The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger Book Review


J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in The Rye is a coming of age novel, set in the 1950s, about Holden's despondency and failure to move on from the loss of his brother, which shapes his ability to experience authenticity in his relationships. Holden Caulfield, the protagonist with an intense love for his brother, is hesitant in letting go of the handhold he has on his sorrow; Holden feels that to do so would betray his love for his brother. This love is conveyed by Holden's grudging refusal, as he must overcome his heartbreak to live—not just survive—his life. Holden's sadness prevents him from getting to meet others and develop a deep level of love while also contributing to his negative outlook on existence. If Holden is to live his life the way he wishes, he must learn to let go of the love that is holding him back from so many things. In The Catcher in The Rye, Holden Caulfield demonstrates an unwillingness to process his grief from the death of his brother, Allie, which subconsciously undermines intimacy in his relationships and consequently shapes his pessimistic view of the world. 

The suicidal despair Holden falls into is evident through his negative perspective on life. Edwin Miller comments, “[Holden] feels dirty and worthless, and so makes the world a reflection of his self-image. Similarly, if he continually asserts, almost screams, that the phony world makes him want to ‘puke’, it is because Holden’s world itself has turned to vomit.” The diction “reflection” implies that Holden's perception of the world is a product of his past and the conflicting feelings he is experiencing. Many of Holden's pessimistic feelings and words appear to be aimed towards him indirectly. His public annoyance, which he expresses with the term phony, conceals his genuine grief at his brother's passing. If he calls the planet phony, Holden is also aware that he is fraudulent when it comes to masking his feelings. He develops these made-up characters that exist in his dream universe, which is derived from his need for no phonies while simultaneously wishing to be the made-up persona. No phonies will indicate that Holden has moved on from his sorrow. His vomit-filled universe, on the other hand, may only suggest that his own depression has been extended outwards as well. Since his gloomy world is a product of himself, it seems that Holden has been hesitant to process his sadness, preferring instead to maintain his pessimistic outlook on life. In relation to Holden's sorry world, Miller observes, “...The significance of this repeated use of variations on the phrase ‘that killed me’ becomes almost self-evident: reflecting on his obsession with death, it tells the unsuspecting world that he wishes himself dead, punished and then reunited with Allie.” The term "punished" insinuates that Holden believes he is deserving of a punishment for his inability to overcome his suffering and desires for tragedy to befall him. Holden is mindful that his fixation on the phrase "that killed me" represents his need to die on a latent basis, but he still recognizes that it is not something he should be dreaming about. Calling it a punishment implies that he is conscious of the suffering that his absence would cause his kin, but the possibility of reuniting with his brother still feels like a gift to him. This sense of self-harm infiltrates his worldview, leading him to believe that his suffering is caused by the acts of others, rather than his own pain at his brother's passing. His pessimistic outlook stems from his failure to process his frustration, and thus reflects the retribution he seems to be seeking. 

Holden Caulfield exhibits a reluctance to overcome his anguish at his brother's death. Miller corroborates Holden’s disinclination, ”Holden Caulfield has to wrestle not only with the usual difficult adjustments of adolescent years, in sexual, familial and peer relationships; he has also to bury Allie before he can make the transition.” Holden must break his tenacious grip on his brother's affection and hide it "underground" if he is to overcome his sorrow, according to the locution "bury." However, Holden's inability to process his pain is linked to the term "wrestle," since he believes he can challenge himself for any changes he has to make to reach the stage of puberty. Holden had inquired about the protocols of sex with one of his old friends, but had withdrawn the second he had the opportunity to lose his virginity. This behavior derives from the implicit awareness that, no matter how much he desires to have sex, completing this rite of passage into adulthood would cause him to abandon Allie behind. This quarrel Holden seems to have with himself is as much a part of him as his own arm. Everywhere he goes, he seems to segregate the heavy weighted feelings of his heart from his mind’s desire of getting to experience his adolescent years- choosing to follow the wants of his heart. There is levity typical of youth or adolescence; this cognitive period seems to hold only despair for Holden due to his preoccupation with grief. As Holden’s emotions continue waging war, stopping him from maturing with his age, it unveils the disinclination Holden has to get over the loss of his brother due to the betrayal he believes he is causing Allie.

Holden subtly compromises the intimacy he is able to form in his friendships. Edwin observes, “At least fifty times, something or someone depresses him- an emotion which he frequently equates with a sense of isolation: ‘It makes you feel so lonesome and depressed’ (p. 81). Although the reiteration of the word reveals his true nature of his state, no one in the novel recognizes a signal, perceiving the boy as a kind of adolescent clown rather than as a seriously troubled youth. As his depression deepens to the point of nervous breakdown, Holden… seeks to obscure the recognition by referring to everything as ‘crazy’ and facetiously likening himself to a ‘madman’.” The quotes "signal" and "obscure" signify that Holden is knowledgeable of his depression but is also attempting to hide it. He has little choice but to hide his feelings as a result of this suppression, and he blames his disappointment on other incidents he sees throughout the day. Holden hides his emotions the bulk of the time, but he does periodically make suggestions about his mental state, while still recognizing that revealing his thoughts to someone else will mean establishing the level of attachment that he is attempting to avoid. This war that Holden seems to be having with himself has begun to take over him, saving him little time to think of anything else. Through his frame of mind and state of grief, Holden subconsciously sabotages the affinity he is able to form in his relationships. Dealing with Holden’s self-destruction, Salinger embodies the thoughts of Holden as he expresses, “I felt sorry as hell for my mother and father. Especially my mother, because she still isn’t over my brother Allie yet” (20). The use of the verbs, “never” and “yet” reveals that Holden feels his mother should have moved on from her mourning by now. Anything Holden says, thinks, or does is a reaction to the help he wishes he had received after the big tragedy. With his passive-aggressive and bitter tone, Holden’s casual mention of his mother not being over Allie’s death, implies that she is so caught up in her own suffering that she does not see Holden suffering as well, hence stunting his ability to mature and live his life. The maternal hand that was denied to Holden while he was grieving Alllie’s death leads Holden to make up these fake personas. These false personas prohibit Holden from building intimacy in his relationships by stopping people from discovering who he truly is.

J.D. Salinger's novel The Catcher in the Rye, aids in the explanation that one’s inability to process guilt and grief threatens intimacy in relationships and helps to form a negative vision of the universe. Holden’s grief from the death of his brother influences the way he perceives the world, his self-esteem, and his capacity to create deep bonds in his relationships. Holden’s self-love was destroyed the moment his brother was announced dead, and with it his ability to form special bonds. His image of the world was ruined the second his confidence was. The thoughts he had of himself reflected unto the world until he thought the world was just as bad as him. Many people, including Holden, are unable to shape their full identity through the fear of opening up to others because of the losses they have previously experienced. J.D. Salinger’s work is immortal because of the acknowledgement he brings to the psychological struggles as a fundamental part of human experience.

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