The Catcher in the Rye Summary and Analysis – Chapters 3-5
Holden claims that he is the most terrific liar one could ever meet. He admits that he lied to Spencer by telling him that he had to go to the gym. At Pencey, Holden lives in the Ossenburger Memorial Wing of the new dorms. Ossenburger, a wealthy undertaker, graduated from the school, and Holden relates how “phony” Ossenburger seemed when he gave a speech exalting faith in Jesus. Holden returns to his room, where he puts on a red hunting hat he bought in New York. He thinks about the books that he likes to read—he prefers Ring Lardner, but he is now reading Dinesen’s Out of Africa.
Ackley, a student whose room is connected to Holden’s, barges in. Ackley has a terrible personality and an even worse complexion. Holden tries to ignore him, then pretends that he is blind. Ackley cuts his nails right in front of Holden. Ackley claims that he hates Ward Stradlater, Holden’s roommate, as a “goddamn sonuvabitch,” but Holden tells Ackley that the real reason is that Stradlater told him that he should actually brush his teeth. Holden further defends Stradlater, claiming that he is conceited but generous.
Stradlater arrives and is friendly to Holden. He asks Holden if he may borrow a jacket from him. Stradlater walks around shirtless to show off his build.
Since he has nothing else to do, Holden goes down to the bathroom to chat with Stradlater as he shaves. Stradlater, in comparison to Ackley, is a “secret” slob, who would always shave with a rusty razor that he would never clean. Stradlater is a “Yearbook” kind of handsome guy. He asks Holden to write a composition for him for English. Holden realizes the irony that he is flunking out of Pencey, yet is still asked to do work for others. Stradlater insists, however, that Holden not write it too well, for the teacher knows that Holden is a hot-shot in English.
On an impulse, Holden gives Stradlater a half nelson, which greatly annoys Stradlater. Stradlater talks about his date that night with Jane Gallagher. Although Stradlater cannot even get her name correct, Holden knows her well, for she lived next door to him several summers ago and they would play checkers together. Stradlater barely listens as he fixes his hair with Holden’s gel. Holden asks Stradlater not to tell Jane that he got kicked out. He then borrows Holden’s hound’s-tooth jacket and leaves. Ackley returns, and Holden is actually glad to see him, for he takes his mind off of Jane Gallagher.
On Saturday nights at Pencey, the students are served steak. Holden believes this occurs because parents visit on Sunday and students can thus tell them that they had steak for dinner the previous night, as if it were a common occurrence. Holden goes with Ackley and Mal Brossard into New York City to see a movie, but since Ackley and Brossard had both seen that particular Cary Grant comedy, they play pinball and get hamburgers instead.
When they return, Ackley remains in Holden’s room, telling them about a girl he had sex with, but Holden knows that he is lying, for whenever he tells that same story, the details always change. Holden tells him to leave so that he can write Stradlater’s composition. He writes about his brother Allie’s baseball mitt. Allie, born two years after Holden, died of leukemia in 1946. The night that Allie died, Holden broke all of the windows in his garage with his fist.
In Chapter 3, Holden’s admission that he is the “most terrific liar” one could meet is interesting given his detestation of phoniness. It is an apt self-identification, for his delusions are not so much about making others believe his deceptions (it is doubtful that persons such as Mr. Spencer believe Holden’s lies) but about self-delusion. Continuing to berate others for phoniness, Holden cannot recognize his considerable failings. He claims to be both illiterate and an avid reader, but when identifying his favorite authors he cannot identify any particular reason why he likes their works. In addition, as we perceive later, Holden lies to himself about shutting himself off from the deep emotion of love, since he clearly wants to love another despite his idea that he never wants to take the risk again after his brother’s death.
Salinger introduces two other Pencey students in this chapter, each of whom represent contrasting types of reprehensible behavior. Ackley is ostentatiously boorish; in appearance and in manners he is disgusting and oblivious to all social graces. Hopelessly vulgar and unclean, Ackley is unaware of the contempt that Holden Caulfield has for him, even when Holden confronts him with it. Stradlater, in contrast, is outwardly friendly and considerate, yet still one of the phonies that Holden abhors. Stradlater is playful and charming, but is still self-centered and arrogant. He flaunts his assets, whether physical or monetary. Whether giving away a tie or strutting around the dormitory in a state of undress, he performs these actions to show what he possesses. These characters do, nevertheless, serve the purpose of showing the stifling conditions that Holden faces at Pencey. Ackley and Stradlater demonstrate that Holden’s disgust for the school and its “phonies” is not completely unfounded. Both characters, then, serve as ‘foils’ to Holden -- illuminating both his strengths and weaknesses as the protagonist.
However, Holden’s descriptions of both of these characters cannot be trusted entirely. Overall, Holden is an unreliable narrator whose conceptions of the characters reveal his particular point of view. These descriptions must be taken with some skepticism, for they reveal Holden’s skewed perspective on others. This also can be seen in Holden’s description of Ossenburger. Holden can view his contribution to the school only in cynical terms: He thinks that Ossenburger prays to Jesus “to send him a few more stiffs.” Holden is inherently suspicious of all around him, particularly authority figures. His view that adults serve only their self-interest is aggressively cynical, and his disillusionment with reality has crystallized into a jaded naïveté.
Salinger devotes Chapter 4 to Holden’s fixation on Stradlater’s behavior. Holden has an eye for detail and the nuances of Stradlater’s behavior; he even analyzes the rhythm of the conversation that the two have when Stradlater asks Holden to write a
paper for him. Stradlater emerges as conceited and self-centered and obsessed with his appearance and image. Although Holden does not employ his standard term “phony” to describe Stradlater in this chapter, he makes it clear that Stradlater exemplifies a strong sense of artificiality.
According to Holden, Stradlater is “Yearbook” handsome, implying that his attractive appearance is best shown in photographs and is thus divorced from Stradlater’s actual self. Salinger also makes the distinction between appearances and actuality when Holden describes Stradlater’s dirty razor, which demonstrates that Stradlater is only concerned with matters that relate to his public persona. Stradlater compounds his vanity with a strong egotism. He cannot even remember the name of his date that evening, and expects Holden to write his paper for him simply because he asked.
However, if Stradlater is vapid and superficial, Holden proves himself equally so by detailing each of these aspects of his roommate’s behavior with such precision. Holden does not let any slight against him go unnoticed, such as Stradlater’s use of his jacket and his hair gel. Like Stradlater, Holden has a narrow focus; however, his self-centered behavior does not center on physical appearance as it does with Stradlater. Both use others as means to a particular end. Stradlater uses Holden for favors such as writing papers, while Holden uses Ackley for amusement.
Stradlater does, however, give the reader a new perspective on Holden Caulfield. Holden does have his merits, as Stradlater indicates when he asks him to write his composition. Beneath the cynical self-absorption, Holden may be a talented and intelligent writer who fails to apply himself to tasks. Holden continues to behave erratically throughout the chapter. He does things purely out of impulse, such as giving Stradlater a half-nelson. This pattern of behavior will continue throughout the novel on a larger, more destructive scale.
Salinger foreshadows the source of Holden Caulfield’s psychological troubles in Chapter 5 when he describes the composition that Holden writes for Stradlater. Holden elaborates on his family history, recounting how his brother Allie died of leukemia. This may be one of the events that has caused Holden’s current psychological troubles, although as narrator Holden seems to resist such simplistic interpretations. Whatever the cause of his difficulties, the paper does reveal that Allie’s death is still a major concern for Holden and that the erratic and often violent behavior that Holden demonstrates during the course of his tale has a precedent.
As we continue, we’ll look specifically for the subtext of how Allie’s death perhaps precipitated this deep alienation in Holden and caused him to lose himself to cynicism and repressed pain. All in all, The Catcher in the Rye is the story of a boy who once loved something so much that he cannot dare to love again now that the person is gone. The theme of ‘pain avoidance,’ then, however mundane, becomes the secret to decoding all of Holden’s self-destructive behavior. In order to heal, he will have to learn to love again without fear and without shutting down.
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