“The Catcher In The Rye” And “The Bell Jar” Comparative Essay
“The Catcher in the Rye” by J. D. Salliger and “The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath are both coming of age stories that talk about the difficulties of growing up, looking at the issues of Identity Problems, Sex and Depression. As adolescents, both characters struggle with identity problems and are still trying to figure out what they want in life. Additionally, society is pressuring them to act a specific way and they do not really feel like they fit in.
Holden’s biggest fear in life is growing up and the responsibilities that come with it. For example the responsibility of earning money and taking care of a family. He is afraid of change and struggling through life, although he is still young. This is why he likes the Natural History Museum so much, as everything always stays the same. Holden feels like he does not fit in with adults and feels like their world is cold and artificial. He constantly uses the word ‘phony’ , meaning fake, to describe them.
In chapter 22 Holden refers to himself as “the catcher in the rye” saving “thousands of little kids” from their doom, as they run off the edge of the cliff. By stopping them from running off the cliff, he is preventing them from ‘falling’ into adulthood, which is what he is so desperately trying to avoid for himself. These kids, who are ‘playing some game in this big field of rye’, are not ‘[looking] where they’re going’. This suggests that Holden feels that they are unaware of the pressure of adulthood and the stress that comes with it. Further supported by the fact that the children are ‘running’ towards the edge. Another evidence that can be drawn from this quote is the fact that ‘nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me’. This could imply that there are no adults around in the field to poison the children’s innocent minds. At the same time he sees himself as a adult in this situation, although he does not want to be grown up and take responsibility.
For a young woman like Esther, living in the 1950s America meant to grow up in a society where there were many expectations regarding her behaviour and future. In general, women were expected to be housewives and mothers and to devote their energy towards taking care of their children and husband, instead of pursuing their own dreams. Esther is trying to figure out what she wants in life. She feels like she is forced to decide between pursuing a carrier as a writer and settling down and starting a family.
She says; “I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. … and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet. ”
In this case the tree symbolises the life choices Esther faces. The figs are her possible paths, but because Esther wants all the figs and is unable to decide, they rot and fall to the ground. The inability to decide what to do with her life, although there are many options, causes her to have an identity crises and eventually leads to a mental break down.
Sex is an important topic in both of the main characters’ lives. One of them is afraid of it, whereas the other one is determined to lose their virginity. Holden is scared of having sex because he doesn’t want to lose his innocence, as it symbolises adulthood for him. He says; “If you want to know the truth, I’m a virgin. I really am. I’ve had quite a few opportunities to lose my virginity and all, but I’ve never got around to it yet. Something always happens. . . I came quite close to doing it a couple of times, though. One time in particular, I remember. Something went wrong, though—I don’t even remember what any more. ”
Even though he calls himself a ‘sex maniac’ and talks about it often throughout the book, he finds every excuse not to do it. For instance, when he meets with the prostitute Sunny, and instead of having sex, he wants to talk to her after noting her young age. He then gets nervous and makes up a story about how he is recovering from an operation on his clavichord and is unable to have sex. As an excuse for not being able to overcome his fear.
Holden sees most women such as Sally Hayes as stupid, mainly because they are interested in men that he knows that in contrast to him, they do not care about the girls sand just want to have fun. On the other hand, he sees his neighbour Jane Gallager, for whom he cares a lot, as the ideal woman. Though the fact that he is so afraid of calling or talking to her, implies that he knows that she can’t be as perfect as he wants her to be, Holden is a good guy, who stops when a woman says no. In contrast, Sradlater is not the same, as he knows. This is why he punches him when he comes back from the date with Sally, because he is afraid of what Stradlater did with her. At the same time, he is mad at himself as he cannot be like him, and stop caring for the girls. His mixed feelings toward sex come from his past experience with sexual assault, by his teacher, who liked and trusted.
In contrast to Holden, Esther is preoccupied with her virginity, throughout the novel. She comments; “pureness was the great issue… I saw the world divided into people who had slept with somebody and people who hadn’t…I thought a spectacular change would come over me the day I crossed the boundary line. ” It upsets her that society expects women to stay a virgin until they are married while allowing boys sexual freedom. When she then finds out that her fiancé Buddy had an affair, she gets furious because he pretended to be ‘pure’ while in fact being ‘impure’, and she felt betrayed. Esther is then determined to lose her virginity and eventually has sex with Irwin. However her first sexual experience was not for pleasure but to relief herself of her burdensome virginity. Esther also has had bad previous experiences as she was almost raped by a guy she was set up with by her friend.
Both Holden and Esther suffer from depression and go as far as having suicidal thoughts. Even though some might not understand the reason for the characters depression, it is important to understand that depression is not a choice. Secondly, they do not want to die, but want to escape from the problems in their life and at that moment dying feels like the only way out. However suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem and it does not end the pain it just passes it on to someone else.
Throughout the course of the book Holden shows signs of depression on many occasions. He says that; “life itself makes me depressed” – pg. 75. He desperately needs someone to talk to and his loneliness makes his situation worse. One cause of his depression could likely be the death of his younger brother Allie.
“It took me quite a while to get to sleep-I wasn’t even tired-but finally I did. What I really felt like, though, was committing suicide. I felt like jumping out the window. I probably would’ve done it, too, if I’d been sure somebody’d cover me up as soon as I landed. I didn’t want a bunch of stupid rubbernecks looking at me when I was all gory. ” – chapter 14
This shows that Holden thinks about committing suicide, however he never actually does it. For him it feels like his only way out of this world which he cannot control or understand. Ester’s struggle with depression is shown throughout the book. When she found out that she did not make it into the summer writing program, everything just started to fall apart and it felt like there was nothing she could do about it. She is unable to write or concentrate anymore. Esther stops believing in herself and starts to see herself as a failure. The bell jar is used to show how she feels trapped and watches the world through glass.
“The silence depressed me. It wasn’t the silence of silence. It was my own silence. ” For a girl who spends all her life working with words, silence is terrifying. She stops seeing the point in life and repeatedly tries to commit suicide. Esther is then sent to Psychiatry where she experiences electrotherapy. After she does not show any improvement Esther starts seeing a therapist. She meets one of her old friends who then later commit suicide.
In conclusion, Holden and Esther generally face very similar issues. Growing up and finding your own identity is a big part of their lives as adolescents. One is afraid of growing up and the other one is struggling to decide what she wants in her life. Sex is another topic which both characters are occupied with through out the book. Holden talks about it often, but is afraid of having sex, because he does not want to loose his virginity. Esther sees people divided into two groups: the ones that have not had sex and the ones that have. She is determined to lose her virginity. Lastly they both struggle with depression and see suicide as the only solution to ending their problems.
Although the characters problems do not seem very similar at first, looking deeper shows that they do go through the same things. This shows that both “Cather in the Rye” and “The Bell Jar” are coming of age series that talk about the difficulties of growing up and deal with similar problems.
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