Literary Essay Example: Unreliable Narration in The Catcher in the Rye

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Harvey Mudd College
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Better known as unreliable narration, untrustworthy narration, is considered as one of the most powerful tools that are available for an author (Shen). Being the type of narrative in which the protagonist, or rather the narrator plays the role of a character who tells a story that cannot be trusted at face value, untrustworthy narration often comes as a revelation that provides a major twist of the plot (Booth). This being said, J.D. Salinger, in his novel, The Catcher in the Rye, uses the narrator, Holden Caulfield to show how the outside world can be acutely warped, by changing what seems to be a reality. Thus, through the first person narrative technique, J. D. Salinger, in The Catcher in the Rye, writes the character of Holden Caulfield as untrustworthy by telling the story through his troubled mind, confusion and by his immaturity.

Firstly, the entire story is told through Holdens own troubled mind. Although it was difficult to tell of Holdens depression at the beginning of the story, Salinger, towards the final chapter, discloses that Holden is actually hospitalised due to his depression condition. In this regard, the reliability of the narration is distorted and hence portraying his untrustworthy qualities. While he consistently appears to be at odds with every person around him, Salinger makes the readers believe that Holden is incapable of making correct judgements about his own actions. Instead, he makes many observations about the behaviour of other people, claiming how phonic everyone is, while completely ignoring and overlooking his own phoniness (Salinger).

Additionally, Salinger portrays Holden as a confused sixteen-year-old teenage boy who lies far too often almost about everything. Thus, owing to his confusion, most of his views contradict themselves hence evidencing of his unreliability as a narrator. Besides, due to his confusion, Holden is blinded from being able to realise that most of his pessimistic views and criticism is against himself. Salinger vividly exemplifies this when Holden is hit by Straddler after which he bursts out saying, 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). In this case, although Holden seems to enjoy the fact that he is beaten up, he contradicts himself when claims that he, unlike what people thought, is a very peaceful person.

Lastly, throughout the narration, Salinger portrays Holden as an immature 16-year-old high school junior who sees the world through his sixteen-year-old pessimistic self. Based on this factor, Holden often appears to be at odds with other characters, and this is seen in his self-misguided judgement of both his elders and his peers. This, in its deepest essence, primarily distorts the experiences in the story. Besides, throughout the narrative, Holdens disillusionment of every good person is portrayed as an alteration of the ideal personality of every individual he meets. For instance, while at school Holden criticises his new classmates despite having not met any of them. "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).

In conclusion, through the first person narration, Salinger utilises the narrators depressed state, confusion and immaturity to reveal how unreliable Holdens observations are. Besides, Salinger utilises these aspects to make his readers believe that the story is told by a moody, pessimistic teenager and hence the sense of the unreliability of the narration.


Works Cited

Booth, Wayne C. The Rhetoric of Fiction. U of Chicago P, 1983.

Salinger, J. D. The Catcher in the Rye: A Novel. Little, Brown and Company, 1951.

Shen, Dan. "Unreliability - the Living Handbook of Narratology." Startseite Stabi Hamburg, 27 June 2011, Accessed 28 Apr. 2017.


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