Painful Experience vs. Numbness
Perhaps the greatest theme of the novel involves the relationship between the pain of actual experience and feeling one's feelings, on the one hand, and on the other hand the equally devastating numbness that comes with shutting down one's emotions in order to avoid suffering. After the death of Allie, Holden essentially shuts down, forcing himself to lose all attachments to people so as never to be hurt again. He repeatedly mentions how important it is not to get attached to anyone, since this will lead to missing them once they are gone. By the end of the novel, he has spiraled so far down with this theory that he has become afraid to even speak to anyone. Phoebe is perhaps the only reminder that Holden still has the capacity to love. When he looks at her, he cannot help but feel the same tortured love that he felt for Allie. Nevertheless, the surges of these feelings leave him even more bereft. He knows he must leave Phoebe to protect himself, but when she shows up to accompany him on his journey, ultimately he puts his love for her first and sacrifices his own instinct to flee in order to return home.
Holden, it seems, is in the throes of an existential crisis. To a great degree he is numb to the pains and joys of life. Unable to come to terms with his brother's death, he has no one to show him the kind of parental or brotherly love that he himself gave Allie. Whenever someone does end up showing him even a hint of such love (such as Mr. Antolini), Holden ends up being disappointed.
Love and Sex
At his core, Holden is a deep, sensitive soul, at bottom unable to sublimate his feelings into numbness. He envies someone like Stradlater, who can simply pick up girls whenever he likes, and who treats sex as a casual pleasure. To Holden, however, sex is deeply discomforting. He cannot have it with girls he likes, and he cannot manage to numb himself enough to treat girls casually. Numbing himself to love, it seems, is Holden's greatest challenge. He feels too deeply about the world, about people, to truly shut down. When he finally does fall in love with Jane Gallagher, he soon discovers that Stradlater has a date with her, which confirms his suspicion that everything he loves eventually deteriorates. He leaves Pencey with some hope of inventing a new identity, but he cannot break out of his being. Even in the presence of a prostitute, he cannot think of having sex, only of having a conversation in the hope of feeling some glimmer of human affection with her. All Holden wants to do is talk, but he cannot find someone who will listen.
Loss of Innocence
Holden must face that fork in the road of adolescence when one realizes that maturity entails a loss of innocence—that greater knowledge of oneself and others and the circumstances all comes with a price. In Holden's case, he cannot bear to accept the death of Allie, the death of pure innocence that had no good reason to suffer or die. In Holden's eyes,...