Shield of the Innocent
Holden Caulfield: Shield of Innocence
Teenagers eventually have to face the harsh, vile reality of growing up. Others however try to retain their innocence. In “The Catcher in the Rye” J.D. Salinger portrays Holden Caulfield, the main character, as a teen who wants to hold onto, and is obsessed with, childhood innocence. Because of this, he sets out to protect people from the corruption of the world. This “desire” to protect is important to Holden’s life as it stems from his brother Allie who died at a young age, and because he himself has lost his innocence and despises all things “phony” (Holden’s terms for individuals that are not genuine or have lost their innocence). In addition, his desire to be a protector leads him to realise that change is not only inevitable, but also necessary. In conclusion, Holden’s desire to protect others is significant to his life as it stems from his younger brothers death, loss of his own innocence, and because it leads to great change in his character.
As a child, Holden experiences the death of a loved one. Holden’s younger brother, Allie, contracts and dies from leukemia, at the age of eleven when Holden was thirteen. This very death is the catalyst of Holden’s desire to protect the innocent. Holden, enraged over the loss of his much-loved brother, breaks his hand destroying the windows in his garage.
I slept in the garage that night when he died, and I broke all the goddamn
windows with my fist… I even tried to break all the windows on the station
wagon… but my hand was already broken and everything by that time (Salinger 39)
To Holden, Allie is the biggest, most important representation of the death of innocence. Holden praises Allie immensely, calling him the most intelligent and nicest member of the family, on several occasions. Resulting from the death of his brother, Holden experiences a change in his perception of society. The only people that Holden finds pure are children, like Allie, whereas he finds adults “phony” and corrupt. Because of this Holden tries to protect children from maturing as he believes this will stop them from becoming corrupt. As a result, Holden’s desire to protect the pure is important to his life as it arises from the death of his brother Allie. Holden’s youth however, also plays a role in his desire to protect.
The Catcher in the Rye Is almost like a “backwards coming of age story” as Holden has already crossed the border from innocent to tainted before the start of the book, and is now trying to revert back to an innocent state. Holden does this because he obsesses over innocence and hates all things phony. When talking with his younger sister, Phoebe, Holden proclaims his desire to protect others.
What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff
— I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to
come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be
the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d
really like to be. I know it’s crazy. (Salinger 173)
The field of rye symbolizes childhood innocence, a world of children playing, whilst the cliff represents the fall into adulthood. Holden “catches” the children, as he doesn’t want them to struggle with and fall into the corrupted world of adulthood like he has. Holden has experienced many detriments as a maturing individual, witnessing the ugliness of the adult world first-hand. For example, Holden’s encounter with a prostitute, that left him beaten up and robbed. Holden believes that by preventing their maturity and retaining their innocence, he is protecting them from terrible experiences. Though Holden tries to protect people from the struggle and pain he has experienced in the past, he ultimately realizes that the pain is very much needed.
Holden spends most of the book chasing his aspiration to shield the innocent. This aspiration, however, leads to his biggest change as a character. Near the end of the book, Holden takes his little sister, Phoebe, to a park, where she goes to ride on a carousel. When on the carousel, she tries to grab a ring, with the potential to fall and Holden remarks:
The thing with kids is, if they want to grab for the golden ring, you have
to let them do it, and not say anything. If they fall off, they fall off, but it’s
bad if you say anything. (Salinger 211)
Instead of protecting Phoebe from the possibility of falling, Holden allows her to ride on the carousel; a complete turn in character. This acceptance indicates the realisation for Holden, that Phoebe must be able to live her own life and take risks. Holden now realises the importance and inevitability of growing up. This mentality completely parallels Holden from the beginning of the text. Thusly, Holden’s desire to protect the pure is important to his life as it brings about the most vital change in his life.
In conclusion, Holden is someone who cares about, and wants to protect the innocence. This desire is significant to his life, as it stems from the death of his younger brother, his own tribulations in life, and because Holden’s aspiration ultimately brings about the most important and impactful change as a character. For these aforementioned reasons, Holden’s desire to protect the innocence is significant to his life.
Salinger, J. D. The Catcher in the Rye. Boston: Little, Brown, 1951. Print.