The Catcher in the Rye The Catcher in the Rye question

Why does Holden Swear so much?
Monty J Heying Monty J (last edited May 18, 2013 11:01AM ) Sep 19, 2012 09:22AM
One of the most common complaints I hear about THE CATCHER IN THE RYE is Holden Caufield's swearing--that it's not only offensive but it feels unrealistic because nobody would talk like that. Well, the truth is that he's not actually talking. In the vast majority of cases, the swearing is reserved for inner monologue. These are his thoughts we're reading because the book is narrated in first-person. When Holden's in dialogue with somone, he cleans up his language, as most people do. The swearing is a device, a cue reminding us when we're in Holden's head, and it's very effective.

Holden doesn't swear with the nuns or the cab drivers, but slips with ladies in the nightclub (after drinking) or with his teachers, former teachers, the boys at the museum or Phoebe. Late in the story he loses it with with Sally and says "goddam" a lot. He was stressed-out, a pressure situation. At the dorm in the beginning he curses, but that's a more intimate setting. He doesn't even curse with the prostitute or her pimp, the elevator operator.

Generally he cleans up his language when he's in dialogue with another character, consistently maintaining a cleaner public personna than his inner self. But when we're in his head, he's consistently "not phoney" and swears excessively.

I agree that the excessive swearing is offensive and nobody would talk like that in polite company unless they were really upset, and this is key to understanding Holden. The excessive swearing is a symptom of Holden's immaturity and his anxiety building toward crisis.

Holden's jargonistic delivery serves two primary functions: a) it gives color and reality to his character, helping to define him as someone who doesn't "give a shit" about impressing people (and is therefore not being phoney) and b) it makes the reader feel confided in by Holden the narrator, that he's being totally truthful and honest despite his avowed and amply demonstrated character trait of "kidding" people. The language tell us he's not kidding us, but he will kid some of the other characters, like the student's mother on the train.

One other reason Holden may swear so much is that Salinger was writing CITW when he was in the Army, and right afterward. He was an enlisted man, and swearing can become second nature when you're around it a lot.

We may not like the character because of his gratuitous cursing, but we certainly know him better for it.

deleted member Sep 19, 2012 12:39PM   6 votes
What the fuck are you guys talking about?

Holden gets it. Everybody IS a bunch of phonies. He may be young and have a lot negative wordage to say/think, but at least he's real. Holden Caulfield is one of my favorite characters EVER in a book.

he's a teenager, teenagers love swearing. they grab the words and sew them into as many moments as they can.

Catcher nails being a teenager, but i think it might be lost on teens now as the world it portrays is now completely lost to them - there's not an ipad or a mobile phone anywhere to be found in the book

i'm still hoping that the Salinger estate releases some of the books they have but i'm guessing they won't. damn shame, be nice to read another JD

spruiking myself -

I agree with your analysis, except that people *do* talk like that.

Good points, Monty, but I'd like to elaborate on a couple of them. First of all, the culture of swearing in youth may have intensified since the '50s, but I'm willing to bet that the salient points remain the same, namely that there is a certain power in curse words that young people recognize very early. These are words that are loaded, and using them gets a reaction, which no young person fails to notice. Every, or certainly almost every young person goes through a phase where they use cursing to the point of excess as a means of perceived self-empowerment. Older people often act horrified to hear young people use foul language, but in the vast majority of cases this is completely hypocritical.

The second thing I'd like to point out is that the idea that people "don't actually talk like this" is somewhat of a white-collar pretense, and completely untrue, and it's not just in the enlisted ranks of the military that you'll hear an abundance of foul language, either. Work awhile in any sort of trade and you'll swiftly realize that the language used by Holden Caulfield is actually fairly mild compared to how real-life blue-collar workers speak while on the job. Speaking as a carpenter, it is my opinion that saying that people don't swear as often as Holden is incorrect, and somewhat classist.

People swear. Some swear a lot. Get over it.

You know how when a little kid learns a new cuss word, and he keeps repeating it because he knows it's naughty and he's taking guilty pleasure in it?

That's basically how Salinger presented Holden. This, accompanied by his general whininess, makes Holden incredibly easy to hate.

That's not true! Holden swears when talking to Phoebe. Check it out again. It's in one of the final chapters when Holden talks to Phoebe over not taking her with him

I don't have a @$%#&**$%#@! clue

Bill (last edited Mar 11, 2013 08:44PM ) Mar 11, 2013 08:41PM   0 votes
I first read "The Catcher in the Rye" about nine or ten years after it was published. I even read it while attending one of the schools mentioned in the book, which Salinger also attended for a while.

I have never, ever, at any time, heard anyone even comment on the swearing.

To describe it as a "common complaint" makes me wonder who you hang with. Common complaint from whom?

U 25x33
Shannon Emily, I am very interested in your perspective on this topic. Not only as it pertains to Holden, but other characters in other books as well. Do you ...more
May 24, 2020 07:32AM

The "swearing" is swearing by 1940's-1950's standards...not todays. The language he uses would not even get you in trouble in a public school today.

Something else to consider: Salinger was in the military, where they swear every other word.

Plenty of people TALK like that, never mind think. And you can't really say what another person is thinking. I don't cuss when I'm talking, at all. But I do cuss in my thoughts, quite often, without any particular reason to.

I believe that there are people that may be similar to it, especially in this aspect.
And I think this craze it as a way to get to take control of things in order to survive the teen little world where character is...And it seems to be a form of protest as well.

I think he does swear with Sally, and even in front of Phoebe. He is constantly annoyed, of course he will swear.

I wouldn't say that he swears 'too much'. The fact that he swears a lot never actually occurred to me, nor did I notice anything unnatural or unrealistic about his language. I am used to excessive swearing in movies and books. After thumbing through, for instance, W. Burroughs's or H. Selby's works, one can't exactly go ahead and say Salinger is vulgar in his books.

Remember the time the book took place. Nobody swore or revolted like him. That's no to say that a little part of all of us wanted to revolt. That's why this book was a back pocket favorite. Usually hidden from view, but dog eared from being read in private.

But what about when Holden meets Phoebe at home. She keeps reminding him to not swear when they talk about various things. He still swears with Phoebe around. That isn't when we're in Holden's head. Right?

☯Emily Ginder Yes, Phoebe tells him to watch his language innumerable times. What we think about eventually comes out in our language. Yes, much of the bad language ...more
Jun 20, 2013 10:23AM · flag

Monty J wrote: "One of the most common complaints I hear about THE CATCHER IN THE RYE is Holden Caufield's swearing--that it's not only offensive but it feels unrealistic because nobody would talk like that. Well,..."

That's not true at all that when he's in dialogue with someone he cleans up his language. When he gets in an argument with his roommate, they're both swearing like troopers.

He DOES swear when he's talking with the women in the club. One of them tells him to clean up his language.

Lastly, if you do a word count, you'll find that the record for "goddam" appearing on one page is seven times; that was in a conversation with Sally.

I think you're right about that.

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