"I'm the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life."

Authenticity and Unreliable Narration in "The Catcher in the Rye"


  • Alexander Classen




Contradictions, Authenticity and Unreliability


Holden Caulfield is a noticeable narrator. As the protagonist in J. D. Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye, he displays a multitude of narrative idiosyncrasies: he contradicts himself, exaggerates his recount of events, and often leaves the reader half-informed on his motivations and emotional life. Much of his narrative style hints at him as a potentially unreliable narrator, although it is widely impossible to determine when his narrative account is unreliable and when it is not. This creates interpretative problems as the reader can never know for sure whether they are supposed to take Holden’s account literally or to look for a veiled meaning beyond his statements.

This essay explores the consequences of potentially unreliable narration in a specific episode of the novel: Holden’s night-time encounter with his former teacher Mr Antolini. When Holden sleeps on Mr Antolini’s sofa after spending exhausting days in Manhattan, he awakes to find Mr Antolini petting his head. Holden interprets this behaviour as a “flitty pass,” as a sexual transgression on his former teacher’s part, stating that “[t]hat kind of stuff’s happened to me about twenty times since I was a kid.” But what exactly is Holden referring to, and can the reader trust this statement, considering that Holden’s narration regularly borders unreliability?

Considering the fact that the text rarely reveals the truth behind Holden’s account, I argue that multiple interpretations of this chapter are not only possible but are at the stylistic heart of the novel. On the one hand, this reading of the novel offers an interpretation of a key episode, by considering a history of sexual abuse in Holden’s biography. On the other hand, it indicates that Holden’s account mirrors the mode of narration that would be expected from a troubled and disoriented adolescent – a factor that despite the potentially unreliable mode of narration adds to the sense of authenticity in the novel.





Classen, A. (2017). "I’m the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life.": Authenticity and Unreliable Narration in "The Catcher in the Rye". kids+media : Zeitschrift für Kinder- Und Jugendmedienforschung, 7(2). https://doi.org/10.54717/kidsmedia.7.2.2017.3