October 20, 2023 opinion

Why the hell is Holden Caulfield the most relatable character I’ve ever read about?

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Maria Mitko in Warsaw, Poland

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'This is a people-shooting hat. I shoot people in this hat,' declares Holden Caulfield.

Illustration: The Catcher in the Rye book cover

I first met my peer, 16 year-old Holden Caulfield, when I opened ‘The Catcher in the Rye’, a famous novel first published in 1951 by an American author J.D. Salinger. I spent every possible moment engrossed in the book despite the fact that I honestly despised Holden – but why?

I was not the first teenage girl in mid-2020s Poland to be drawn by the book. I read it because it was recommended to me by my friend, who again and again had asked me to give it a go.

One teenager spending too much time reading classic novels may be considered an oddity – but two in a row?

The short answer is that the insight into Holden’s mind allows us to relate to his flawed, vulnerable character; just like him, we are caught between different sides of ourselves and more often than we would like to admit, we don’t know who we are but desperately try to act as if we do.

Several things frustrated me about Holden. Take his repeated declarations of hatred for ‘phonies’ for example (by definition, somebody who is not genuine), which forms a huge part of the narrative with 35 accusations.

I found it extremely annoying how every person he meets is described as a ‘phoney’ while what Holden does the most is lie.

In this, we can see the duality of his character – Holden is a person capable of saying that he had quit one of his previous schools ‘because [he] was surrounded by phonies’ while also claiming to be ‘the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life.’

All of that underscores conflicting thoughts and intentions (it may also hint at his unreliability as the narrator) – and very much reflects my experience of having contradictory feelings running through at such a pace that I feel trapped and unable to process it all.

Not that I constantly lie and condemn everyone for ‘phoniness’ but because this underlines the uncertainty that comes with the experience of coming of age – and although I can’t speak for everyone, I think this uncertainty, often manifesting as an identity crisis, is what most teenage girls and boys feel.

I call Holden Caulfield a paradox – he acts without knowing what he actually wants to achieve or communicate.

He wears a red hunting hat ‘just for the hell of it’ only to take it off moments after, scared of looking stupid. He explains his actions, although he doesn’t have to because he does not know who he is.

Likewise to Holden, I often act in ways I don’t understand. I fear appearing stupid, something that sometimes holds me back. I do my best not to change myself to fit the expectations of other people, yet love the feeling of being accepted and valued for who I am – both very difficult when one still does not know who they are.

It is extremely hard to know exactly how we wish our lives to turn out at sixteen. I spend hours thinking about what I want to do, which university I would like to attend, or if I want to leave everything behind and travel the world.

As Holden is a byword for this identity crisis, it makes him extremely relatable, and, in my opinion, nobody who has read the book can say they hate Holden Caulfield and truly mean it, as that would mean they have declared they hate themselves.

In Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’, life branches out like a fig tree with fruit hanging on different boughs, but one is only allowed to choose one.

At the beginning of the journey, I see the tree of my whole life and do not know what I want. Plath’s novel reminds that all the figs – possible lives – which I won’t choose will ‘wrinkle, and go black, and one by one, [they] plop[ped] to the ground at my feet.’

I feel that this is why sometimes I see myself in Caulfield – a character defined by his attempts to eat more than one fruit.

Written by:

author_bio

Maria Mitko

Women’s Desk editor

Warsaw, Poland

Born in 2007, Maria lives in Warsaw, Poland, where she attends Witkacy High School and prepares to study English Literature.

She volunteers at a public library where she organises a board game club. She loves listening to music, reading good books and watching movies. Maria’s favourite animals are dogs, of which she has two – Rudolf and Charlie.’

Edited by:

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Megan Lee

Culture Section Editor

Hong Kong | United Kingdom

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