Saturday, January 30, 2010

Was Holden Caulfield Gay?

This may strike you as an off-topic subject, the contemplation of whether JD Salinger’s most famous and talked-about character is gay. What has this got to do with Buddhism, you may ask? Frankly at first, I wasn’t sure myself. Ever since I first read “Catcher in the Rye,” I have always wondered if Holden Caulfield was gay. With Salinger’s recent death, I began to ponder this possibility anew. With these thoughts resurfacing, a moment of clarity came to me, and that was how “Catcher in the Rye” was a portrayal of the deluded mind from a very Buddhist perspective.

First I want to thank Scott over at the buddha is my dj for his post about Salinger’s death. His musings about Salinger’s work confirmed what I had sensed about the author from my own reading of “Franny and Zooey,” and that it was filled with a very Zen perspective; not like how John Updike speaks of Salinger’s prose as being open-ended and Zen-like. No, there was something else going on for me. And the same New York Time’s obituary that mention’s Updike’s comment also enlightened me to the fact Salinger practiced Zen (although one must take Salinger’s daughter’s description of her father’s practice with some skepticism).

So when I began to contemplate once again Holden’s sexuality, the additional input from the Times article and Scott’s blog post provided the prompt necessary for me to realize that Holden Caulfield is an allegory for the mind.

When many of us read “Catcher in the Rye” for the first time, we instantly identified with Holden and his railing against all the phoniness in the world. We saw the same thing, but perhaps we couldn’t quite finger it: Holden gave voice to what we were already sensing. The trouble is, Holden is a phony too. He also senses this, but is either unable to or unwilling to investigate his own phoniness, so he projects it onto everyone else. That’s not to say that Holden was wrong to say people are phony; it’s just that he wasn’t seeing the same phoniness in himself. He wanted to, he wanted closer relationships with others, he wanted intimacy, but the prospect confused him and frightened him. And like so many of us did, he distanced himself from others, labeling them as phony, as his defense against his own mind.

And that brings up the prospect of Holden being gay. My own adolescence was during the 1970s when sexual liberation was at its zenith. And yet, during that time, my confusion over my own sexuality led me to develop all kinds of irrational defenses against the very idea that I wanted to sleep with other boys. Now take that back to the time period of Holden’s, the late 1940s and early 1950s (the book was published in 1951). That context is important when considering Holden’s sexuality and how he dealt with it.

The fact that Holden is very conflicted is immediately revealed in the early chapters, particularly with his visit to the history teacher that failed him, Mr. Spencer. Holden harshly describes the teacher as mean and vindictive, and yet he feels compassion for the very sick man.

Holden’s interaction with his good-looking roomie Stradlater is interesting as well. Holden chats with Stradlater in the bathroom while the latter shaves. During the conversation, Holden nervously turns on and off a faucet; the sexual tension is palpable. And when Stradlater identifies that he’s got a date with Jane Gallagher, a girl he knows, he’s upset that Stradlater will likely have sex with Jane, a girl Stradlater hardly knows anything about – he can’t even get her name correct! Holden knows Jane well, revealing this with some insight into how the girl plays checkers.

Whether Holden is angry and jealous about the likely sexual encounter because Stradlater will get Jane and Holden won’t, or that Holden is envious that he is not sleeping with Stradlater remains ambivalent to me. It’s just not that clear because Holden remains ambivalent as well. What does become increasingly clear is how lonely Holden is as he attempts to fabricate liaisons with girls and women, which clumsily fail. His recollection of an intimate moment with Jane is more reflective of his present need for someone to show him that same level of intimate support and understanding rather than an example of any sexual desire he may have for Jane. And his fascination with the transvestite and the couple spitting on each other that he sees from his hotel room only reveal his confused and shallow understanding of sex. His later blowup with Sally may be fueled by a deluded desire to convince himself that he is in love with her, but this desperate thought mixed with all his confused emotions leads to an outburst and Sally abandoning him. His ambivalence with homosexuality is revealed with his encounter with a former schoolmate Carl Luce, as well as a later encounter with a teacher, Mr. Antolini. It is clear Holden cannot deal with the world as it is. It’s worth noting too that Mr. Antolini was, in Holden’s memory, the only person who showed any courage or kindness when a boy at school had jumped out a window after being harassed by other boys (for being perceived as gay?).

Whether Mr. Antolini was in fact making a sexual advance on Holden is irrelevant. The more important item is Holden’s homophobic reaction, which he later comes to regret.

All of these vignettes describe a deluded mind unable to see things as they really are. And isn’t that how our minds function? And isn’t it the point of the Buddha’s teaching to cut through this delusion to see truth? As a confused adolescent, I attempted sex with girls, but never carried out these situations with any success, as I was always afraid of the encounter and managed to concoct a reason to avoid it. Just as Holden loathed the idea of casual sex, believing that it ought to be with someone you truly cared for, I also wanted to seek someone I truly cared for. But I was paralyzed by a deluded mind that couldn’t shake the notion that my true desire was an abomination. Instead, I became bitter and cynical, highly critical of others, and filled with anger and resentment. Poisoned with these feelings and fabrications, I hurt people that I cared about. And, of course, this only added to my feelings of despair.

The fact that Holden’s little sister points out his misstatement of the line in the song “Coming Thro’ the Rye” as being “if a body catch a body coming through the rye,” rather than the real line, “if a body meet a body,” reveals the pivotal fear at the heart of Holden’s delusion, and that is his fear of sex. He is so completely screwed up emotionally that his deceits are so masterful that he has completely blinded himself to his own fear of intimacy on any level. His reaction is to runaway, but again, his little sister saves him. Or does she?

The novel’s ambiguous ending is to me a warning of how difficult it is to overcome our delusions once they have become part of us. Of the three taints the Buddha warns us about – greed, hatred and delusion – it is delusion that the Buddha marks as the most difficult to overcome. After all, how does a deluded mind recognize its own delusion?


  1. Hey, this is Jessica M from Yahoo! Answers (I answered your question about Holden being gay). I think this is a great read and an interesting theory. I don't really have a side on this issue: Holden may or may not be gay to me, it doesn't change the story to me. (I don't think Holden is a likable character so his sexual orientation doesn't matter.)

    Anyway, to play devil's advocate, don't all teenagers have some inner fear of sex? Especially a teenager that grew up before the sexual revolution? Geez, I was a teenager 40 years after the sexual revolution and I was scared of sex.

    Expanding on this further, perhaps Holden just doesn't like the idea of an asshole like Stradler having sex with Jane because he thinks of Jane as the perfect girl. There's that idea in his head that the perfect girl has to be a virgin.

    I don't know why Salinger put that conversation between the two boys in the bathroom while Stradler was shaving. Maybe it just doesn't mean anything. I mean, you could read, I don't know, Harry Potter and say that there's some sexual tension between Harry and Malfoy because in the 2nd book they have an argument while holding broomsticks (phallic objects). You could make the claim for any character in any story.

    I love literature and debating it. Let's keep this up, it's so much fun!

  2. I know it's been more than half a year since the above comment, but I have a response now, and that is Yes! There was sexual tension between Harry Potter and Malfoy, but not homoerotic tension. And yes, holding the broomsticks during that argument was sexual symbolism.

    Throughout the series, Harry Potter is in a conflict with Malfoy over who will be the alpha male. Adolescent boys are in constant rivalry, even among friends, and one's dominance is often displayed rather vulgarly trough either showing who is the strongest physically or who has the biggest, most desirable cock. Penis fixation among boys is not necessarily homoerotic in nature; rather more frequently is simply pure envy or fear.

    So to have both Harry and Malfoy holding onto obviously phallic broomstick handles during an argument that is part of their ongoing struggle for dominance is brilliant writing. A skilled author deliberately takes into account the setting and nearby props when writing out a scene, nothing there is irrelevant, it's all intentional. Which is why I disliked Stephen King because I felt much of the detail he put into his novels was irrelevant and distracting.

    So with Holden and Stradlater, that conversation could conceivably take place anywhere if the mere act of conversing was all Salinger wanted to convey. But Salinger deliberately put that conversation in the bathroom with a half-naked Stradlater while the youth was shaving. He was shaving! He has whiskers! A clear indication of Stradlater from a sexual perspective being the dominant male. That scene in the book positively oozes sex, and Holden's reaction there, as well as elsewhere in the story, points to sexual confusion and ambivalence.

    As I said, a skilled writer wastes no words.