Ilan Mochari
Ilan Mochari Blog
FictionBlogNewsConsultingAbout IlanLinksContact IlanHome  

BlogMarch-April, 2010
Holden Caulfield, a heartsick Hamlet

A few weeks after J.D. Salinger died on January 27, I reread The Catcher in the Rye. One highlight was Holden Caulfield’s riffs on literature. At various points he weighs in on Shakespeare, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Hardy, Ring Lardner, Charles Dickens, Somerset Maugham, Isak Dinesen, Ernest Hemingway, Emily Dickinson, Rupert Brooke and Robert Burns – to say nothing of his views on The Gospels and Beowulf.

I was especially fond of his take on Hamlet:

"D.B. took Phoebe and I to see it last year. He treated us to lunch first, and then he took us. He’d already seen it, and the way he talked about it at lunch, I was anxious as hell to see it too. But I didn’t enjoy it much. I just don’t see what’s so marvelous about Sir Laurence Olivier, that’s all. He has a terrific voice, and he’s a helluva handsome guy, and he’s very nice to watch when he’s walking or dueling or something, but he wasn’t at all the way D.B. said Hamlet was. He was too much like a goddamn general, instead of a sad, screwed-up type guy" (117).

Why does Olivier’s alpha-Hamlet bother Holden so much? What’s phony about it?

The straightforward answer is that Holden perceives himself as the exemplar of the “sad, screwed-up type.” As such, he often contrasts himself with the handsome, athletic Oliviers of his world – the Steerforths to his Copperfield. His Pencey Prep roommate, Ward Stradlater, is the novel’s prominent Olivier: “He was a very strong guy. I’m a very weak guy,” observes Holden after Stradlater easily breaks his half-nelson (39).

In Holden’s limited worldview, handsome jocks are never sad or screwed-up. After all, it’s the jocks that get to make out with girls like Jane Gallagher. Stradlater notoriously gives Jane “the time” in Ed Banky’s car (42). And a hotshot diver from Choate, whom Holden describes as “all muscles and no brains,” also gets in Jane’s pants (135).

But Holden never does, and his melancholy about this is the novel’s driving force. It is as responsible for his sad, screwed-up state as the death of his brother Allie. And these two formative, teenage traumas are commingled in the text. Holden’s fistfight with Stradlater – fueled by his Othello-esque sexual jealousy of Stradlater’s success with Jane – occurs only moments after Stradlater insults Holden’s essay about Allie’s mitt. And Holden is impotent to harm Stradlater because of Allie: Holden literally lost the power to “make a good fist” thanks to the injury he sustained punching garage windows in raging at Allie’s death (43).

The altercation with Stradlater and the punching out of garage windows are two of the only times Holden acts on his passions. For the most part, Holden – like Hamlet – is all talk and no walk. He packs the perfect snowball with his bare hands but never throws it (36). On nine separate occasions, he thinks about contacting Jane (32, 59, 63, 76, 105, 116, 135, 150, 202). But he never does, despite the obvious grip she has on his heart and loins. He prefers the emotional safety of Robert Ackley, Faith Cavendish, Carl Luce and Sally Hayes.

There’s another reason Holden won’t call Jane: He wants her fixed in his mind as an ideal. To contact her would risk tainting the memory of their hand-holding summer in Maine, PG-rated though it was. Of course, Holden never says this about Jane. But in the book’s longest paragraph – a three-page discourse on the Museum of Natural History – he writes:

"The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move. You could go there one hundred thousand times, and that Eskimo would still be just finished catching those two fish, the birds would still be on their way south, the deers would still be drinking out of that water hole, with their pretty antlers and their pretty, skinny legs, and the squaw with the naked bosom would still be weaving that same blanket. Nobody’d be different" (121).

The erotic language is no accident. Mixed with the museum memories are romantic flashbacks of an awkward childhood: “You’d be two rows of kids, and you’d have a partner. Most of the time my partner was this girl named Gertrude Levine. She always wanted to hold your hand, and her hand was always sticky or sweaty or something” (120).

That last sentence, on its own, may not seem like much. But it gains power as a follow-up to Holden’s description of holding hands with Jane: “We’d start holding hands, and we wouldn’t quit till the movie was over. And without changing the position or making a big deal of it. You never even worried, with Jane, whether your hand was sweaty or not” (79).

And so we come, at last, to the real reasons Holden is afraid to contact Jane. He can't stand the thought of being her Gertrude Levine. And he would rather not confront the adulthood reality of her holding hands with someone else -- someone who isn't so screwed-up or sad.


Ilan Mochari's fiction has been published in Keyhole and honored by
Glimmer Train. In 2009, he received a Literature Artist Fellowship grant from the Somerville Arts Council, a local agency supported by the Massachusetts Cultural Council. He is a former staff writer for Inc, and he has also written for Fortune Small Business and CFO. He has a B.A. in English from Yale University.

    © 2008 Ilan Mochari  
Ilan Mochari