Friday

Character Portrayals in Catcher in the Rye

The first third of The Catcher in the Rye includes an interesting character portrayal of Stradlater, Holden Caulfield’s Pencey roomate. Stradlater is first mentioned in connection to Ackley, the mossy-mouthed sociopath down the hall, who, we’re told, hates Stradlater’s guts because he once told Ackley to brush his teeth. It’s our first clue about Stradlater: he’s an insensitive guy. Soon afterwards, though, Holden defends Stradlater to Ackley:
“Look.  Suppose, for instance, Stradlater was wearing a tie or something that you liked.  Say he had a tie on that you liked a helluva lot—I’m just giving you an example, now.  You know what he’d do?  He’d probably take it off and give it to you.  He really would.  Or—you know what he’d do?  He’d leave it on your bed or something.  But he’d give you the goddam tie.”
The above is an important bit of shading, because it endows the character of Stradlater with a certain amount of sympathy—he’s got an endearing generous streak—and, as we’ll see, it does the same for Holden.  But from this point on it’s mostly downhill for Stradlater.  He’s self-important:
All of a sudden the door opened, and old Stradlater barged in, in a big hurry. He was always in a big hurry.  Everything was a very big deal. 
He’s always asking for favors:
“Yeah. Listen.  If you’re not going out anyplace special, how about lending me your hound’s-tooth jacket?”
He’s kind of a philistine:
He had one of those very piercing whistles that are practically never in tune, and he always picked out some song that’s hard to whistle even if you’re a good whistler, like “Song of India” or “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.”  He could really mess a song up.
He’s a public dandy but a secret slob:
He always looked alright, Stradlater, but for instance, you should’ve seen the razor he shaved himself with.  It was always rusty as hell and full of lather and hairs and crap.  He never cleaned it or anything.  He always looked good when he was finished fixing himself up, but he was a secret slob anyway, if you knew him the way I did. 
In the course of the few minutes Stradlater is in the room, variations of each of these traits are presented several more times, either in the form of Holden’s pronouncements or dialog, until they’re clearly fixed in the reader’s mind.  They make more and sense to the reader because they all turn out to flow out of one overarching character flaw.
He was always asking you to do him a big favor.  You take a very handsome guy, or a guy that thinks he’s a real hot-shot, and they’re always asking you to do them a big favor.  Just because they’re crazy about themselves, they think you’re crazy about them, too, and that you’re just dying to do them a favor. 
He always shaved himself twice, to look gorgeous.  With his crumby old razor.  
That’s something else that gives me a royal pain.  I mean if you’re good at writing compositions and somebody starts talking about commas.  Stradlater was always doing that.  He wanted you to think the only reason he was lousy at writing compositions was because he stuck all the commas in the wrong place. 
The character flaw, of course, is vanity—or self-absorption—which leads to all the other annoying traits.  Stradlater’s character rings true with the reader because it makes sense. It’s logical that a vain person would take others for granted; that he would be a secret slob; that he would be insensitive about other people and about art and music; and even that he would be generous. As Holden points out, you don’t have to explain every little thing to Stradlater as you do to Ackley, because he simply doesn’t care about anything but his appearance and projected persona.  Sure, take the tie. 
           
Stradlater’s character traits are rolled out gradually, like clues, and then presented again several times so that they’re fixed in the reader’s mind.  At a certain point it occurs to the reader that all of the traits flow from one overarching flaw, vanity, and there is a nice moment when everything about Stradlater clicks into place.  We get him.

But why does Salinger dedicate so much space to him? Stradlater’s self-absorbed pursuit of one of Holden’s girlfriends provides the impetus for them to fight, and for Holden to leave Pencey, but once Holden does leave, Stradlater only comes up in passing two or three more times.  The main conflict in the story revolves around what’s going to happen to Holden after he leaves Pencey.  (Where’s he going to end up?  Not somewhere good, we suspect.) The main development in the story is the gradual revelation of Holden’s character, not anyone else’s.  So the question is, how does the character of Stradlater advance the story?

The answer, I think, is that Stradlater advances the story insofar as he sheds light on Holden’s character, and makes him sympathetic.  Don’t forget that Holden is interpreting the people he meets for us throughout the entire book. It’s through his eyes that we’re able to experience that “Aha!” regarding Stradlater’s character.  We can share Holden’s somewhat smug outlook: Oh yes, I know the type, Holden. Thank God we’re not like that. 

Holden Caulfield is a sympathetic narrator partially because he’s such a lucid observer of the human race.  And despite his tendency to fixate on what he sees as phoniness in people, he does make a sincere effort to see the good in them, even in odious characters like Ackley and Stradlater.