Holden Caulfield and the Culture of Sexual Assault

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Since it came out in 1951, The Catcher in the Rye has meant different things to different readers. For some, Holden Caulfield was the rebellious voice of a generation; for many today, he’s a whiny rich kid; for a pair of recent biographers, he’s the rechanneled trauma of J.D. Salinger’s experience in World War II. But one of its less remarked-upon qualities strikes me as absolutely pivotal for the concerns of the day: the book’s focus on sexual abuse and on the culture that fosters it. Abuse draws lines between characters, permeates the social atmosphere of the novel, and drives its hero to anger and despair.

One reason we miss this theme is because the narrator is a horny 1950s prep-schooler who calls women “whory,” gay men “flits,” and whose general behavior is, well, crummy. When it comes to analyzing toxic masculinity, we’re accustomed to exterior rather than interior critique. That Holden’s position is compromised, that he’s trapped inside the castle of mid-century American male power, is part of what gives the book its dizzying force. Caught within that world, Holden has no choice but to create his own language, his own moral system, and in veering off from the mainstream he ends up half-crazy and deeply alone.

In an early scene, Holden hangs around the dorms while his brawny roommate, Stradlater, prepares for a date with Jane Gallagher. Jane happens to be Holden’s long-time crush, the only person he trusted enough show the baseball mitt of his dead brother, Allie. He feels terrified for Jane given his experience with Stradlater’s behavior on double dates: “What he’d do was, he’d start snowing his date in this very quiet, sincere voice—like as if he wasn’t only a very handsome guy but a nice, sincere guy, too. I damn near puked, listening to him. His date kept saying, ‘No—please. Please, don’t. Please.’ But old Stradlater kept snowing her in this Abraham Lincoln, sincere voice, and finally there’d be this terrific silence in the back of the car.” Anyone nostalgic for the simple goodness of the 1950s should consider passages like these, where a woman’s “No” was optional and frequently trespassed. In contrast, Holden later claims that he’s still a virgin because he always stops at “No,” so what sets him apart from Stradlater and Co. is his refusal to commit what today we’d classify as sexual assault.

Desperate to humanize Jane in Stradlater’s eyes, Holden describes how when Jane played checkers she’d line up all her kings in the back row and never move them. Ignored, Holden tries to fight Stradlater, who pins him to the ground while Holden bawls that “the reason [Stradlater] didn’t care is because he’s a goddamn stupid moron.” The insult makes perfect sense to Holden, a line drawn in the sand between those who can appreciate a girl’s checkers technique and those who can’t, those who treat women as objects and those who value their idiosyncrasy. The allusion gathers emotional force later on when Holden recalls comforting Jane after her stepfather interrupts their game of checkers. Jane’s stepfather is a “booze hound” with a habit of going naked around the house, and his arrival puts Jane in tears. By now it’s an interpretive commonplace that Holden wants to protect those around him, as in his signature fantasy about catching kids before they fall off a cliff (“the catcher in the rye”), but less attention is paid to the real dangers from which he wants to protect them: guys like Stradlater and Jane’s stepfather.

These guys are everywhere, and not just at prep school. In New York City, sitting alone at a piano bar, Holden sizes up the phonies around him, especially the “Ivy League bastard” next to him with a date: “What he was doing, he was giving her a feel under the table, and at the same time telling her all about some guy in his dorm that had eaten a whole bottle of aspirin and nearly committed suicide. His date kept saying to him, ‘How horrible…Don’t, darling. Please, don’t. Not here.’” Notice how exactly the young woman’s refusals (“Please, don’t”) echo those of Stradlater’s date (“Please, don’t. Please.”). And then there’s the strangeness of the young man’s anecdote, which is Salinger at his darkest and most jarring, punching holes in the edifice of 1950s life, showing the yammer behind the static. Why is “the Ivy League bastard” feeling up his date while telling her about his suicidal dorm mate? Out of twisted grief? To lower her defenses? We know nothing about him, and yet the intertwining of death with male aggression pulls us toward the depths of The Catcher in the Rye. “What I really felt like, though, was committing suicide,” Holden says hours later after his botched encounter with a sex worker and her john. “I felt like jumping out the window.” Suicide, like assault, lurks just under the surface.

In the climactic scene, Holden sneaks back into his parents’ house and wakes up his sister, Phoebe. After initially embracing him, Phoebe soon grows doubtful, realizes that he’s been kicked out of school, and asks her brother what we’ve been wondering all along: Why is he so mad? and Why does he hate everyone? Holden has no good answer, but instead he thinks back to a traumatic memory from his old prep school. After a “skinny little weak-looking” guy, James Castle, called a classmate named Stabile “conceited,” Stabile and his friends went to Castle’s rooms, locked the door, and tried to make him take it back. When Castile refused, “they started in on him. I won’t even tell you what they did to him—it’s too repulsive—but he still wouldn’t take it back…Finally, what he did, instead of taking back what he said, he jumped out the window.” We can infer that the “repulsive” behavior of Stabile and his friends is sexually abusive, linking them to Stradlater and Jane’s stepfather, and Castile’s suicide to Holden’s impulse to leap out a window. Holden’s only comfort is that his English teacher, Mr. Antolini, wraps up Castle’s dead body, which Holden sees on the ground, and carries it to the infirmary. And so it makes sense that, with nowhere else to turn, Holden hurries out of his parents’ apartment and spends the night on the couch of Mr. Antolini, who, though drinking heavily and lecturing Holden on value of a good education, is still the only authority figure whom Holden trusts.

And yet, the book reveals Mr. Antolini to be himself a sexual aggressor, who caresses and stares at Holden’s body while he sleeps and then instantly turns the blame around, calling Holden a “very strange boy” when he leaps up to go. Some readers describe this scene as out-of-the-blue or they defend Mr. Antolini’s conduct as ambiguous, but that’s only if you’ve missed the undercurrents of the whole novel. This is a massive betrayal. As he rushes out, Holden thinks, “That kind of stuff’s happened to me about twenty times since I was a kid. I can’t stand it.” He’s caught in a net of abuse, and totally alone. If Holden’s anger derives not just from petty vendettas against his prep school classmates but as a terrifying glimpse into a world of pervasive abuse and indifference, in which sincerity is a ploy for date rape and phony lectures are a pretext for unwanted touches, then maybe Holden isn’t so whiny after all. Maybe he’s right.

Since the revelation of widespread sexual harassment in Hollywood, the media, and politics, there’s been a lot of talk about the proper role and response of men. Standing up for victims of sexual assault is clearly essential, but the work shouldn’t stop there. If a male reckoning with the culture of sexual assault is to transcend apologies and hand-wringing, then what’s required is a serious dive into vulnerability, a return to the fears and destructive forces that shaped us as kids. All men have known Stradlater, and Jane’s stepfather, and the “Ivy League bastard,” and more than want to admit have been taken advantage of by Mr. Antolini. And many, too, have been Holden: desire with nowhere to hide, tenderness with nowhere to go. The time to be honest has arrived. Anything less is, as Holden might say, worse than phony.