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Holden Caulfield Unreliable Narrator Essay

Holden Caufield as Untrustworthy Narrator in The Catcher in the Rye

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Holden Caufield as Untrustworthy Narrator in The Catcher in the Rye



The problem with most first person narratives is that there is only one point of view. In The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger, Holden Caufield shares his past experiences as a distressed teenager. The entire story is told through his own troubled mind, which often distorts the experiences. Salinger portrays the reason behind Holden's immaturity by demonstrating his untrustworthy qualities.


Most of Holden's views contradict themselves because of Holden's own confusion. This confusion blinds him from being able to realize that most of his criticism is against himself. Salinger clearly presents this after Stradlader hits Holden. "All that blood and all sort of made me look tough. I'd only been in about two fights in my life, and I lost both of them. I'm not too tough. I'm a pacifist, if you want to know the truth"(46). Even though Holden enjoys to see himself beaten up, he contradicts himself by proclaiming he is a peaceful person. Salinger utilizes these contradictions to reveal how unreliable Holden's observations are.


Salinger also depicts Holden's immaturity through the judgment of his peers and elders. Holden's disillusionment of good people alters the true personality of each person he meets. Holden even criticizes his new classmates, whom he has not even meet yet. "It's full of phonies/.../and you have to keep making believe you give a damn if the football team loses, and all you do is talk about girls and liquor and sex all day"(131). Just because Holden is uncomfortable in his school, he feels the need to disapprove of everyone. Salinger exploits this immaturity to illustrate the reason for Holden's loneliness and confusion.


Throughout the story Salinger introduces characters that actually appeal to Holden, which give him guidance and make him feel better about himself. Mr. Antolini is one of these people. Holden seems hopeless in his quest for happiness, but Mr. Antolini guides him in the right direction. Even after all the help, he still finds a way to scrutinize Mr. Antolini. "What he was doing was, he was sitting on the floor right next to the couch, in the dark and all, and he was sort of petting me or patting me on the goddam head"(192).

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Holden Caufield         Narrator         Good People         D. Salinger         Immaturity         First Person         Football Team         Elders        

Holden completely ignores all the helpful advice that was given to him, and finds something negative to complain about. Holden's naive behavior prevents him from changing his life, and committing to a friendship.


Holden's depressive character prevents the reader from recognizing the reality of Holden's life. Salinger keeps this evident through Holden's actions, which can never be taken seriously. Salinger proves the importance of staying truthful to yourself, and never taking shortcuts to happiness. Holden repeatedly fails to realize this and is trapped in his own misery.



A version of this essay was originally submitted in partial fulfillment of the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Manchester in 2009.

Please note that if you quote or cite this work that it is  © Karl Hodge 2012. The correct form of referencing is:

Karl Hodge. (2012). The Most Terrific Liar: Unreliable Narration in The Catcher in the Rye. Available: http://www.brokenenglish.co.uk/?p=50. Last accessed DD/MM/YYYY.


Holden Caulfield is the first-person protagonist of J.D. Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye and frequently thought of as a classic ‘unreliable narrator’.

The most widely applied definition of reliable and unreliable narration comes from Wayne Booth’s 1961 text The Rhetoric of Fiction.


I have called a narrator reliable when he speaks or acts for the norms of the work (which is to say the implied author’s norms), unreliable when he does not. (…)

It is most often a matter of what James calls inconscience; the narrator is mistaken, or he believes himself to have qualities which the author denies him.[1]


In short, when narration deviates from or contradicts the world built in the wider work, the narrator is considered unreliable.

However, there’s also a separation drawn here between the ‘implied author’ and the narrator. Booth seems to be saying that when the narrator speaks for the values of that author, we might see him as reliable. When he speaks against those values, the ‘implied author’s norms’ of the overall narrative, then he is not.

This is a problematic definition in the case of The Catcher in the Rye as there is evidence in the text that some of Holden’s values seem to match those of the author. What we need is a more nuanced definition and analysis.

Since the publication of The Rhetoric of Fiction, others have attempted to divide signifiers of narrative unreliability into distinct and recognisable tropes. Some have been conservative, with Monica Fludernik[2] identifying three broad categories. Ansgar Nunning[3], on the other hand, sets out a comprehensive matrix of unreliability – containing many separate ‘textual signals’ of unreliable narration.

Critically, both Nunning – and other contemporary narratologists – give greater consideration to the consumption of the text, rather than the ‘implied author’s norms’. Unreliability in this contemporary reformulation of Booth is a deviation from the norms and values expected by the reader.


(…) whether a narrator is called unreliable or not does not depend on the distance between the norms and values of the narrator and those of the implied author but between the distance that separates the narrator’s view of the world from the reader’s world-model and standards of normality [4]


My aim in this essay is to present a qualitative and personal reading that investigates the role of unreliable narration in Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. I am following more closely in the footsteps of Nunning than Booth and admitting that, in making my analysis, I am concerned as much with character as narrative, with reader as much as author.

What will emerge is that The Catcher in the Rye doesn’t adhere quite so closely to the ‘classic’ definition of unreliable narration as one might immediately suppose. The novel’s protagonist is part of a complex interplay of world building and character interaction – whose very “unreliability” sometimes reveals the author’s values and norms. However, he is unreliable by other definitions – a statement we can now explore.


Holden Caulfield is what Seymour Chatman would call an ‘overt narrator’[5] – a character who addresses the reader directly, a ‘conspicuously audible narrator’ telling their own story.  The Catcher in the Rye is, effectively, a monologue – addressed to a ‘postulated reader’[6] or listener.  Holden ‘speaks’ to us as though he knows us, from the very first sentence:


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 (…)[7]

More specifically, Holden continues to conversationally address this postulated reader throughout – even ascribing values to him or her:


It was just that she looked so damn nice, the way she kept going around and around, in her blue coat and all. God, I wish you could’ve been there.[8]


For Nunning, this would place Holden firmly in the canon of ‘mad monologists’; unreliable narrators who take the reader into their confidence, offering their (exclusive) point of view and (skewed) experience of the narrative world. While Catcher’s ‘overt narration’ doesn’t immediately mark the narrative as unreliable, it does lead us into a relationship with the narrator, with Holden, that enables Salinger to encode signifiers of unreliability. It’s those markers in Holden’s dialogue and speech that I turn to now.

For Nunning one ‘textual signal’ of unreliability is the expression of uncertainty in dialogue. He uses Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier and his narrator John Dowell as an example that might easily be transposed to The Catcher in the Rye.


(Dowell’s) repeated use of words such as ‘think’ or ‘guess’ and, even more, his acknowledged ignorance, indicate a very weak degree of certitude, something that is underlined by the phrase ‘I don’t know’, arguably the most prominent leitmotif of the novel.[9]


Holden Caulfield’s monologue is filled with similar expressions of uncertainty. Like Dowell, Caulfield frequently ‘doesn’t know’.  More specifically, he cannot always explain his actions , saying he just ‘felt like’ doing something, whether it’s crying, going to sleep or pretending that he’s just taken a bullet to the guts. For example:


When I got to the museum, all of a sudden I wouldn’t have gone inside for a million bucks. It just didn’t appeal to me–and here I’d walked through the whole goddam park and looked forward to it and all.[10]


As part of this continuum of denial, Holden is often uncertain about his emotional states. He leaves school for the final time and cries, for example, unable to explain why. Feeling upset would be a ‘normal’ response but Holden doesn’t see it that way:


When I was all set to go, when I had my bags and all, I stood for a while next to the stairs and took a last look down the goddam corridor. I was sort of crying. I don’t know why.[11]


Holden also overcompensates for his lack of certainty, as though assuming that the reader doesn’t believe what he’s saying (which may well be the case).  He often ends an anecdote with ‘I’m not kidding’ or a piece of imparted information with ‘I really do’ or ‘it really is’:


Sometimes I act a lot older than I am – I really do – but people never notice it.[12]


Another marker of Holden’s ‘weak degree of certitude’ is his use of exaggeration, which is peppered throughout the text:


I dropped about a thousand hints, but I couldn’t get rid of him.[13]


He started parting his hair all over again. It took him about an hour to comb his hair.[14]


With this catalogue of verbal repetitions and tics, we are left wondering who Holden is really trying to convince, himself or the implied reader? [15]

These ‘tics’ gain greater significance in a contemporary reading when considered alongside more overt indicators of Holden’s unreliability in the narrative itself. The clearest and loudest of these is that Holden is a liar. He tells us himself, right at the beginning of chapter three:


I’m the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life. It’s awful. If I’m on my way to the store to buy a magazine, even, and somebody asks me where I’m going, I’m liable to say I’m going to the opera. It’s terrible.[16]


Like other things that Holden ‘just does’, he cannot explain why he lies. ‘It’s awful’, ‘it’s terrible’ he tells us. It isn’t long before we’re presented with narrative evidence that suggests Holden is more than just a profligate liar – he’s also an inventive fantasist. In chapter 8, Holden meets the mother of a schoolmate on the train intoNew York, Mrs. Morrow. He tells her his name is ‘Rudolf Schmidt’, that her vile and boorish son is the toast of the school and, as the lie spirals ever further into fantasy, he claims to have a tumour on his brain. Just a ‘tiny little’ one.

Embedded in this scene are two further, recurring aspects of Holden’s Mitty-ish tendencies. He pretends to be adult and he adopts a fake identity. Throughout the text, Holden mimics what he perceives to be adult behaviour, in apparent conflict with his own stated attitudes towards adulthood. Holden’s encounter with Mrs. Morrow, who he invites to the buffet car for a late night drink, is only the beginning of the 16 year old protagonist’s clumsy adoption of pseudo-adult behaviours.

When the train arrives inNew York, he takes a taxi from Penn Station to the Edmont Hotel and invites the driver for cocktails along the way.  He goes to a nightclub and flirts unsuccessfully with a trio of out-of-town girls. He entertains a young prostitute in his room, panicking when faced with the raw and real possibility of sex. During each of these encounters, he adopts pseudonymous personae – using the name ‘Jim Steele’ with the women in the bar and the sex worker, telling the taxi driver that he’s ‘loaded’.

Later in the narrative, Holden’s lies spin so far into the realm of fantasy that he begins to lie to himself; inventing a possible future in which he can opt out of growing up, drop out of society and pretend to be a deaf-mute, living in a log cabin with his deaf-mute bride.

While these narrative fragments alone tell us that Holden is unreliable as a character, they also tell us something more important about the overall narrative; that Holden no longer knows quite who he is. He is stuck in limbo, a transition between an adulthood he doesn’t quite understand and childhood, a time of life he seems to idolise. This is an issue I’d like to return to, but first – how does Holden’s unreliability as a character translate into unreliability as a narrator?


The key here is to closely read the context of Holden’s narration. When we do so, we reveal cues throughout the narrative that Holden’s experience is different to that of the characters around him – or that he is reframing events to fit his own world view. It’s through his interaction with other characters and his environment that Holden’s unreliability becomes visible.

For example, after an extended rant at a girlfriend, Sally Hayes, in which he professes to hate everything, he’s unaware that he’s begun shouting:


‘Don’t shout, please,’ old Sally said. Which was very funny, because I wasn’t even shouting.[17]


There are more subtle articulations of this too. He sets up his encounter with his history teacher at Pencey, Mr. Spencer, as though it’s a social visit with an elder friend, for example. There are clues that it is, instead, a punitive meeting; a telling off for falling behind.


The other reason I wasn’t down at the game was because I was on my way to say good-bye to old Spencer, my history teacher. He had the grippe, and I figured I probably wouldn’t see him again till Christmas vacation started. He wrote me this note saying he wanted to see me before I went home.[18]


Then, during their encounter, Mr. Spencer dresses Holden down for flunking history and three other subjects:


I flunked you in history because you knew absolutely nothing. (…) I doubt very much if you opened your textbook even once the whole term. Did you? Tell the truth, boy.[19]


Holden retreats swiftly, lying about a prior appointment to end the meeting early[20].


Salinger provides us with evidence in dialogue, narrative and meta-narrative that Holden is seeing things differently to us. What does that mean for our reading of the text?  The easiest and first response is that we begin to doubt other aspects of the telling – even when contextual cues confirming Holden’s veracity are missing.  For example, when Holden arrives at the Edmont Hotel, he describes a tableau of ‘perverted’ activity taking place within view of his window. A middle aged man dresses in drag; a couple spit cocktails at each other.  As this follows on shortly after his encounter with Mrs. Morrow, how much of this apparently exaggerated scene should we believe?

Perhaps the answer lies in making a differentiation between unreliable and untrustworthy narration – a distinction that’s conflated by Booth, but that is made clear by Nunning (via Lansing):


(…) a narrator might be quite trustworthy in reporting events, but not competent in interpreting them.[21]


There is rarely a sense that Holden is trying to mislead or lie to the reader, or that his lies to other characters are malicious or Machiavellian. He is, rather, ‘mistaken’, to use Booth’s terms. His interpretation of events is unreliable – but as a narrator, he is not untrustworthy.

There is a further reading of Booth that unreliable narrators speak counter to the values of the implied author, as Bruno Zerweck suggests:


The unintentional self-incrimination of the personalized narrator is a necessary condition for unreliability.[22]


But does Salinger want us to think that Holden “incriminates” himself? That his values are greatly different from those of the implied author?

I don’t think he does.

I think Salinger wants us to see a character with a strongly defined moral centre. Someone for whom the transition from childhood to adulthood is a process of selling out – a surrender to primal and base desires. The desire for money (his brother, D.B.), sex (his roommate, Stradlater), alcohol (former teacher, Mr. Antolini), and for the shallow, shiny and meaningless (his date, Sally).

The two poles of Holden’s transition are his two brothers – Allie and D.B.  Allie is the terrific kid whose premature death ensures he will never grow up; who will stay innocent and unspoiled forever.  D.B. is the talented author who sold out, whose adult desires lead him to a phony life as a Hollywood screenwriter.  Holden is caught between them, the tallest child in the field of rye, trying to catch kids before they plunge over the precipice.


Holden’s apparent hypocrisy – that he spends money recklessly, that he drinks and pursues women while, at other times, decrying this very behaviour – signifies for us the character of child who is acting out the role of a man.  If we see The Catcher in the Rye as an odyssey, then Holden’s Ithaca is the apogee of adolescence; sexual awakening.

The sense one gets is that Salinger – and his avatar, the ‘implied author’ –  are sympathetic to Holden, not antagonistic. Holden is torn between the intellectual desire to be authentic and the chemical interactions inside him, making him increasingly more adult. More ‘phony’.

In this reading, Holden’s unreliability is not the implied author’s condemnation of his character – it’s a narrative function of the character’s state of being; his descent into a kind of madness over the course of the story. Holden may be denied certain qualities, but he is imbued with others of equal value, that solicit our understanding.


Finally, I wish to deal with the idea that unreliable narration is a cohort of dramatic irony, in particular Booth’s notion that an implied author may in some way be in cahoots with the postulated reader, weaving a second, true narrative behind the protagonist’s back:

In the irony with which we are concerned, the speaker is himself the butt of the ironic point. The author and reader are secretly in collusion, behind the speaker’s back, agreeing upon the standard by which he is found wanting.[23]

Greta Olson suggests a level of mutually agreed derision implicit in this:


Booth’s emphasis on the pleasures of exclusion suggests that the reader and implied author belong to an in-group that shares values, judgments, and meanings from which the unreliable narrator is ousted.[24]


Is this the case for Holden? That’s a difficult point to answer. There are times where the ‘implied author’ does seem to silently ridicule him.  When he has to order a Coke in the Edmont Hotel nightclub, for example – a mocking that is echoed in Holden’s inability to understand why the trio of girls crack wise about his apparent age. But I’d venture that the ‘second narrative’ at work here is more sympathetic than the term ‘dramatic irony’ might normally suggest.  While the implied author and postulated reader are in a sort of collusion, an agreement to see Holden as unreliable, I believe we’re invited to see him as a tragic character, troubled and confused, rather than a figure of fun.

The second narrative, the meta-narrative revealed by Holden’s increasingly erratic behaviour, is concerned with his widening disconnection from reality and descent into breakdown. It is for this reason more than any that Holden is unreliable as a narrator; as an illustration of his declining mental health.

The text opens with a clear statement, as clear as Holden can be, that what we are about to read is the story of someone becoming mentally unwell:


I’ll just tell you about this madman stuff that happened around last Christmas just before I got pretty run-down and had to come here and take it easy.[25]


And closes, with Holden in an institution, recovering, planning to resume his life:


A lot of people, especially this one psychoanalyst guy they have here, keep asking me if I’m going to apply myself when I go back to school next September.[26]


The Catcher in the Rye is, at its core, a narrative about a teenage boy at the beginning of adulthood, coming to terms with the death of a sibling (Holden’s brother, Allie) and his subsequent failure at school . But, mediated through the erratic and emotionally detached narration of its protagonist, this is not the story Holden sets out to tell.

When we learn that Holden talks to his dead brother, that he cries sometimes for no reason and that, at the novel’s close, he literally loses control of his own actions, compulsively pacing the sidewalks of New York, seeing Allie at every turn – we know that there is something more at work here than inconsistency for its own sake, that The Catcher in the Rye is an inventory of extreme loss and change.

If there is a central reason for Salinger’s depiction of Holden as an unreliable narrator, then that is the case. We experience something far more complex than the black and white definition of unreliability suggested by Booth’s “implied author’s norms”. It is not  the case that Salinger wishes us to identify a set of values in opposition to those of Holden.

Rather, with reading and rereading, we note that Holden’s view is real to him – even though it is deluded. It is the view of a confused adolescent, a grieving brother, a young man with much to live up to and changing still to do. And although Holden never quite achieves this realisation within the scope of the text, the reader is invited to.




Wayne C. Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction, (University of Chicago Press, 1983)

SeymourChatman, Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film, (Cornell University Press, 1981)

Donald P. Costello, The Language of ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ in American Speech, Vol. 34, No. 3 (1959), Duke University Press

Monika Fludernik, Narratology in Context in Poetics Today, Vol 14, No. 4 (Winter 1993), Duke University Press

Ian Hamilton, In Search of J.D. Salinger, (Heinneman, 1988)

Ansgar Nunning, ”But-why-will-you-say-that-I-am-mad?” – On the Theory, History, and Signals of Unreliable Narration in British Fiction  in Arbeiten aus Anglistik und Amerikanstik, Vol 22, No. 1 (1997), University of Geissen

Greta Olson, Reconsidering Unreliability: Fallible and Untrustworthy Narrators Author(s) in Narrative, Vol. 11, No. 1 (Jan 2003),OhioStateUniversity Press

J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, (Penguin, 1994)

Salzman et al, New Essays on Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, (Cambridge University Press, 1993)

Tamar Yacobi, Fictional Reliability as a Communicative Problem in Poetics Today, Vol. 2, No. 2 (Winter 1981), Duke University Press

Bruno Zerweck, Historicizing unreliable narration: unreliability and cultural discourse in narrative fiction in Style, Vol 35, No.1, (2001),Northern Illinois University


[1] Wayne C. Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction, (University of Chicago Press, 1983), p. 158

[2] Monika Fludernik, Narratology in Context in Poetics Today, Vol 14, No. 4 (Winter 1993), Duke University Press

[3] Ansgar Nunning, ”But-why-will-you-say-that-I-am-mad?” – On the Theory, History, and Signals of Unreliable Narration in British Fiction  in Arbeiten aus Anglistik und Amerikanstik, Vol 22, No. 1 (1997), University of Geissen

[4] Ansgar Nunning, ”But-why-will-you-say-that-I-am-mad?” – On the Theory, History, and Signals of Unreliable Narration in British Fiction in Arbeiten aus Anglistik und Amerikanstik, p. 101, Vol 22, No. 1 (1997), University of Geissen

[5] Seymour Chatman, Storyand Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film, (Cornell University Press, 1981)

[6] Wayne C. Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction, (University of Chicago Press, 1983), p. 177

[7] J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, (Penguin, 1994). p. 1

[8] J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, (Penguin, 1994) p. 191

[9] Ansgar Nunning, ”But-why-will-you-say-that-I-am-mad?” – On the Theory, History, and Signals of Unreliable Narration in British Fiction  in Arbeiten aus Anglistik und Amerikanstik, p. 98, Vol 22, No. 1 (1997), University of Geissen

[10] J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, (Penguin, 1994), p. 110

[11] J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, (Penguin, 1994), p. 46

[15] Shortly after publication, the text was discussed as a record of 50s teenage vernacular that may later acquire the importance of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in Donald P. Costello, The Language of ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ in American Speech, Vol. 34, No. 3 (1959), Duke University Press

[16] J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, (Penguin, 1994), p. 14

[17] J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, (Penguin, 1994), p. 117

[19] J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, (Penguin, 1994), p. 9

[20] It’s typical of Holden to frame every encounter he has as friendly.  Even Maurice – the ‘pimpy elevator guy’ who procures a girl for Holden at the Edmont Hotel, who fleeces him out of five dollars and gut-punches him in his room – is forgiven at the end of the text.

[21] Ansgar Nunning, ”But-why-will-you-say-that-I-am-mad?” – On the Theory, History, and Signals of Unreliable Narration in British Fiction  in Arbeiten aus Anglistik und Amerikanstik, Vol 22, No. 1 (1997), University of Geissen

[22] Bruno Zerweck, Historicizing unreliable narration: unreliability and cultural discourse in narrative fiction in Style, p. 151, Vol 35, No.1, (2001) Northern Illinois University

[23] Wayne C. Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction, (University of Chicago Press, 1983), p. 304

[24] Greta Olson, Reconsidering Unreliability: Fallible and Untrustworthy Narrators Author(s) in Narrative, Vol. 11, No. 1 (Jan 2003),OhioStateUniversity Press

[25] J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, (Penguin, 1994). p. 1

This was written by Karl Hodge. Posted on Sunday, July 8, 2012, at 12:43 pm. Filed under Essays. Bookmark the permalink. Follow comments here with the RSS feed. Post a comment or leave a trackback.

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