Catcher in the Rye Theme Essay

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There is a singular event that unites every single human being on the planet. Not everyone can say it is a pleasant experience, but no one can deny that it happened. This single event is labelled ‘growing up’. The transition between childhood innocence and adulthood is long and confusing, often uncovering questions that cannot be answered. During the process the adult world seems inviting and free, but only when we become members of a cruel, unjust society can the blissful ignorance of childhood be appreciated and missed. The novel Catcher in the Rye explores how adult life appears complex and incomprehensible to teenagers on the brink of entering it. Through the main protagonist Holden Caulfield, J.D. Salinger captures the confusion of a teenager when faced with the challenge of adapting to an adult society.

When Holden Caulfield is first introduced as a character he appears to be a fairly typical, normal teenager. He complains about his school, which he claims is no better than ‘any other school’, and the language he uses makes him sound rude and obnoxious. Holden also seems to think about girls often, especially ‘Jane’, yet another typical trait of a teenage boy. However, it soon becomes evident that Holden’s personality does not conform to the teenager stereotype. Although he appears to have some friends, namely his roommate and ‘Ackley kid’, it is clear that he does not integrate well with his peer group. Holden isn’t able to read social cues like most teenagers learn to do. For this reason, he is constantly ‘horsing around’ without any thought as to how his behaviour affects the people around him. Even his friends have matured enough to recognise that Holden needs to ‘grow up’. Such incidents are an early indication that Holden is an awkward individual who can’t comprehend why he must act in the same manner as everyone else.

The natural human response to a threatening situation is either fight or flight. Holden’s first response to adulthood is to try and avoid it by entering his own world where he is in control. The ‘museum’ is a very important place to Holden because it is a place where the normal ‘laws’ of the world do not exist. The museum serves as his escape from complicated adult life because unlike reality, the museum remains unchanged. Holden admits he likes the fact ‘that everything always stays right where it [is]’, which provides the reader with conclusive evidence that he is scared of changing, of growing up and becoming different. Holden wants to find security and the museum offers him a simplified version of life he desperately craves. This version of life is reliable and lacking skulduggery; he wouldn’t have to involve himself in conversation or other human interactions (which cause him emotional discomfort).
The pinnacle of Holden’s fantasies of an idealistic environment is revealed when Phoebe asks him what he wants to be when he is older. Holden replies that he just wants to be the ‘Catcher in the Rye’, meaning he wants to save children from falling off the ‘cliff’. The author uses the cliff to symbolically refer to a child losing his or her innocence and becoming an adult. The fact that Holden feels he wants to prevent children from falling into adulthood gives the reader an insight into his own mind. He is clearly scared and not emotionally ready to grow up and complete his transition from a child to an adult.
Holden’s immaturity is displayed through his inability to take advice or make decisions. When Holden visits Mr. Spencer, he is told that ‘life is a game that one plays by the rules’. Mr. Spencer has a far superior knowledge of how the world functions due to his age. His message to Holden is to become socially intelligent and to take a broad view of how his actions affect the world. Once again, Holden displays his naiveté by ignoring this priceless advice and insists that getting on the ‘side where all the hot-shots are’ makes life better. He is also unable to make clear, rational decisions. Holden is very impulsive and can only think within the moment. When on a date with Sally, he feels happy but vulnerable, causing him to panic and suggest they should run away and ‘live somewhere with a brook.’ Holden ends up sabotaging any chances of a normal relationship because he cannot associate being close to someone with happiness. The way in which Holden makes snap decisions insinuates that he is very confused and unable to organise his thoughts in a mature fashion, exposing that his child-like state of mind still dominates the more logical and mature part of his brain.
Holden begins to show signs of withdrawal from society immediately after leaving Pencey Prep. He daydreams about being alone and being independent. In one of his fantasies he envisions himself as a ‘deaf mute’ because he believes he could avoid socialising with people. Holden would prefer to live in isolation where no one expects anything of him, rather than face the fact he is gradually becoming part of a society where he is expected to contribute his efforts. A further display of this need for isolation is evident in the way he stereotypes people as being ‘phonies’. Anyone who Holden perceives to have affectations, he deems to be different from him. These people appear to be socially intelligent and are generally accepted into society, unlike Holden. To the reader, these people such as the Headmaster and Sally are the ‘normal’ members of society who avoid conflict with others, which in some situations, may require putting on false airs. Holden despises the fact that they do not show their true emotions, possibly because he doesn’t possess the capability to acknowledge the difference between what is true and what is false; hence making social interactions even more challenging. In this instance, despite his over exaggerations, Holden holds a valid point that yes; many people create a façade in order to ‘fit in’ with everyone else. He is perceptive enough to recognise the faults of society and expresses this knowledge by resisting the call of adulthood. Yet several times during the novel Holden contradicts himself by acting decidedly phony. He recounts telling people he is ‘glad to meet [them]’ and how it ‘kills him’ knowing he doesn’t truly mean it. Although this behaviour depicts Holden as being once again very immature, in actual fact the recognition that he needed to be false in order to avoid conflict with another being shows that as a person he is beginning to evolve. Holden was attempting to submit to society’s expectations for the first time, showing he is starting to experiment and change his thought process, all signs of someone who is growing up.
During the process of growing up, many new emotions and experiences can change a person’s priorities. For Holden it appears his priority, though subconsciously perhaps, is to discover where he belongs. Throughout the book it is apparent he doesn’t belong in the adult world, however he is rapidly leaving childhood behind. Holden finds himself in this catch-22 situation and unable to see a way out. When Holden arrives in New York his burning question is ‘where do the ducks go in winter?’ Holden is on a ‘journey’ and he feels that by finding out where the ducks go, he may discover an answer to his own situation. Holden obviously draws a parallel between his life and the life of the ducks. The duck pond itself is also significant because it is ‘partly frozen, partly not frozen’, which symbolizes the state Holden is in; a stage in-between childhood and adulthood.
Holden has a limited number of emotional relationships with anyone his age, revealing his struggle to connect with the rest of the world. Ergo it is surprising to the reader to discover that when Jane was upset Holden started ‘kissing her all over’ suggesting that in certain situations, he is able to empathize with people and knows the ‘socially acceptable’ way to react. The reader is given valuable insight into Holden’s mind, which exhibits signs that he is in fact maturing. Holden also knows that one of the aspects of adulthood is having physical relationships with people. During his time in New York, Holden pushes his personal boundaries regarding the degree of social interactions he is comfortable with. He feels that if he fulfils the sexual component of adulthood, he will become one step closer to finding the place he belongs. Unfortunately his encounter with ‘Sunny’ in the hotel did not go as intended and consequently Holden found himself out of depth in an awkward situation. He admits that ‘sex is something I don’t understand too hot,’ which exposes Holden’s weakness as being unable to cope with intense emotion. He oscillates from one extreme to the other- trying to remain a child and trying to reach a level of maturity he is currently not capable of.
All young people long for the perks of adulthood; wealth, power, love, but tend to overlook the catch that is ‘acting maturely’. Throughout the duration of the book, Holden seems to make little progress in his personal growth, although for brief periods of time it appears he is closer to adulthood than what the reader is lead to believe. When visiting Phoebe’s school he discovers crude language written on the wall. Holden immediately thinks of ‘Phoebe and all the other little kids’ and how he would hate them to see the foul words. This proves that Holden has a natural protective instinct and symbolically takes on the persona of ‘catcher in the rye’ as he wipes the words off the wall. Holden wants to shield the children from seeing the obscenities of adulthood prematurely, just as the catcher wants to protect children from falling off the ‘cliff’. At the end of the novel Holden appears to have more acceptance of the idea of growing up. As he watches Phoebe on the carousel he deduces that sometimes you ‘have to let them fall’ (referring to the children on the carousel.). Holden now understands that growing up is inevitable and fighting it is useless. However, regardless of this new found clarity, he still obsesses about living in an uncomplicated world. He delights in the fact that the carousel goes ‘round and round’ because it continues to fuel his fantasies of staying in one place forever. It would seem that even though he has made progress, Holden still struggles with letting go of the life he wishes were possible.
Whether growing up was a pleasant experience or not, we all look back on our teenagers years, be it to learn from our mistakes, or reminisce our glory days. Salinger structured Catcher in the Rye specifically to create an overall reflective tone. The novel opening suggests that the story is in fact being retold (by who the reader learns is Holden Caulfield). He claims it happened around ‘last Christmas’ giving the reader a definite time reference. The significance of Holden recounting his story as one flashback is that it shows that time has passed and he no longer feels connected to the incident, indicating Holden has in fact changed since this time. There are parts of his story where the present day Holden interjects his own thoughts suggesting he has more clarity and knowledge than he did in his past. When remembering his visit to Mr. Spencer’s house, Holden comments ‘I act quite young for my age.’ The use of the word ‘act’ in the present tense provides evidence that here, Holden is not simply re-telling his story, but is actually analyzing himself. This gives Holden depth as a character and shows he can now recognise his own faults where previously he may have been able to.
The language used by Holden is also significant because it allows the reader to depict the character more vividly. Holden is constantly using crude phrases that would have shocked the original readers of the book. This is to represent the fact that Holden is trying to merge with the adult world and he assumes that by using more ‘adult’ language he can achieve this. The present day Holden refers to most of the people he met during the time he was in New York as ‘Old...’ This helps him to disassociate himself with the past and shows that he feels it is a different part of his life. So although during his ‘journey of discovery’ Holden appears not to have emotionally progressed towards adulthood, clearly he has now evolved and grown up, be it just a little.
Many people claim ‘life is a journey’ but forget to mention the potholes, diversions and wrong turnings that ultimately lead to dead ends. Holden Caulfield is one of the many teenagers who, in a fit of frustration lost the map to life, hence left with no choice but to run around in aimless circles. Throughout the novel it becomes clear that Holden is
finding the transition between childhood and adulthood extremely difficult. He is plagued with conflicting emotions of wanting to grow up and be a valued member of society, versus wanting to escape into his own simple and controllable world. Eventually the pressure of having to choose one over the other overwhelms Holden to the point where he is mentally unstable. Although this is an extreme exaggeration of what most normal teenagers experience, it effectively highlights the difficulties and confusion that young people face when on the brink of adulthood. Holden’s mental instability evokes both worry and pity in the readers because he becomes more desperate and more irate as the novel progresses. The ending of the novel provides little more clarity than the beginning. The readers are no closer to discovering whether Holden has actually grown up and learnt anything from his experiences and Holden is no closer to finding a compromise between his ‘idealistic world’ and real life. What the reader can be sure of is thus far in the history of the human race, no one has bypassed the embarrassing, confusing but occasionally fantastic experience of growing up; therefore it is logical to assume that Holden will be no exception to this rule and in time will also proceed to grow up.





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This article has 3 comments. Post your own now!

__-K said...
Feb. 2, 2016 at 11:43 am
This was very helpful to me as well, my thesis is trying to prove that Holden has only had a nervous break down, not completely lost his mind. This was very interesting and I'm going to reference it.
 
blockd2934 said...
Apr. 14, 2015 at 6:45 pm
Nice! Thanks for sharing, I literally printed this out and highlighted some ideas to help me get over my writer's block XD My thesis on Catcher in the Rye is how through Holden, Salinger proves that past trauma can prevent one from developing healthy social interactions and this helped a lot!
 
HR2507 replied...
Jun. 19, 2015 at 5:18 pm
That's a really interesting take! Good luck :)
 
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