The Catcher in the Rye: The Normalcy of Holden Caulfield
Adolescence is defined as, “1: the period of life when a child develops into an adult : the period from puberty to maturity terminating legally at the age of majority. 2: the state or process of growing up. 3: a stage of development (as of a language or culture)” by the Merriam-Webster dictionary. Holden Caulfield in experiencing adolescence in J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye.
As Caulfield narrates his story from a 17 year old perspective from a year before, he is depicted as a stable, typical adolescent although having experienced traumatic experiences. He is transitioning through maturity and experiencing drugs, alcohol, and finding his identity and purpose as would all teenagers. However, Holden is carrying the weight of his younger brother, Allie, on his shoulders which makes his experience distinct; thus, demonstrating that while adolescence is universal the experiences that define it are different for all. Salinger gives us insight into his unique experiences through character descriptions, experiences, and moral/ethical perspectives that confirm Caulfield’s navigating of the rocky waters of adolescence as a typical teenager.
Drinking, Smoking, and Failing Classes
Caulfield’s social development is defined in Catcher in the Rye through the socially normal experiences Holden has as listed by the American Psychological Association. Holden drinks, smokes, and is failing classes as will 25% of adolescents by the age of 17 (Developing Adolescents). He turns to these options not only because they help him cope with his emotions but also because they are socially frowned upon but understood. Although drinking and smoking underage is illegal because is morally incorrect, it is also something socially normal that forms a part of the universal definition of adolescence. Holden smokes daily and drinks to get wasted because he thinks no one cares for his health. It is a form of rebelling, he wants to give the impression of indifference as do all teenagers. Drinking and smoking provide an outlet for Allie’s death and he takes advantage because he lacks the social capacity to disperse that baggage through communication or a more healthy activity.
Formation of Identity
Though antisocial, Caulfield still shares descriptions of past and present acquaintances. He presents Jane to us in a very detailed way continuously repeating small details that one may deem unimportant such as her placing of pieces on the checkerboard. Although he has not seen her years, he holds onto their memories with such fondness and remembers them vividly. In contrast, he swings between liking his roommates at Pencey Prep: Stradlater and Ackley. His opinions of these two vary often, but they are observed from distant facets of the friendship. For example, he likes how Stradlater is cool and nice to him [Holden] but dislikes him strongly because of the treatment he gives girls. Ackley is presented to us as slow but then as likable. Holden is trying to define his identity and find a balance among the right vs. wrong dilemma teenagers battle. The formation of his identity can be observed upon his moral and social perspectives of friends.
Ability for Deeper Cognitive Thinking
Another thing that deems Holden psychologically normal is his ability for deeper cognitive thinking. He gives us his opinions on critically acclaimed necessities such as school and religion explaining to the reader that although having good intentions, the systems are led by phonies that discredit them [religion and education], thus depicting the normal teenager that will often question authority and adults (Developing Adolescents). It is more implicitly demonstrated when Holden is holding a conversation with Mr. Antolini. Although he likes Mr. Antolini a lot, he says he lacks intellectuality. While Antolini is attempting to convince Holden to return to school, Holden’s inner thoughts tell the reader that schools is a waste of time in Holden’s eyes because it is a flawed system. Equally, this also happens before Holden leaves Pencey Prep and stops by to see “Old Spencer.” He is respectful towards him aloud but internally he’s condescending of Spencer because of his old age. He disregards the advice the teacher gives him, pretty much any advice in general. He thinks everything everyone does is personal vengeance against him. Holden takes everything personally because he is self centered because, “it takes time to take others’ perspectives into account” (Developing Adolescents).
Attempting to Regain a Normal Life
Despite his clear normalcy, it can be argued that Holden is indeed abnormal because of his sudden outburst after Allie’s death and his substance abuse. In an academic journal by Wan Roselezan Wan Yahya and Ruzbeh Babaee, Holden’s trauma and suicide are brought up as a source of PTSD. Because of the trauma and suicidal thoughts they deem Holden as mentally unstable since he cannot cope, “Felman (1992) considers trauma as ‘unreasonable and untranscendable’ (p.35-6)” claiming that, “Holden stays in a numb state” (Salinger’s Depiction of Trauma in Catcher in the Rye). Arguably so, Holden does talk about death and sadness often, but he dealt with his brother’s death at the peak of puberty. He also lacks communication with those who shared that trauma with him. Despite his breaking of all the windows and sleeping for a week in the garage, Holden is attempting to regain a normal life. Allie’s death will always leave a scar but contrary to the idea that he hasn’t found closure is one that shows Holden finding purpose from Allie’s death: protecting the innocence of children beginning by Phoebe. Holden himself couldn’t have a happy adolescence and he wants it to be secured for the future. Everyone deals with grief differently, it takes some time others purpose and some never overcome it but Holden found his purpose within the carousel.
Caulfield allowed the reader to look through the lense of a damaged teenager that lacked communication with his family, lost a younger brother at 13, but had enough resilience to find closure in something that would patch the flawed educational and religious system. He demonstrated the ability to think critically about the abstract but also discredit the wise as the typical adolescent would. Caulfield takes the reader aboard the ship that nearly sunk and had to navigate the rocky waters of adolescence with a gaping hole but arrived safely to shore.
- Developing Adolescents: a Reference for Professionals. American Psychological Association, 2002.
- Salinger, J. D. The Catcher in the Rye. Little, Brown, 1991.
- Yahya, Wan Roselezam Wan, and Ruzbeh Babaee. ‘Salinger’s depiction of trauma in The Catcher in the Rye.’ Theory and Practice in Language Studies, vol. 4, no. 9, 2014, p. 1825+. Academic OneFile, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A386918898/GPS?u=tel_s_tsla&sid=GPS&xid=6bc5ee90. Accessed 22 Feb. 2019.
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