Holden Caulfield is the first-person protagonist of J.D. Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye and frequently thought of as a classic ‘unreliable narrator’.
Salinger provides us with evidence in dialogue, narrative and meta-narrative that Holden is seeing things differently to us. What does that mean for our reading of the text? The easiest and first response is that we begin to doubt other aspects of the telling – even when contextual cues confirming Holden’s veracity are missing. For example, when Holden arrives at the Edmont Hotel, he describes a tableau of ‘perverted’ activity taking place within view of his window. A middle aged man dresses in drag; a couple spit cocktails at each other. As this follows on shortly after his encounter with Mrs. Morrow, how much of this apparently exaggerated scene should we believe?
J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, (Penguin, 1994) p. 191
For Nunning one ‘textual signal’ of unreliability is the expression of uncertainty in dialogue. He uses Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier and his narrator John Dowell as an example that might easily be transposed to The Catcher in the Rye.
The Catcher in the Rye - Wikipedia
This is a problematic definition in the case of The Catcher in the Rye as there is evidence in the text that some of Holden’s values seem to match those of the author. What we need is a more nuanced definition and analysis.
entitled 'The Son of the Catcher, who Lives in Rye'
When we learn that Holden talks to his dead brother, that he cries sometimes for no reason and that, at the novel’s close, he literally loses control of his own actions, compulsively pacing the sidewalks of New York, seeing Allie at every turn – we know that there is something more at work here than inconsistency for its own sake, that The Catcher in the Rye is an inventory of extreme loss and change.