The Phonies Get Their Day in the Sun
All week we have held Holden in a forgiving, understanding light. It appears that many, many of us can relate to his anguish. And to be fair, Holden went through some crap, and I don’t think any of us “blame” him for breaking down, so to speak.
However, we have also briefly discussed the idea of accountability, the idea that Holden is responsible for his behavior even while he is in pain; this is not intended to become a moral discussion according to, say, my set of beliefs. But I just want to give the “phonies” a chance to be understood today.
This book has been interpreted at times as the “real” against the “fake.” Holden’s manic, painful, insecure, confused, but above all, totally honest take on everything is contrasted with his OWN view of “others”, the “phonies” as he calls them. These are people whom Holden sees as being fake, insincere, and selfish. An ironic conclusion don’t you think?
While Holden disparages the traits of the “phonies” he himself is literally running around town lying, charming, and manipulating the strangers and friends that pop in and out of his life over the course of these few days.
Holden doesn’t see everyone as a phony, and this is the essence of his argument against them; he sees younger children as innocent and “real”, almost incapable of deceit, while most adults and some of his peers he sees as fakers in a kind of adult world veneer. Everything seems fine and dandy on the outside, but he suspects turmoil, or a lie of sorts, on the inside.
Or rather, perhaps he suspects that deep down inside people feel like he does, but that they pretend, posture, or fake “normality” or maturity. One might sometimes suspect that Holden is trying to provoke his companions into “confessing” their own confusion and rage.
I am not trying to minimize Holden’s pain, or merely trivialize it as common youth angst, but for just a moment, let’s look at it like that: youth angst. This is not an unusual symptom amongst young people, male or female, who are definitely not children, but who are not yet adults. They have been somewhat let down by the adult world, but they cannot return to childhood. They are stuck in the middle; betrayed by both worlds.
Interestingly, as shocking as Holden’s language, behavior, and attitudes were back then, his world was a rather innocent one. A teenager on a downward spiral today would have a lot more access to much more insidious methods of escape: acceptance in a gang, harder drugs, more available sex, perhaps an introduction to crime… who knows. I want to briefly place Holden into modern day to see if we can relate to him now.
Who would Holden be today? How would he dress? Who would be his target? In his story, Holden targets the young people who don’t seem to see or mind the inconsistencies of the adult world, the people who know how to “play the game” (i.e. Stradlater and Sally Hayes).
These people are generally admired, and do what it takes to be admired. Holden is equally in between the “jocks” and the “outcasts”. He is friends with both (think of how he tries to bridge Ackley and Stradlater at first), but he is also nowhere in the social strata of high school. He is a loner. He has had friends, but he lets their minor faults and inconsistencies “bug” him into solitude. And yet he “showboats” for the attentions of both groups. Holden is a peacemaker at heart.
When I read the book this time around, I felt for Stradlater…I felt for Sally. I saw them as young people who had put childhood behind them (Stradlater by losing his virginity and helping others lose theirs, and Sally by immersing herself in things she perceived as being socially rich; the theater, knowing important people, getting married…). I don’t think these young people thought they were doing anything wrong or fake or harmful. They were trying to get by, just like Holden, and Holden judges them harshly, and ends up rejecting them.
I’m not saying feel sorry for Sally, by all means, feel for Holden. Sally is going to be OK, we hope that Holden will, because we have all known the modern Holden. We hung out with him at play practice. We went on scout campouts with him. He was the guy at the dance who came alone anyway, and stood by the wall with his arms crossed. You wanted to talk to him sometimes; you just didn’t know what to say. Next time I see him, I’m just going to say “hi” and see where it goes from there…