Holden Caulfield as Castrated Hero

by Glorianne E. Scott

July 18, 2007


This essay discusses Catcher in the Rye as a vehicle for Holden Caulfield's psychological session with the reader, as well as the latent signs this analysis reveals. Using Freud's own interpretations of dream objects, the reader can unveil the psychological basis of Holden's obsessions. Holden is symbolically castrated early on in the novel as he is expelled from school ("I got the ax"), and again when he loses his fencing foils on the subway. As a result, Holden fetishizes his phallic replacement: the red hunting cap that will become his focus for the entirety of the novel.



I am a tainted wether of the flock,
Meetest for death: the weakest kind of fruit
Drops earliest to the ground.

—Merchant of Venice, IV.i.114-6.

Holden Caulfield is without a doubt a troubled teen. From the beginning of the novel, the protagonist of J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye is in session with a therapist, immediately cluing the reader in on his unbalanced psychological state. However, it is a clue often ignored, as many critics instead focus on the hypocritical society with which Holden is at odds. Many view Holden as heroic in his confrontation with "phonies." An analysis of Holden’s prevalent psychological crises, however, provokes an alternative interpretation of the character.

     Fortunately, some insightful work has been done examining the psychological structure of this text and reevaluating the character of Holden Caulfield. Notably, Carl Strauch provides an in-depth structural analysis in his essay "Kings in the Back Row: Meaning through Structure." Similarly, James Bryan, in his essay "The Psychological Structure of The Catcher in the Rye" not only reacts to Strauch’s work but also provides a thought-provoking interpretation as he construes the Holden/Phoebe relationship as one wrought with sexual tension. Indeed, both critics have provided meaningful explorations of Holden’s psyche and what his psychological neuroses reveal about the text.

     Yet both Bryan and Strauch omit the psychological crisis that most informs Holden’s actions throughout the novel: his castration complex. The concept of the "castration complex," originally developed by Sigmund Freud as a literal fear of castration and later reinterpreted as a metaphoric sense or fear of loss by Jacques Lacan, clearly applies to Holden. Symbolically castrated early in the novel as he is expelled from school (getting "the ax"), Holden becomes obsessed with his phallic replacement: his hunting cap. As exposed by his digressions, nervous habits, and fixations, Holden’s psychological state is one consumed by a loss, and his resulting actions are a reaction to that loss.

     Catcher lends itself particularly well to a psychoanalytic read because Holden himself is in a psychoanalytic session for the entirety of the novel; however, this therapist is neither seen nor described to the reader. In fact, Holden only mentions the doctor in 2nd person references, and for practical purposes the reader himself takes the place of the psychoanalyst from the very first line: "If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth."

     In effect, the reader becomes the "you" Holden refers to and is thus responsible for analyzing Holden’s words for their psychological significance. As Holden reveals more of his exploits, he is acting out the Freudian "talking cure" by transferring his psychical tensions to the reader as psychotherapist. The reader, in analyzing Holden’s psychological state, is dependent upon his vacillations in speech, his obsessions, and digressions to determine his latent anxieties.

     Interestingly, while the reader is interpreting Holden’s speech for psychological information, Holden himself is interpreting the speech of those around him. When discussing his Oral Expression class, Holden notes with disgust his teacher’s strategy to keep students on task by yelling "digression" whenever a student strayed from the main point: "The trouble with me is, I like it when somebody digresses. It’s more interesting and all." Not only is it more interesting, but it is often the subject the speaker actually wants to talk about: "But what I mean is, lots of times you don’t know what interests you most till you start talking about something that doesn’t interest you most." By following his line of reasoning, the reader must unravel Holden’s own digressions and obsessions in order to determine their significance.

     Holden’s most significant obsession is the loss, or feared loss, of his manhood, as his frequent digressions reveal. His metaphoric castration begins with his expulsion from school: "So I got the ax. They give guys the ax quite frequently at Pencey." The ax, a phallic symbol in itself, also signifies the act of cutting, and the anxiety initiated by that action would undoubtedly be linked to a fear of castration, the cutting of the all-important genitalia. This castration is reenacted as Holden relates that he lost the team’s fencing foils on the subway. The fencing foils, another metaphor for Holden’s manhood, conjure phallic correlations in shape as well as purpose. Not only has he lost his symbolic penis, but he is also persecuted for it: "The whole team ostracized me the whole way back on the train" (emphasis mine). The repetition of the word "whole" highlights Holden’s own incompleteness. Holden’s expulsion from school coupled with the loss of the fencing foils contributes to a castration anxiety that informs his actions throughout the rest of the novel.

     To compensate for this castration anxiety, Holden develops a fetish for an object of clothing that represents his penis, his hunting hat. Holden’s obsession with this hat is clearly pivotal, yet the symbolic nature of the hat is controversial. Strauch points out that he wears the hat "backwards like a catcher" (10), an undoubtedly pointed correlation with the novel’s title as well as Holden’s view of himself as a savior. Bryan interprets the hat as a symbol of Holden’s "aggressive and withdrawing tendencies" (1074). Indeed, Holden’s reinforcement of the aggression implicit in a hunting hat ("I shoot people in this hat") does seem to be counterbalanced by the tenderness when he eventually gives the hat to Phoebe ("She really likes those kinds of hats"). Yet his tenderness is not selfless but instead is a result of his hero complex, his vision of himself as a catcher-savior. Holden’s appropriation of the hat as compensation for his castration, then, conflates both ideas: the hat represents aggression and heroism, two traits implicit in his sense of manhood.

     The timing of Holden’s hunting hat purchase is important. Holden buys the hat immediately after he has lost the fencing foils: "It was this red hunting hat, with one of those very, very long peaks. I saw it in the window of this sports store when we got out of the subway, just after I noticed I’d lost all the goddam foils." Interestingly, Freud performed a dream analysis involving a hat with a similar appearance, and he immediately associated the symbol as phallic: "No doubt the hat was a male genital organ, with its middle-piece sticking up and its two side-pieces hanging down" (Interpretation 361). The hat replaces the foils and somewhat restores his castrated self. The loss of the foils is countered by the gain of the hat; as such, his masculine potency is at least partially restored.

     Holden reaches for his hat again and again, and in his retelling of the narrative it is a detail significant enough for repetitive mention. He puts on the hat when "horsing around," when he escapes from Pencey, when he’s riding in a taxicab, and, most appropriately, while walking in the cold. Finally, as the ultimate act of self-sacrifice, he gives his hat to his little sister Phoebe, perhaps in order to compensate Phoebe for her own lack of a penis. However, Holden clearly still needs his phallic replacement. When Holden sees Phoebe again for their secret meeting at museum, the hat is the first thing he notices: "The reason I saw her, she had my crazy hunting hat on—you could see that hat about ten miles away." The hat’s distinctive features and size facilitate an easy view even from a far distance, a trait that only further reinforces the phallic imagery.

     After Holden rejects Phoebe’s offer to accompany him as he runs away, she violently returns his gift: "All she did was, she took off my red hunting hat—the one I gave her—and practically chucked it right in my face." While Phoebe is clearly rejecting Holden by refusing the representation of his masculinity, Holden is nevertheless compelled to keep the hat: "I just picked it up and stuck it in my coat pocket." The compensating comfort the hat provides is too powerful to abandon.

     Holden’s castration complex is represented indirectly by his dysfunctional relationships with women. A result of unresolved Oedipal issues as well as his castration fears, Holden’s problematic relationships with women reveal that his views of women are tainted by the virgin/whore dialectic; he either idolizes women or is disgusted by them. While Holden idealizes his old friend Jane Gallagher and nearly goes ballistic when a playboy classmate asks her out, he is only able to define her in trivial terms, such as by her habit of keeping her kings in the back row during a game of checkers. In fact, when Stradlater asks Holden to write his composition paper for him, Holden doesn’t answer because he is still obsessed with this trivial detail regarding Jane: "Ask her if she still keeps all her kings in the back row." This fixation a minor detail is an avoidance tactic. After all, if Holden displaces his feelings for Jane to an inanimate object, he does not have to confront the complexity of Jane herself.

     Perhaps because of these intimacy fears, Holden is paralyzed emotionally. Throughout the book, Holden resolves to call Jane, but whether for worries that her mother would answer or just because he wasn’t in the mood, he is never able to follow through with the call, a correlation to Holden’s inability to perform with the prostitute Sunny. He is as emotionally impotent with Jane as he is physically impotent with Sunny.

     Holden is able to contact another female friend of his, however, and he sets up a date with his old girlfriend Sally Hayes. Within the short span of their date, Holden’s opinion of Sally swings from adulation to revulsion. When he first sees her, he is smitten: "The funny part is, I felt like marrying her the minute I saw her. I’m crazy. I didn’t even like her much, and yet all of a sudden I felt like I was in love with her and wanted to marry her." By the end of the date, he is less adoring: "I was beginning to hate her, in a way." Sally, once idealized in Holden’s eyes, reveals herself to be human, and this evocation of humanity repulses Holden; once Sally is unable to meet Holden’s impossibly high expectations, he rejects her. By revering Sally from afar and rejecting her in reality, Holden reveals his inability to become intimate, ultimately a byproduct of his castration fears.

     Holden’s intimacy hang-ups become obvious when he hires a prostitute, Sunny, but is unable to sleep with her. Just prior to the prostitute’s arrival, Holden reveals that he is a virgin, and then defends himself, contending that something always thwarted his consummation efforts. What actually prevented him from completing the sexual act, however, has been repressed: "I came quite close to doing it a couple of times, though. One time in particular, I remember. Something went wrong, though—I don’t even remember what any more." Even with a ready and willing prostitute, something holds Holden back: "I felt much more depressed than sexy. . . It made me feel sad as hell—I don’t know why exactly." In order to get out of having to sleep with her, Holden lies and says he just had an operation on his "clavichord," which he says is part of his spinal cord. The reader, however, recognizes that a clavichord is musical instrument. From here, it is easy to make a connection with Holden’s other "instrument"—his genitals. The connection is supported by Sunny’s euphemistic reference: "What the heck did you tell that crazy Maurice you wanted a girl for, then? If you just had a goddam operation on your goddam wuddayacallit." The inferred impotence is less terrifying than the reality of intimacy with Sunny, so Holden sticks to his operation story, pays her, and she leaves. When Sunny’s pimp Maurice returns later to fraudulently accuse Holden of paying too little, Holden puts up a fight but ends up beaten up and robbed, so that Sunny succeeds in emasculating him twice.

     In fact, the only woman Holden seems at ease with (excluding Phoebe, of course) is the mother of one of his classmates. The association of this woman with Holden’s own mother seems clear. While he sees Mrs. Morrow as a sexual object, offering her a cigarette and even offering to buy her a drink, she is still a perceptible mother figure. In fact, Holden never reveals the woman’s name, instead referring to her as "old Morrow’s mother." Her maternal qualities nevertheless do not diminish his attraction to her: "She had quite a lot of sex appeal, too, if you really want to know." Holden cannot acknowledge the contradiction of these sexual and maternal tensions. Taking pleasure in pleasing this maternal figure, Holden even lies to her about her son to please her, knowing the expected response from a mother would be pride at her son’s accomplishments: "Old Mrs. Morrow didn’t say anything, but boy, you should’ve seen her. I had her glued to her seat. You take somebody’s mother, all they want to hear about is what a hot-shot their son is." While Holden is inept in relationships with women his own age, he knows exactly what to say to a maternal figure, and he even fakes a tumor in order to obtain sympathetic affection from Mrs. Morrow, so desperate is he to attain even an artificial familiarity.

     Holden’s comment about mothers wanting to be proud of their sons may be revelatory in regards to Holden’s relationship with his own mother. Holden has not been a hot-shot. In fact, the only remorse he feels concerning his expulsion from Pencey is related to his expectation that his mother will be disappointed in him. As he packs up ice skates his mother recently sent him, Holden feels the double weight of his symbolic castration and his mother’s disappointment: "That depressed me. I could see my mother going in Spaulding’s and asking the salesman a million dopy questions—and here I was getting the ax again. It made me feel pretty sad." Further complicating Holden’s relationship with his mother is the death of his brother Allie. The loss of a child was difficult for his mother: "I felt sorry as hell for my mother and father. Especially my mother, because she still isn’t over my brother Allie yet." In other circumstances, Allie would be a competitor with Holden, each of them vying for their mother’s love and attention. However, any such competition would now be viewed guiltily by Holden and further complicates the mother/son relationship.

     Holden longs for the safety and security of his mother’s womb, and he reveals this longing through his obsession with a lake and the ducks that take refuge there. Holden is most agitated by his fears that the ducks will not be able to stay in the lake during the winter; this perceived threat parallels the agitation of being ejected from the comforting womb. Holden is first reminded of the lake when he is supposed to be paying attention to his teacher lecturing him for getting kicked out of school:

    The funny thing is, though, I was sort of thinking of something else while I shot the bull. I live in New York, and I was thinking about the lagoon in Central Park, down near Central Park South. I was wondering if it would be frozen over when I got home, and if it was, where did the ducks go. I was wondering where the ducks went when the lagoon got all icy and frozen over. I wondered if some guy came in a truck and took them away to a zoo or something. Or if they just flew away. (13)

The teacher’s censure for Holden’s expulsion from Pencey Prep is overshadowed by what Holden feels is a larger threat: the loss of a safe refuge. Holden identifies with the ducks, and in worrying about returning home, he wonders if his mother’s demeanor will turn icy since he has let her down. The image of the ducks flying away prefigures Holden’s own exile: he runs away from school and hangs out in New York because he is afraid of his parents’ reaction.

     Holden’s concern for his fowl counterparts only increases once he reaches New York. One of the first things he asks a cabbie concerns the welfare of the ducks: "By any chance, do you happen to know where they go, the ducks, when it gets all frozen over?" During his next cab ride, he inquires again about the ducks: "I mean does somebody come around in a truck or something and take them away, or do they fly away by themselves—go south or something?" This time, the cabbie’s reaction is impatient: "How the hell should I know a stupid thing like that?" The cabbie goes on to talk about the fish in the lake, despite Holden’s corrections that he was asking about the ducks, and finally spits out: "If you was a fish, Mother Nature’d take care of you, wouldn’t she?" This protecting mother figure is exactly what Holden craves, but as he identifies with the ducks, and not the fish, the statement is of no comfort to him. When Holden tries to see the lagoon in person, he has difficulty finding it, suggesting an unconscious resistance: "I knew right where it was—it was right near Central Park South and all—but I still couldn’t find it." He finally finds the partially frozen lake, and there isn’t a duck in sight.

     The few things that interest Holden (or that he obsesses over)—a hat, the lake, his kid sister Phoebe—are remarkable precisely because so few things meet Holden’s approval. Almost every person or thing that Holden confronts depresses him. Even an innocuous subject such as nuns rejecting fancy meals is depressing to him: "It made me so damn sad when I thought about it, their never going anywhere swanky for lunch or anything."

     The fact that everyone depresses Holden is informative not only because it reveals Holden’s psychological state, but also because it alludes to his own feelings of superiority. Holden himself talks about inferiority/superiority complexes when he observes how women label men: "The trouble with girls is, if they like a boy, no matter how big a bastard he is, they’ll say he has an inferiority complex, and if they don’t like him, no matter how nice a guy he is, or how big an inferiority complex he has, they’ll say he’s conceited." Whether or not Holden’s judgment is factual, he does seem to have a firm grasp on the idea that many people either feel inferior or superior to those around them. What Holden does not seem to realize is that by passing judgment on everything and everyone around him—from movies to girls to poor kids, and so on—and furthermore by feeling depressed when someone doesn’t have the things (i.e. money or authenticity) that Holden himself has, he is in fact positing that he is superior to these other people. Another consequence of Holden’s habit of bemoaning the actions of everyone around him, and reiterating how much everything depresses him, is that the things that truly depress him, such as Allie’s death, are hidden among the other negative opinions. In this way, Holden’s overtly cynical attitude is actually a form of protection as it prevents him from having to confront his emotions over his brother’s death.

     One of the few things that inspire Holden is the idea that he could rescue other people. Clearly, he views himself as a savior figure to the world, an idea embodied in his answer to Phoebe’s question about what he would like to be:

    Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around—nobody big, I mean—except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. 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. (173)

There are a number of puzzling issues with Holden’s desired occupation. First, Holden’s entire fantasy is based on a misremembered rhyme. He believes the rhyme says "If a body catch a body" but Phoebe points out that the rhyme is from a poem by Robert Burns and the actual words are "If a body meet a body." Since the action of catching is the main activity in Holden’s fantasy of his future self, this alteration is momentous. Furthermore, earlier Holden had written an entire essay on his dead brother Allie’s catcher’s mitt. By associating himself with catching, he not only associates himself with rescuing these children but also with rescuing his dead brother’s memory.

     Freud saw significance in misremembered or forgotten items:"What is common to all these cases, irrespective of the material, is the fact that the forgotten or distorted matter is brought by some associative path into connection with an unconscious thought-content—a thought-content which is the source of the effect manifested in the form of forgetting" (Psychopathology 20-21). So, Holden’s act of misremembering the rhyme and unconsciously associating it with Allie reveals the internal struggles he has tried to repress.

     Holden’s mistaken memory reveals his hidden desires. In this case, Holden’s unconscious motivation is his desire to help people, but only in a very specific situation. In the rye he speaks of, after all, he is the only "big" person there, so not only is he the most physically powerful, but he is also the only one that can save the kids from the cliff. With no other "big" people to rescue the children, Holden’s value is exponentially increased, and he is given a hero-like quality. Interestingly, the reference to rye, another name for whiskey, is a particularly adult reference ignored by Holden in his savior fantasy. After all, it complicates his vision of himself as hero. Emanuel Berman, in his essay "Ferenczi, Rescue, and Utopia," discusses theories regarding "rescue fantasies," and he summarizes Freudian theory on the subject: "When Freud (1910a) first discussed the phenomenon of the rescue fantasy, he attributed it to certain male patients whose emotional life centers around the rescue of ‘fallen women’" (429). While this may explain a portion of Holden’s rationale (and indeed invites an interesting read on Holden’s relationship with women), other factors—specifically the associations with Allie—suggest his actual motivations are more complex. Holden needs to rescue others to validate himself as well as to compensate for his castrated manhood.

     While a significant part of an analysand’s therapy is the patient’s ability to free-associate, a psychoanalyst is still needed to nudge the patient in the right direction and point out patterns and inconsistencies. Carl, a friend of Holden’s, suggests he see a psychoanalyst for this very reason. When Holden asks what the therapist would do to him, Carl responds: "He wouldn’t do a goddam thing to you. He’d simply talk to you, and you’d talk to him, for God’s sake. For one thing, he’d help you to recognize the patterns of your mind."

     Since the reader is standing in for Holden’s psychoanalyst and yet is unable to actively interfere, Phoebe must temporarily take on the role of the analyst and reveal Holden’s mind patterns to him. Phoebe immediately recognizes in Holden’s expulsion tirade the fact that his cynicism is not limited to the school: "You don’t like anything that’s happening. . . You don’t like any schools. You don’t like a million things. You don’t." Phoebe even challenges him to name something he likes, and Holden is at a loss. He finally mentions that he likes Allie, but Phoebe replies it doesn’t count because he’s dead and in heaven now. Holden explodes: "I know he’s dead! Don’t you think I know that? I can still like him, though, can’t I? Just because somebody’s dead, you don’t just stop liking them, for God’s sake—especially if they were about a thousand times nicer than the people you know that’re alive and all." Phoebe has unraveled Holden’s fears of intimacy: he can only idealize those who are no longer around because real people disappoint you. Phoebe’s words resonate in Holden’s mind so that when a former teacher accuses him of hating everybody, he is prepared with a response: "But you’re wrong about that hating business. . . What I may do, I may hate them for a little while. . . After a while, if I didn’t see them, if they didn’t come in the room, or if I didn’t see them in the dining room for a couple of meals, I sort of missed them. I mean I sort of missed them."

     While Holden has begun to identify certain patterns regarding his reactions to people, his neuroses have not disappeared. The teacher, trying to help, has worsened the situation by patting Holden’s head while he was sleeping. As Holden puts it, "When something perverty like that happens, I start sweating like a bastard. That kind of stuff’s happened to me about twenty times since I was a kid. I can’t stand it." In his hurry to leave the teacher’s house, Holden has to leave without his tie. The tie, a pointed object worn almost exclusively by males, again represents the loss of Holden’s manhood. This final castration is the breaking point for Holden:

    Anyway, I kept walking and walking up Fifth Avenue, without any tie on or anything. Then all of a sudden, something very spooky started happening. Every time I came to the end of a block and stepped off the goddam curb, I had this feeling that I’d never get to the other side of the street. I thought I’d just go down, down, down, and nobody’d ever see me again. . . . Then I started doing something else. Every time I’d get to the end of a block I’d make believe I was talking to my brother Allie. I’d say to him "Allie, don’t let me disappear. Allie, don’t let me disappear." (197-8)

Ironically, immediately after this episode, Holden decides to disappear, to go live in a cabin near the woods, all the while pretending to be a deaf mute so as not to be bothered by people. The only thing he needs to do before he leaves is say goodbye to Phoebe. When Phoebe gets the letter to meet him at the museum, she meets him with a suitcase of her own, planning to join him in exile. He refuses to take her with him, but he takes her to the carousel instead, trying to assuage her hurt feelings. It is at this point that Phoebe returns Holden’s hat to his head, reversing his castration complex. "Then what she did—it damn near killed me—she reached in my coat pocket and took out my red hunting hat and put it on my head." Of course, Holden had possession of the hat, but by placing it on his head, Phoebe is reminding him of what is already his, reinstilling his masculinity and effectively reversing the symbolic castration that set the narrative plot in motion. When it starts to rain, Holden is protected more emotionally than physically by his cap: "My hunting hat really gave me quite a lot of protection, in a way, but I got soaked anyway. I didn’t care, though. I felt so damn happy all of a sudden…" With his metaphoric castration reversed, Holden’s emotional paralysis is lifted: he is able to return home, go back to school, and even see a therapist, completing his search for psychological growth.

Works Cited

Berman, Emanuel. "Ferenczi, Rescue, and Utopia." American Imago 60.4 (2003): 429-444.

Bryan, James. "The Psychological Structure of the Catcher in the Rye." PMLA 89 (1065-1074).

Freud, Sigmund. . The Interpretation of Dreams. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Ed. and trans. James Strachey. Vol. X. London: Hogarth Press, 1953-74.

---. Psychopathology of Everyday Life. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Ed. and trans. James Strachey. Vol. XI. London: Hogarth Press, 1953-74.

Salinger, J.D. The Catcher in the Rye. Boston: Little, Brown, 1951.

Strauch, Carl F. "Kings in the Back Row: Meaning through Structure. A Reading of Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye." Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature 2.1 (1961): 5-30.

To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Glorianne E. Scott "Holden Caulfield as Castrated Hero". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available http://psyartjournal.com/article/show/e_scott-holden_caulfield_as_castrated_hero. April 12, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: May 17, 2007, Published: July 18, 2007. Copyright © 2007 Glorianne E. Scott