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.
These words open the book, and as such they introduce the reader to Holden’s voice. The reader can immediately see that Holden is smart and well read. His reference to Charles Dickens’ novel David Copperfield is especially significant here. Like The Catcher in the Rye, David Copperfield is a coming-of-age novel whose protagonist also acts as the first-person narrator. But Holden’s rejection of the Dickens novel as “crap” signals that Holden’s role as a narrator will reject the trappings of the traditional coming-of-age story.
I’m the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life. It’s awful.
Chapter 3 opens with these sentences, and their tone is ambiguous. At first glance, the superlative phrase “most terrific liar” makes it sound like Holden is boasting about his ability to lie. But the second sentence appears to negate any such pride. When he declares, “It’s awful,” Holden seems to be speaking frankly about an aspect of himself he deems bad. The ambiguity is, in itself, characteristic of Holden, and it reflects his contradictory nature.
In my mind, I’m probably the biggest sex maniac you ever saw. Sometimes I can think of very crumby stuff I wouldn’t mind doing if the opportunity came up. I can even see how it might be quite a lot of fun, in a crumby way. . . . The thing is, though, I don’t like the idea. It stinks, if you analyze it.
With these words from Chapter 9, Holden indicates that he feels confused by his desires and ashamed of his active sexual imagination. Holden clearly thinks about sex a lot, and his thoughts excite him and give him pleasure. As a physical, embodied experience, he decides that sex “might be quite a lot of fun.” But Holden’s mind also gets in his way. When he thinks too analytically about it, he finds the very idea of sex “crumby.” This confusion about sex and sexuality marks Holden’s immaturity.
It was funny. You could tell the waiter didn’t like her much, you could tell even the Navy guy didn’t like her much, even though he was dating her. And I didn’t like her much. Nobody did. You had to feel sort of sorry for her, in a way.
These words, from Chapter 12, refer to Lillian Simmons, a former girlfriend of D.B.’s that Holden runs into at Ernie’s piano bar. Holden’s words here express a combination of judgment and pity. Holden uses this combination of feelings to distance himself from others. This strategy allows him to feel superior to others and look down on them, making himself feel better.
“But what I mean is, lots of time you don’t know what interests you most till you start talking about something that doesn’t interest you most.”
In Chapter 24, Holden gives this explanation to Mr. Antolini, who wants to know why Holden likes digressions. Prior to this quote Holden describes how he failed his Oral Expression class at Pencey because he rejected the idea of telling one story at a time. Here, he articulates his sense that digressions enable discovery in a way that linear stories do not. Holden’s response is significant, because the story he’s telling in The Catcher in the Rye could be understood as one long digression—one that is helping him understand something new about himself.
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. Boy, did it scare me. You can’t imagine. I started sweating like a bastard—my whole shirt and underwear and everything.
Holden says these words in Chapter 25, following the incident at Mr. Antolini’s apartment, when Holden woke up to his former teacher stroking his head. Holden has interpreted Mr. Antolini’s touch as molestation. Although it’s unclear whether this interpretation of Mr. Antolini’s actions is accurate, the experience drives Holden to the brink of a panic attack. In addition to the physical signs of a panic attack, including profuse sweating, Holden’s mind seems to be closing in on itself. He imagines himself being swallowed “down, down, down” into some existential void where he might disappear forever.