Although The Catcher in the Rye is set in the 1950’s, societal norms and values did not differ much from todays. The 1950s are generally remembered to be times of conformity, and times that bore a highly materialistic generation that indulged in consumerism. Like many writers prior to and following him, J. D Salinger exposed the values and ways of society by introducing a character that was alienated from society in order to clearly depict the culture of the time. From the very beginning of the novel, it is clear that Holden is different.
The fact that Holden does not join the rest of his school for a football game is the first clue of his separation from the society. Throughout the novel, Holden’s kindheartedness, sensitivity and no-nonsense attitude contrast with most of the other characters and help give a general picture of society during the 1950’s. All throughout the novel, Holden uses the term “phony” to characterize people around him who seemed or were superficial, materialistic, shallow, hypocritical or afraid to be true, honest or different.
Although this might seem judgmental, he merely did not stand it when people tried to be something else, or were not true and genuine and was basically a truly honest, no-nonsense kind of person. Early in the book, the reader witnesses the first of many of Holden’s criticisms towards “phonies”. After leaving his hotel room to find some kind of entertainment, Holden enters a club and sits down to watch the night’s entertainment. Holden recognizes the pianist as a man named Ernie and immediately begins to voice his thoughts.
He remembers Ernie to be a very conceited and egotistical man and is even more bothered by the audiences’ reactions and responses. “You should’ve heard the crowd, though, when he finished. They went mad. They were exactly the same morons that laugh like hyenas in the movies at stuff that isn’t funny. People always clap for the wrong things. If I were a piano player, I’d play in the closet”. Pg 84. Here, Holden gives us a good picture of the kind of person he is. He explains that he was bothered that the audience went wild over the performance and didn’t understand why.
He was annoyed that everyone was treating Ernie like he was a God when he was simply a man with a talent. This shows us that Holden is a simple person who doesn’t like to exaggerate or overdo anything. Also, he mentions that if he could play he’d play “in a closet”. This shows the reader that Holden is in fact a very humble and down-to-earth boy. In addition, we get a good picture of the general society at the time through Holden’s narration. The flamboyance and fake characteristics of the society are once again depicted to us by Holden not very far after the first incident.
While out with Sally at the theater, Holden is introduced to a “friend” of Sally’s and immediately is disturbed by the superficial quality of their conversation. “Then he and old Sally started talking about a lot of people they both knew. It was the phoniest conversation you ever heard in your life. They both kept thinking of places as fast as they could, then they’d think of somebody that lived there and mention their name. “P. 127-128. Here, Holden is once more troubled by the people around him.
Specifically, he is surprised that people never stop trying to make themselves seem bigger or more important than they really are and is annoyed at the fact that neither Sally nor her “friend” saw anything wrong with their conversation or what they were doing. This here highlights his difference in morals and beliefs with those of the society and once again shows the pathetic characteristics of the people of time. Another aspect of society that Holden avoided and actually detested was materialism and consumerism. Although Holden does mention that he is wealthy and does spend money, he tries to be as humble as he possibly can.
In a flashback to his days at boarding school, Holden mentions that he tried not to make anyone who was financially inferior to him feel uncomfortable or awkward. In a conversation with Sally, Holden voices his feelings about the materialistic attitudes of people and says: “Take most people, they’re crazy about their cars. They worry if they get a little scratch on them, and they’re always talking about how many miles they get to a gallon , and if they get a brand-new car already they start thinking about trading it in for one that’s even newer.
This is a perfect example of society during the 1950’s. Because new products flooded American markets, people felt that it was their duty to own the newest and best goods and did what ever they had to achieve this goal. Holden also mentions that people felt as if wealth meant success and happiness and said: False sense of success: “It (school) is all full of phonies, and all you do is study so that you can learn enough to be smart enough to be able to buy a Cadillac some day…. “Pg. 131.
This quote proves that people believed money was everything and confirms that materialism was a big part of society. It also illustrates that Holden is strongly opposed to material wealth, and that he believes that money and wealth do not guarantee happiness and that there is more to life than cars, money and power. Lastly, Holden validates his distaste with society and states: “I thought what I’d do was, I’d pretend I was one of those deaf-mutes.
That way I wouldn’t have to have any stupid useless conversations with anybody….. hen I’d be through with having conversations for the rest of my life.. and they’d leave me alone. ” Pg 198-199. This quote confirms Holden’s feelings towards the corruption of society and helps the reader understand that depth of this disgust. Not only does Holden repeatedly mentions and implies his want for separation from society, but here, Holden wishes to be both deaf and mute in order to stop hearing the voices of society that truly bother and disturb him and in order to not be obliged to even respond.
Although this is only a dream, it is clear to the reader by the end of the novel the dissatisfaction Holden feels towards society, and the resentment he feels towards people who are not true and honest and who’s first priority is fame, money, and the material world. Whether a reaction to a conversation or a way of life, Holden seriously is disturbed by the way people around him behave and act. He does what he can to keep himself away from the increasing corruption of society. The clear contrast between Holden and the general society that is depicted in the novel gives the reader a comprehensible description of both groups.