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Holden & I, Part I: Holden & Sexuality

Part I: Holden & Sexuality

Greetings, lit geeks – and welcome to the first edition of my long-awaited (and somewhat-delayed) Holden & I series! We’re going to be getting a little bit frisky today, as I’ll be sharing with you my musings on Holden’s sexuality and its deeper implications within the Catcher in the Rye.

Two short (but important!) disclaimers before I begin: firstly, I’ve taken much of my information from sources around the web. I’ve tried to cite as often as possible, butif you recognize material that emulates another publication, please e-mail me at so that I can update my citations! The last thing I want to do as a (hopefully) future journalist is plagiarize.

Secondly, to reiterate that theme, please do not plagiarize this source! For one thing, schools are getting ever-savvier about recognizing plagiarized works, and for another, it’s actually illegal. I’ve heard of students who have been expelled from college and essentially been blacklisted because of plagiarism. So, consider yourself warned. For your convenience, I’ve even included the MLA citation of this work at the bottom of the article!

Now that all the awkward, heavy stuff is out of the way, let’s get to the fun stuff: Holden, “flits,” and Jane’s symbolic checkers strategy.

In John Green’s Crash Course video about The Catcher in the Rye, Green remarks that “Holden is famously the first person to pay a prostitute not to have sex with him.” To borrow a phrase from Salinger, that just kills me. I don’t think anyone but John Green could have summed up Holden Caulfield so completely and accurately in so few words.

Like many teenagers, Holden Caulfield is physically mature enough for sex, but emotionally immature and uncomfortable with the idea of it. A man named Sigmund Freud, who did a lot of thinking about sex, had a lot of obscure (and often creepy) theories about the relationship between psychology and sexuality. Freud, for example, is responsible for the bizarre and misogynistic idea of the Electra complex, or the idea that a girl’s primary motivation is envy of her father and brother’s penises (Saul McLeod).  I may not have a PhD in psychology, but as a woman who’s perfectly happy with her vagina, I am pretty sure that “penis envy” is not a real thing. However, Freud was right to emphasize the important of sexuality in development: our relationship to sex is largely how we humans express our physical and emotional maturity.

I think Freud would probably agree with me, then, that Holden’s screwed-up relationship with his sexuality is one of the reader’s first red flags that something is up with his mental health.

Even today, Holden’s attitude toward sex can be considered “feminine”; the concept of needing attachment and love to foster sexual intimacy is one we largely attribute to females. Men, we say, care only about the physical experience of sex. Holden has a strong desire to appear as if he cares about sex in a masculine way, self-identifying as a “sex fiend”; however, Holden is not a “macho” guy at heart. He only tries to become one to avoid being ostracized by society, who is already ostracizing him as it is. Concealing his true ambivalence about sexuality is yet another mechanism for Holden to protect himself, like the red hunting hat he wears to feel more confident. Yet Holden, despite his wish to seem “macho,” clearly attaches value to his virginity. He clings to it as yet another example of his desperation to cling to his childhood innocence.

Which leads me to one of two conclusions: either Salinger was a feminist, or he means for us to think that Holden is gay.

I don’t mean that the way it sounds. I don’t mean to oversimplify exceedingly complex issues of gender or sexuality. Sexuality, in today’s day and age, is not defined only in black and white, gay and straight, male and female. But in Salinger’s day, it was, so let us step into the time machine together and remember what was going on in the world when the Catcher in the Rye was published.

People in the 1940s were, obviously, having sex. And lots of it. (I suspect that “Baby Boom” birth rates would attest to exactly how much, but I’m not here to talk about numbers.) After World War One, old-fashioned opinions about sexuality (i.e. “waiting ‘til marriage”) kind of flew out the window, as we can tell from the spike in single motherhood. But people still weren’t talking about sex – it was simply taboo.

Then the Kinsey Reports were published in the 1940s and 50s – around the same time as the Catcher and the Rye - and slowly, slowly, everything began to change.

The Kinsey Reports – the first national surveys regarding sexual behavior - were revolutionary in that they got sex on the public brain for the first time.  On the other hand, they also revealed that gender-wise, our attitudes were rather old-fashioned. While 71% of men were engaging in premarital sex, only 33% of women did. That kind of leads me to wonder who the heck men were having all of that sex with, but that’s beside the point. The point is, people started to talk.  (Rogers State University)

However, the first and largest scientific studies of sex, the Masters and Johnson studies, didn’t take place until the 1960s – and even then the women observed were prostitutes, as the researchers believed that “respectable” women wouldn’t participate. I’ll reiterate: the sexual revolution occurred S-L-O-W-L-Y. So, basically until the “Free Love” movement during the Vietnam War, women weren’t expected to take pleasure in sex, men were, and no one was allowed to talk about it. Ladies and gentlemen, the 1940s in a nutshell!  

Given the stigma surrounding sex at the time, it’s no wonder that Catcher in the Rye was banned almost immediately upon publication (California State University). I think this shows just how progressive Salinger was in his candid portrayal of teenagers’ conflicted beliefs about sexuality. He wrote the truth, in a time that no one wanted to accept the truth – and I think that’s simply amazing.

Which brings me to my first of two theses: maybe, just maybe, Holden is gay.

Holden Caulfield has an obsessive, homophobic fear of all things “flitty” – yet contradictorily, he behaves in ways that he would condemn as gay in others. A prime example is Holden’s interactions with Luce at the bar. In high school, the boys were riveted by Luce’s sensational stories of sexual encounters – and many of those stories had an undercurrent of “Beware the homosexuals or you’ll become one of them!”Today, we read this about as seriously as our mothers warning us not to swallow the watermelon seeds, or we’ll grow them in our stomachs. But in the 1940s, when being gay was not only a “sin” but also a crime, could you really blame a bunch of teenage guys for being terrified of becoming even the slightest bit gay? I mean, doncha think Chemical Castration would make a great title for a horror movie?

At Pencey, Holden interpreted Luce’s obsession with the sexual as a sign that he was a “flit,” yet when he meets Luce at the bar several years later, it is Holden who presses Luce for raunchy stories and appears obsessed with sexuality. Again, Holden’s paranoia about same-sex sex returns in his questionable encounter with an old teacher, Mr. Antolini, a paternal figure who treats Holden as his protégé. Despite Antolini’s fatherly interactions with Holden, Holden is skeptical about Antolini placing his hand on Holden’s head in the middle of the night, interpreting it as “flitty” and hinting that he has prior memories of molestation. Even today, classrooms debate the significance of this scene: was Mr. Antolini really making a pass at Holden, or is Holden just a rampant homophobic? One of many questions I’d like to send to my man J.D. through the metaphorical time machine.

A friend of mine, in a class discussion about Holden’s awkward preoccupation with sex, argued that Holden’s hypocritical condemnation of his own behavior in others as “flitty” could be a sign of his own homosexuality. In the 1940s, writing a gay character would have been the ultimate taboo – and the ultimate revolution. If we think that gays have limited rights today, then we know nothing about the 40s and 50s. In honor of the great Benedict Cumberbatch, I’ll cite Alan Turing as an example: a British WWII codebreaker and pioneer of Artificial Intelligence – you may have heard of the Turing test? – Turing was convicted (yes, convicted – homosexuality was literally considered a crime) of being gay in 1952 and was forced to undergo chemical castration (CNN).  Due to “sexual deviance,” the United States denied him political asylum (A Working Theory of Love by Scott Hutchins). To summarize being gay in the 40s in one word, I'd probably choose "ouch."

Personally, I don’t think we are expected to believe that Holden is gay. I think that, like a great many teenagers, Holden is simply bothered by the possibility that he could be – he is, as we would say today, “exploring his sexuality,” but he is troubled by what he discovers due to society's overwhelming condemnation of homosexuality.

In short, Holden is a paranoid homophobe. I think he just notices, as we readers have, that some of his attitudes about sex are feminine and could therefore be interpreted as “flitty,” or gay – and because of the social stigma placed on homosexuality, he fights to project himself as an alpha male-type, one whose heterosexuality could never be questioned. Considering the fact that Catcher in the Rye was written in the time of Turing’s court-mandated castration, the simple fact that the issue of Holden’s sexual orientation made into the book at all is a milestone in and of itself.

Which brings us to our second possibility: Salinger was a feminist.

My definition of “feminist” in relation to Salinger is a very narrow one. In reality, Salinger was – pardon my French, ya’ll – kind of a dick when it came to women. He was attracted to a lot of significantly younger ladies, who he held exceedingly inappropriate relationships with (which I’ll analyze in the series finale, Holden & Salinger) through old-fashioned written correspondence (the Daily Mail). But Salinger did give Holden significant sympathies toward the female race, especially pertaining to sex, that suggest he may have been a feminist at heart.

The Catcher in the Rye was the first book to truly portray date rape for what it was – and Holden the first pioneer against it (Nemo D. Keane). Keane even goes so far as to describe Holden as the first “liberated male” in American literature, but I think that’s a bit of a stretch. Holden’s “when they say ‘stop,’ I stop” attitude is progressive, yes, but Holden is far from “liberated” considering liberation implies self-assurance. Holden actually thinks something is wrong with him because he can’t go through with date rape; because of societal norms, he views this inability to perform sexually as a threat to his masculinity.

While the Catcher in the Rye contains no direct references to female sexuality or female pleasure, apart from the occasional mention of lesbians, Salinger and Holden both hold men accountable for the woman’s experience as well as their own. Salinger portrays the sexual pressure on men to great extent, but largely ignores the pressure on women. However, his feminism prevails over his misogyny in his acknowledgment that it is up to men, not women, to stop sexual abuse like rape.

Holden’s earnest concern for Jane allows Salinger’s inner feminism to shine through. Inferring that a family member has sexually abused her, he strives to protect her from guys like Stradlater, who use their sweetest voices to trick women into putting out. Stradlater’s disregard for Jane’s emotions deeply troubles Holden, who observantly notes that Jane “keeps her kings in the back row.” I’ve heard a lot of interpretations of Holden’s memory of Jane’s checkers strategies – a notable one being John Green’s: that he prefers to remember her as “a talented checkers player,” rather than “a sexual being,” because he fears loss of innocence in her as well as himself – but my theory is that the word “kings” is a metaphor for emotions. A girl who keeps her kings in the back row is emotionally guarded, building thick walls around her inner vulnerability. Holden sees through Jane’s walls into her inner vulnerability, attributes it to negative sexual experiences, and devotes himself to becoming her knight-in-shining-armor when it comes to her emotional well-being. I happen to think that’s incredibly inspirational – and incredibly feminist of him.

Even so, it’s sad that Holden believes himself less of a man, rather than more manly, for it. A man’s responsibility for his sex partner’s safety and comfort is one of theCatcher in the Rye’s many key themes that remains relevant even today. In our modern-day rape culture, it is more essential than ever to teach young men that no means no and only yes means yes. I believe that the Catcher in the Rye can and should be used to spark these critical discussions of man’s responsibility to womankind, both in schools and at home.

So now that I’ve successfully gone off on a tangent, let’s regroup and ask ourselves: was Salinger a feminist or simply a dick? Was Holden a “flit” or simply a paranoid homophobic?

To me, the worst part of analyzing a classic is knowing that you’ll never truly know what ran through the author’s mind as he was writing. What we do know is this: whether or not Holden was gay, his candid observations about a broad degree of sexual preferences were extremely progressive at the time of Catcher’s publication. Despite the threat he thought it posed to his masculinity (and his author’s creepy, predatory ways with women), Holden was a pioneer of consensual sex – and as we can see, this contradicts popular opinion, or at least the behavior of popular, “Yearbook-handsome” characters like Stradlater.

No matter your thoughts on Holden, you have to admit that Salinger was deliberately crying controversy with his progressive stance on sex and sexuality. And that is feminism, and gay rights, in and of itself. 

Stay tuned into the Chick Lit Kitchen for tomorrow's Marvelous Monday post (in lieu of Sassy Saturday), where I'll share my recipe for Death by Chocolate Cupcakes (adapted from Sally's Baking Addiction), my current style concept, and my newfound love for minimalism.

Until tomorrow, my love doves, keep on stickin' it to the patriarchy and refrain from saying or doing anything too phony (like going to see the 50 Shades of Gray movie, for instance)!

XOXO, Haley

To cite this article (in MLA format):
The Chick Lit Kitchen. Holden & I, Part I: Holden & Sexuality. Blogspot, 15 Feb. 2015. Web. Date you accessed this post.


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