One of the most debated aspects of J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is whether or not Holden is the victim of sexual abuse. Holden specifically mentions that “perverty stuff” has happened to him “about twenty times,” but it’s hard to tell whether or not he’s exaggerating – especially since the supposedly sexual incident that unfolds with Mr. Antolini is extremely ambiguous for the reader. (The fact that Holden may or may not be narrating from a mental institution certainly doesn’t make things any clearer.)
Perhaps the most solid evidence to support the idea that Holden has been abused is his catch-22 philosophy about sex: on the one hand, Holden doesn’t want to “get sexy” with anyone he cares about because he feels that sex is inherently degrading, but on the other, he doesn’t feel you should sleep with anyone you don’t respect. Suffice it to say that Holden isn’t having much success with the ladies at this point in his life.
This conflicted attitude manifests itself repeatedly over the course of the novel. Just think about Holden’s irritating, blonde dance partner who can barely hold a conversation because she’s too busy looking for celebrities. Holden repeatedly complains that she “was really a moron,” but then he can’t help but fall “half in love with her by the time [they] sat down.” The cause? Her awesome dance moves. That’s right: Holden can’t resist the girl whose “pretty little butt twitched so nice and all.” This is hardly one of the Catcher in the Rye quotes that comes to mind when we think of Holden as a thoughtful, sensitive young protagonist.
The obvious reading of the incident is that Holden can’t help but be physically attracted to his dance partner despite her shallow stupidity. However, another, much more interesting reading is that Holden has an easier time objectifying her because he doesn’t respect her (as per his philosophy). This might seem nitpicky, especially considering that this is a seventeen-year-old male we’re talking about here, but let’s compare this incident to Holden’s various descriptions of Jane Gallagher.
Arguably the most important of all the other Catcher in the Rye characters, Jane Gallagher is Holden’s childhood crush. Even though she never appears to us in the flesh, we learn the following things about her: a) she plays golf; b) she practices ballet for two hours every day; c) when playing checkers, she always keeps her kings in the back row; d) she has an awesome red sweater; e) she’s great at holding hands; and f) she has a strained relationship with her stepfather. On this list you will not find: g) any description of Jane’s butt, twitchy or otherwise.
However, you will find that: h) if Holden suspects that you’ve forcibly come on to Jane, he will punch you “right smack in the toothbrush” in order to split your “goddamn throat open.” In other words, he’d prefer that you keep a respectful distance. The closest thing to a steamy description of Jane you’ll find in The Catcher in the Rye is the following: “She was sort of muckle-mouthed. I mean when she was talking and she got excited about something, her mouth sort of went in about fifty directions, her lips and all. That killed me.” Sweet? Definitely! Hot? Not even close.
Out of the blue, Holden announces that Jane has a “terrific figure,” but only as an afterthought to her hobbies, quirks, personality, and wonky mouth. In fact – and here’s where it gets interesting – Holden only brings up her body in connection with the possibility that her stepfather is molesting her. Holden explains: “She was pretty young, but she had this terrific figure, and I wouldn’t have put it past that Cudahy bastard.” Right, as if physical attractiveness were somehow the culprit of pedophilia.
The insanity of this statement goes to show just how much guilt Holden harbors toward all things sexual: in his mind, finding someone sexually attractive isn’t all that far removed from actual sexual abuse – and may in fact be its catalyst. This brings us back to Holden’s original assumption that sexual gratification is inextricably linked with sexual objectification. Such a dark attitude toward in someone so young definitely speaks to the possibility that Holden has a painful sexual past.