Heidi Chu ’19
The eternal struggle of human existence is to form viable relationships. In J.D Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield struggles with forming relationships with other people, because he constantly fights with them over who is superior. In war, humans are relentless in their efforts to come out on top. Nobody wants to lose and to feel inferior, which is why neither side is willing to surrender and give up on the struggle, no matter how fruitless the endeavor. Relationships serve as wars of attrition, where one person gains from the weakening of the other. Working through steady erosion, people hope that wearing down the other person will cause them to slowly be annihilated and eventually capitulate. It may be done through a series of open battles where the other person is gradually exhausted or through multiple covert actions that slip in, causing limited mayhem time and time again. Holden’s relationships are the same, constantly spoiled, because the other person feels they must consistently put him down in order to make themselves feel superior. Thus, he turns to children, whose inexperience guarantees his superiority. He is desperate to build a relationship where he can feel equal without surrendering himself. In Catcher in the Rye, Salinger suggests that a viable relationship depends on the perceived equality in that relationship; thus, the majority of relationships fail, because individuals are inherently driven to feel superior.
Holden tries to form relationships with those older than him, but finds that seniority reinforces the need to establish superiority. After Holden is expelled, he goes to see one of his teachers, old Spencer, to say goodbye. Old Spencer feels superior to Holden as both the teacher and the older man. Thus, he takes advantage of him to further expound the magnitude of his superiority. He addresses Holden as “boy” and talks down to him. Even though Holden does not go to him as a student in need of guidance, old Spencer perceives the encounter as an opportunity to take pity on Holden and impart advice onto him that “life is a game that one plays according to the rules” (12). Although old Spencer clearly has all the power, he still continues to put Holden down. He makes Holden read aloud his failed exam paper, “a very dirty trick” in attempts to make him feel ashamed of himself (15). Old Spencer never fails to exploit his power over Holden, purposefully putting him in situations where he feels inferior. Afterwards, he looks at Holden like “he’d just beaten hell out of [him] in ping-pong or something” (17). Old Spencer sees his relationship with Holden as a game, one where he has the upper hand. Thus, he always feels satisfied when able to put Holden down, because he believes it elevates his own status. However, Holden does not allow himself to feel inferior, rather “[feeling] sorry as hell” for old Spencer instead. Holden perceives old Spencer’s unglamorous elderly life as depressing and pointless. He even wonders “what the heck [old Spencer] was still living for” (10). By putting old Spencer down on account of his boring and sickly existence, Holden is able to make himself feel superior. In the end, both Holden and old Spencer are “too much on opposite sides of the pole” to make any effort to find equilibrium in their relationship (20). Old Spencer does and says what ever he needs to make himself feel better, the same as Holden, and neither is willing to stop fighting. Later on in the novel, Holden visits his other teacher from Pencey, Mr. Antolini. At first, Antolini greets Holden as an equal, offering him a cigarette and a drink. Unlike most other teachers, Holden gravitates towards Antolini because he does not treat him like a clueless child. Similarly to old Spencer, Antolini also tries to teach Holden about how he should be living his life, warning him that he is “riding for some kind of terrible, terrible fall” (242). Like Old Spencer, Antolini is an adult who feels that he has faced the trials of life and must impart his wisdom on the mislead Holden. Quickly, the conversation turns from a discussion between friends to a lesson from teacher to student. He tells Holden his “first move will be to apply [himself] in school” (245). Antolini lectures Holden on how it is he should be living his life, even though he himself is stuck in a phony marriage and has turned to alcoholism for comfort. Despite this, however, Antolini still feels superior to Holden; he is able to provide Holden with shelter and wisdom, yet Holden can reciprocate nothing. Thus, he feels he can take advantage of him. Late at night, Holden finds Antolini “petting or patting [him] on the goddamn head”, a clear indication that Antolini has intentions other than simply providing teacherly advice (249). However, Holden assesses the situation and exercises the only power he has: the power to leave. By refusing to surrender himself to Antolini, Holden holds onto his own perception of superiority. Ultimately, however, his relationships with those older than him fail, because neither side is willing to let go of their supremacy.
Having failed with those older than him, Holden turns to people his age, hoping to find that without age as a factor he will finally be able to find equilibrium in a relationship. Ackley, Holden’s roommate, is a pimply, boring, and widely disliked boy at Pencey. Holden takes a liking to Ackley, for his unfortunate social status makes Holden feel superior. Holden says he “[feels] sorry for him” (32). He invites Ackley to the movies, knowing he “never [does] anything on Saturday night, except stay in his room and squeeze his pimples or something” (47). However, Ackley does not always remain inferior to Holden. There are times where Ackley and Holden find equality, such as when they joke with one another. However, the moments quickly take a turn when one of them feels they must put down the other. Like Holden, Ackley struggles with an inferiority complex. Due to the consistent bullying towards his unattractive appearance and unsociability, Ackley feels he must overcompensate for his own inferiority. Because Ackley is older than Holden, he constantly inserts his age as a means of his supremacy, claiming that he is “old enough to be [Holden’s] lousy father” and calling Holden a “goddamn kid” (33, 28). Holden hates it when Ackley reaffirms his superiority, never missing “a chance to let you know that you were sixteen and he was eighteen” (33). Ackley’s need to break the balance and make Holden feel inferior teaches Holden that although people his age are easier to relate to, he still cannot escape the confines of unequal relationship dynamics. Ackley will always want to put Holden down to make himself feel better, just as Holden will always pity Ackley to elevate his own status. Later on in the novel, Holden goes out on a date with Sally Hayes. The two of them go out to see a show where Holden is aggravated by how much more socially adept Sally is than him. Compared to his own inability to make connections, Sally “always knew somebody, any place you took her” (165). Although he finds these trivial conversations to be unnecessary, Sally’s ability to find belonging in social situations makes her more socially mature than Holden, angering him further. Like Ackley, however, there are times when Holden and Sally proceed as equals, such as when they go to Radio City together to go ice skating and both look “stupid as hell” (168). Holden enjoys spending time with Sally, because they are the same age, which would make her less prone to making him feel inferior. However, when he asks her to run away with him, she tells him they “can’t just do something like that” because they are “both practically children” (171, 172). Holden is upset that Sally would rather consider the consequences than engage in the fantasy with him. Sally displays an aura of maturity, a clear indication of her superiority to Holden. Holden then combats his inferiority by putting Sally down, saying he “wouldn’t’ve taken her even if she wanted to go” (174). Holden clearly feels bruised by Sally’s rejection, so he makes himself feel better by making it seem as if she is not even worthy of his attention. Refusing to allow her to put him down, Holden rejects her back, making the chances of ever establishing equality impossible. Holden turns to people his age to feel equal, but soon realizes that everyone, regardless of age, will find a way to make him feel inferior.
Holden loves children, because they are impervious to their own inferiority; however, he neglects the fact that children may not want to feel inferior to him. When Holden goes to the museum, he is approached by two young boys who “ask him if [he] knew where the mummies were” (262). Holden is delighted by the opportunity to help them. As they proceed, they “stick close as hell to [him]…practically holding onto [his] sleeve” (264). Unlike with those older and his age, children are inherently inferior due to their innocence and age. Holden takes pleasure in being their protector and finally feels comfortable. However, the young boys do not and “beat it” (264). When Holden goes to the park, he sees a young girl “having a helluva time tightening her skate” and “[gives] her a hand with it” (155). Compared to his relationships with adults who are constantly trying to help him, Holden is finally able to be the one offering the help and he “loves it when a kid’s nice and polite when you tighten your skate for them or something” (155). Because he is able to do something she is not able to do herself, Holden feels superior and in turn, comfortable. He even asks her if she “[cares] to have a hot chocolate or something with [him], but she [says] no” (155). Although Holden has found a connection where he can feel comfortably superior, he fails to realize that nobody wants to feel inferior, even children. She would much rather “meet her friend” than continue a conversation with him (155). Before leaving, Holden goes to visit his younger sister, Phoebe. To his surprise, however, she has grown a great deal since he has been gone. He wants to lead her in the right direction, so he dances with her and takes her to the zoo, knowing that “she’d follow [him]” (270). However, Phoebe hates when people belittle her, which is why she is constantly fighting Holden to let her grow up, just as he fights others to let him be superior. She shows concern for his future by asking him to “name something [he’d] like to be” to which Holden responds to by giving her a “pinch on the behind” and reducing her to being “only a little child” (217, 223). Holden is uncomfortable with the role reversal in their relationship and attempts to put Phoebe down. By forcing himself to perceive her as a child, he can neglect that their relationship has begun to morph into something he no longer dominates. She tries to convey meaningful messages to Holden but he is only offended by her flaunts of superiority, saying she sounds like a “goddamn schoolteacher” (217). Holden interprets Phoebe’s genuine concern for him as her way of putting him down, as everyone has always done. He wants to protect her from the world, because as a protector, he can remain superior. He gives her his hunting hat, even though “she didn’t want to take it” (233). She no longer needs him as a protector; in fact, she begins to serve as his. After Holden starts to cry, Phoebe comforts him and even tells him he “could sleep with her if he wanted to” (233). When he tells her to go home, she tells him to “shut up”, refusing to allow him to be her superior any longer (269). Holden tries to return the money she lent him, having felt indebted to her because of it, but she asks him to “keep it for [her]” which makes Holden feel even more depressed (273). Phoebe asks him to hold onto the money she gave him and in turn, let her take care of him. For the first time Phoebe asks him to let her be the older one and for him to succumb to being inferior. She also “[takes] off the red hunting hat” and “[chucks] it right in his face” (269). Her rejection of his protection is her way of forcing him to let her grow up. However, in the end, Phoebe still acts in ways that remind Holden that she is still a child. She tells him that she has taken up “belching lessons” and later on, asks to ride the carousel (225). Phoebe, even though she is maturing and changing the dynamic of their relationship, does not value supremacy more than concern for his feelings. They may not always be equal, but she will always try to make sure he feels that way and in turn, Holden must be willing to meet her halfway. Phoebe, unlike everyone else in his life, does not need to feel superior to Holden; she only wants not to be made to feel inferior. Thus, Holden finally finds a relationship with equality.
Through his interactions, Holden discovers the futility of relationships. Regardless of who he chooses, they always find a way to make him feel inferior. Wars of attrition can be costly, especially when neither side will give in. It leads to a pyrrhic victory where the cost to the victor leaves little to celebrate. Likewise, both sides of a relationship suffer defeats when each person values winning over all else. Because human nature dictates supremacy, if people want to make someone else feel equal, they must make the conscious decision to do so. Unlike everyone else, Phoebe approaches the relationship not as a battle, but as an alliance. In the war of attrition, there is no clear winner. Relationships remain futile until both parties surrender themselves and only then can the white flag of equality rise.