The main theme of The Catcher in the Rye is isolation, which is interesting coming from a guy who spills his guts to the world for 200 pages. Nevertheless, the contradiction characterizes Holden Caulfield perfectly; he can’t decide whether to call all his buddies together for a round of drinks and chatting or flee to the woods for some Into-the-Wild style escapism.
This is just the tip of an entire iceberg of narrative inconsistency. Holden loathes phonies but constantly lies, hates Hollywood but pretends he’s the star of a gangster flick, wants people to like him but intentionally irritates them for fun, and complains that everybody over-generalizes all the time. Holden’s narrative presence so fully dominates the story that it’s difficult to get an accurate read of any situation, meaning whatever comes through the Caulfield Perception Machine must be reverse engineered before we can make sense of it. Let’s look at Holden’s relationships with the two other most important Catcher in the Rye characters.
According to Holden Caulfield, Phoebe is the (second) greatest person ever (right after his little brother, Allie, who died of leukemia). She’s the nicest, smartest, prettiest, most superlative-y sibling a person could ask for. So what does this tell us? Nothing without proof. Here’s a more nuanced approach to the brother-sister relationship:
Exhibit A: Phoebe takes Holden seriously. When Holden says he’s going to “hitch hike out west,” Phoebe packs her suitcase, sneaks it out of the building, lugs it around for the day, and meets him at the museum with his red hunting hat on and everything they need but the getaway car. Compare that to the reception Holden gets when he asks Sally to run away with him. (He achieves the running part, just in the wrong direction.) Which is not to say that running away with Sally would even be a good idea, but the point is that practically everyone laughs/tells Holden off like he’s a complete idiot – which we (and Phoebe) know couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Exhibit B: Phoebe gives Holden stuff. Which may not seem like a big deal except that she’s the only person in the novel who does. Holden constantly lends/gives things to the people around him, who often don’t offer so much as a thank-you in return. In the first ten chapters alone – and there are 26 – he gets screwed out of a coat, an essay, a typewriter, and thirteen dollars’ worth of drinks. Phoebe, on the other hand, not only shows immense gratitude for his gifts (remember when she lovingly stashes the broken shards of the record in a drawer?), but also lends Holden her Christmas savings when she finds out he’s broke and gives him back his red hunting hat when he’s feeling blue. It’s a sad day when a 10-year old shows more generosity than an entire prep school’s worth of entitled teenagers.
Exhibit C: Phoebe wants to hear about Holden – even when she doesn’t want to. Holden hates that people “never notice anything,” and while he’s busy making brilliant behavioral and emotional observations about everyone he meets, they’re so busying trying to be impressive that they can’t think of anyone but themselves. Phoebe, however, wants to know what time Holden arrived, what he’s up to, whether or not he’ll come see her play, why he’s a few days early, which classes he failed, and why he didn’t try harder. Even though she’s mad, Holden “could tell by the back of her neck that she was listening. She always listens when you tell her something.” What’s more, she’s the only person paying enough attention to figure out that he was kicked out of school. Not bad sleuthing for a 10-year old.
Aside from Allie, Jane is the novel’s most tantalizingly elusive figure; although Holden’s thoughts wander to her often, she never makes a physical appearance in The Catcher in the Rye. Holden is careful not to reveal too much about Jane, but it’s obvious that he likes her. Perhaps even loves her. Let’s review the evidence.
Exhibit A: Holden can’t get too sexy with her. As per his philosophy on sex (i.e. sex is inherently degrading), the only women in the novel he sexualizes are the ones he can’t respect. Remember the stupid but pretty dancer whose fantastic butt “twitched so nice and all”? Or what about Holden’s name-dropping, Luntz-loving friend with the “little blue butt-twitcher of a dress”? (Apparently, he has a type.) In contrast, the closest Holden gets to sexualizing Jane is in revealing that she has a “terrific figure,” but he only divulges this information because he suspects her step-dad is sexually abusing her. Admittedly, Holden makes a point of avoiding Jane throughout all this “madman stuff,” but just remember the key word in “respectful distance” is “respectful.”
Exhibit B: Jane keeps all her kings in the back row. Why is that important? It’s not, but the fact that Holden thinks so says a lot about their dynamic. The things Holden thinks are important enough to tell us are that she plays checkers and golf, that her mouth always hangs open, that she’s great to hold hands with, that her stepdad is a lousy boozehound, and that her red sweater “knocked him out.” Knowing that Stradlater doesn’t give a damn about any of this (or whether her name is Jane or Jean, for that matter) drives Holden up the wall.
Exhibit C: Holden doesn’t complain about Jane. Not once. And Holden complains about literally EVERYTHING except Allie. Even Phoebe “can be very snotty sometimes,” but when it comes to Jane’s faults, he is suspiciously silent. And coming from Holden, that’s saying something.