On Holden Caulfield (and how I view characters)

So I’m reading Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird for the umpteenth time because my goal is to write in my copy as much as my favorite Creative Writing professor has written in hers (that’s not really why, but I’m a little short on inspiration lately and Bird by Bird always has good advice). Anyway, I’m on the chapter about characters. It never fails to spark my writing thoughts, mostly because I have trouble creating flawed characters. I protect mine too much, and Anne Lamott talks about why it is you can’t do that, what happens in your stories when you shelter them. This all got me thinking about Holden Caulfield and Catcher in the Rye…

I hated that book when we read it in school, which was weird because I enjoyed just about everything else (even 1984 and Brave New World). So many people I know love the character of Holden Caulfield, but he just grates on my nerves more than almost any actual person I know. So I started thinking about why that is, why I yell at Holden in my head whenever I read Catcher…he’s such an idiot sometimes, you know, so self-absorbed and pessimistic. I think the self-absorption is what drew all the other angsty teenagers in my tenth grade class to Holden; it’s nice to find someone in literature who mirrors the feelings you don’t admit to, much. But then why didn’t I accept him? I’m not high-and-mighty enough to brag that I wasn’t particularly self-absorbed at fifteen; I’m sure that I was, to some extent, but I’ve never been as irritated with a character in my life. He just…grated on me. With every whiny sentence in that book, it took a sheer act of will not to throw the darn thing against a wall.

I wonder if I went back and tried to read it now, what I would think of Holden. On the outside, at least, I was a rather ‘perfect’ little teenager in the conventional sense of what adults want out of teenagers: good grades, cheerful attitude, disdain for foul words (which has completely gone out the window) and illegal substances. So maybe I didn’t identify with Holden because I felt like I fit?

I think what got me the most was his pessimism and apathy. It seemed like Holden had no drive, no desire for anything but attention. Even though Jay Gatsby did some questionable things, he did them in pursuit of love (which is kind of noble, in a way). Sandra Cisneros’ female narrator in Never Marry a Mexican does despicable things and speaks with a vitriol I’ve not seen in a short story before or since, but I LOVE her. She wants something, she’s passionate and fiery, and even though she isn’t a great person, I would love to talk to that character over coffee (though knowing her, she’s want something far stronger). I can’t stand apathy in my characters, and I’ll forgive all sorts of other flaws, but Holden’s pessimism combined with an apathetic lack of desire just…ugh! Couldn’t stand him.

What do y’all think? Did you like Holden? Is there another literary character you absolutely couldn’t stand?


3 thoughts on “On Holden Caulfield (and how I view characters)

  1. You definitely already know this: I adore Holden Caulfield. You’re not the first person who has told me they dislike his pessimism and angst-y attitude though, so I’ve had this discussion prior to today. Holden was sick; I think it’s hard to ignore the fact that he was clinically depressed and might have had anxiety and other mental disorders on top of depression. So, yes, he was sometimes very self absorbed and annoying, but it’s somewhat justified when you understand his mental condition. In addition, he loved his little sister and, towards the end when they are hanging out, you can see how much he tries for her sake to be less pessimistic (which is somewhat characteristic of your average protagonist and his growing maturity).
    It’s been a LONG time since I read the book so if I”m wrong then I’m wrong. But I remember that I genuinely felt like he was a decent guy who just had a poor outlook on life and needed some help.
    If you’ve ever read LIfe of Pi, then I kinda feel like Catcher in the Rye follows the same mold: a somewhat tedious storyline resulting in a revelation at the end that serves to completely change your opinion about the book and its characters. The storyline for CitR is rather mundane, but the golden ring and the “coming of age” principle behind the entire book sort of redeems the book for me. And makes Holden less of a pain in the ass and seem more heroic and lovable.

    On a side note: I just reread some sparknotes on the book to make sure I remembered it correctly and I thin one of the main things that drew me to Holden was his love of the term “phoney” and how he notices the fake quality of all out actions. Not many people notice this and I appreciated his honest outlook on society as opposed to encouraging everyone to just “fake it ’til you make it” in order to fit in.

    Damn this was long….

  2. I just had to comment once I saw that you love and re-read Bird by Bird! It is one of my absolute favorites and I am always inspired by it. I always find something new and helpful each time. I also have a complicated relationship with Holden Caulfield as a character mostly because of his flaws. I don’t have a hard time creating flawed characters but I do tend to have to work harder on their flaws as opposed to the general qualities that I want them to have.

    Wonderful post!

    • Thank you so much! Bird by Bird always helps me get started or be encouraged, or whatever, really. Congrats to you for getting flawed character bit down; I shelter mine WAY too much!

      I’ll definitely check your blog out!

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