden Caulfield was a great character because he is someone any teenager can identify with, at least a little bit. Many of us have at least a few Holden Caulfield traits- cynicism, or forced apathy, or disrespect for authority, or even the unwillingness to look to the future.

Of course, he is an exaggeration, and I think that is why a lot of people don't enjoy his character and refuse to identify with him, but I think he's really universal.

Niki Acker
Niki Acker
"In addition to her role as a Language & Humanities editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide...
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