Home » 7th Season: 2019-2020 » 2019-2020 v.10 » Growing Pains: Coming of Age in The Catcher in the Rye

Growing Pains: Coming of Age in The Catcher in the Rye

By Amanda Wang, IV Form

Growing Pains: Coming of Age in The Catcher in the Rye

Growth is a beautiful pain. In American classic, The Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger vividly depicts a teenage protagonist who is overwhelmed by the rapid changes around him and his impending adulthood. Holden lives in a metropolis but does not belong to it. All he wants is to “catch [children] if they start to go over the cliff [of sophistication]” (Salinger 191). But in reality, he is the child who runs astray. When he is on the verge of falling, Mr. Antolini lends him a helping hand and provides him a satisfactory answer to his dilemma. At last, Holden accepts his philosophy and procures a new understanding of his situation, surroundings, and society. 

Mr. Antolini wakes Holden up from his dream of escaping the city. Mr. Antolini speaks bluntly that Holden is “riding for some kind of a terrible, terrible fall” (Salinger 206). Since Holden wastes all his time deceiving others and himself and trying to delay his inevitable adulthood, Mr. Antolini has to ruthlessly tear off his mask and force him to face reality. Yet he takes an atypical approach to help Holden. While old Spencer reinforces that “life is a game that one plays according to its rules” (Salinger 11), Mr. Antolini advises Holden to know his “true measurement and dress [his] mind accordingly” (Salinger 210). Contrary to other adults in the book, Mr. Antolini sees hope in Holden. His firm belief inspires Holden to become the captain of his life instead of drifting along the mainstream or dropping anchor in place. Holden’s struggles now motivate him to continue his ordinary life instead of alienating him from it. Then Mr. Antolini asks Holden to think twice about attending school, describing education as history and poetry. Holden takes his proposal into consideration because he feels cared for and understood by him. Moreover, Mr. Antolini consoles Holden by stating that he is “not the first person who [is] ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior” (Salinger 208). His words narrow the feeling of disparity between the depressed and lonesome Holden and other youths. Mr. Antolini gives Holden a carrot after the stick, bringing him back to the real world and arousing his passion for life. 

Following that exchange, Holden acknowledges his false assumptions about others and moves forward in his life’s journey. After Holden spends a night at the rail terminal, he reflects on his actions. He wonders if maybe he is “wrong about thinking [Mr. Antolini] is making a flitty pass on” him (Salinger 214). This is a qualitative leap for Holden because he used to comment on everything. For the first time, he evaluates himself and questions his judgmental mode of life. He even starts “wondering maybe he should [get his] bags and [go] back to [Mr. Antolini’s] house, the way he [says] he would” (Salinger 214). This forms a stark contrast to his reaction to old Spencer. Holden feels sorry for leaving him but quickly shifts his attention to something else. This time, he chooses to confront the case instead of fleeing from it. He considers taking responsibilities and actions to remedy his mistakes, which marks his march to maturity. Before, Holden is not only hesitant but horrible at expressing himself and interacting with other people. He never amasses enough courage to call up his childhood friend, and he “sort of gives [his sister] a kiss” (Salinger 179). Holden thinks isolating himself can prevent changes, but it only causes more misconceptions and anxiety. After his incident with Mr. Antolini, Holden lets down his guard and starts to grasp different kinds of love. He brings his true self to light and learns how to love and to be loved. In this way, he receives more goodwill from others. 

Holden’s conversation with Mr. Antolini changes his perspective on the adult world. Previously, Holden denies all good sides of adulthood. He perceives adults “never notice anything” (Salinger 12) and “never believe [him]” (Salinger 42). Above all, he thinks the world is full of phonies. While Holden detests his surroundings, Mr. Antolini encourages him to embrace it and explore it more, to not “give it up before [he starts looking for what his own environment could supply him with]” (Salinger 207). He attempts to dispel Holden’s prejudice against the world. Subsequently, Holden begins to recognize his superficial and limited view. He learns more about the intriguing, empathetic, and infinitely possible side of the world. From Mr. Antolini, he discovers a reason worth living for. From himself, Holden also learns the importance of compromises. He keeps the paper Mr. Antolini gives him, which reads: “The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one” (Salinger 207-208). Holden accepts the recommendation because it reminds him of James Castle, who sacrifices his life for his stubbornness and an unworthy cause. James Castle resembles Holden to a subtle but substantial extent, and Mr. Antolini is “the only guy that [even goes] near” James Castle when he is dead (Salinger 215). This leads Holden to respect, admire, and trust Mr. Antolini fully. 

Holden’s illusion of running away reveals his intense nostalgia for childhood and deep attachment to simple and easily attainable happiness. As Holden wrestles with his impossible desire of becoming a catcher in the rye to preserve his past and reject his future, Mr. Antolini teaches him how to apply dreams to reality. He guides Holden to concede some parts of his longing to avoid repeating the same tragedy as James Castle. Mr. Antolini’s instructions make Holden more fitted for social expectations but help him to retain his wish to protect the true, the good, and the beautiful. After all, Holden realizes that growing up is not a complete disaster. The Catcher in the Rye is a true portrayal of adolescence and an introspection on life attitude. As Nietzsche says, “he who has a why to live can bear almost any how,” but at the same time, he says, “we should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once” (Nietzsche) Salinger suggests the readers celebrate and fulfill their lives with meanings. Holden possesses the soberest understanding of hypocrisy and the deepest obsession with innocence. His three days in the city are the curtain call of his childhood. In this book, Holden grows and learns how to get along with society, but the reality is not always so optimistic. Over the past decade, the youth suicide rate has increased by 56% (Abbott). Similar to Holden, these teenagers pretend to be okay when the flourishing world frustrates them. Present-day adults not only frequently fail to understand them, but also blame and label them as “troublesome millennials,” which results in their deserted spiritual world. Through Mr. Antolini, Salinger implies both the possibility and necessity of building a tender relationship with a trustful adult. This person directs the new generation to the right path. Nonetheless, social adaptation means neither growth nor surrender, but camouflage in the crowd. These teenagers eventually have to choose for themselves between a catcher in the rye or an elite in the suit.

Amanda Wang is a IV form boarding student from Needham, Massachusetts. Her favorite subjects are science and history. She enjoys hanging out with her friends, traveling, and coxing as a member of the crew team.

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