As a soldier in WWII, J.D. Salinger did not write about the war like his counterparts. He wrote about tragedy, but from a teenage perspective in the shape of Holden Caulfield. Through the psychological theory of trauma in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, the psychological lens can be used to analyze while some argue mental illness in adolescence should not be taken seriously because many victims are well-off and experience few other problems, it should be due to how illness results from repressed trauma and causes an identity crisis transitioning into adulthood; unless signs of internal conflict is typical for becoming an adult.
The psychological lens glimpses into the behavior and motivations of characters. The lens concerns expression, personality, and state of mind; it draws on psychology and psychoanalysis. TED Talk “Depression, the Secret We Share” by Andrew Solomon delves into the minds and lives of those suffering from mental illness. Instances within the text reflect experiences in The Catcher in the Rye analyzed by the psychological lens.Through the psychological theory, Holden expresses behavior of repressed trauma from childhood in the novel. Holden Caulfield experienced quite an amount of trauma at an early age; his brother Allie passed away when they were young. Time does not heal all wounds, though, because years later Holden imagines his brother, “ … I’d make believe I was talking to my brother, Allie. I’d say to him, ‘Allie, don’t let me disappear. Please, Allie.’ And then I’d reach the other side of the street without disappearing. I’d thank him. Then it would start all over again as soon as I got to the next corner” (Salinger 257). Soon after, Holden decides he is going out west to start anew. Yet, he is only reacting to panic in the moment. As Holden connects his location with memories of Allie, Holden wants nothing more than to escape; but he would only be running from his problems instead of finding peace. Holden’s trauma is due to his attachment to Allie—Holden denies his brother has passed. In addition, Holden’s trauma contributes to his isolation, “We can see that Holden’s alienation is the cause of most of his pain. He never expresses his own emotions directly, nor does he attempt to discover the source of his troubles. He desperately needs human contact, care, and love, but his protective wall prevents him from looking for such interaction” (Chen 145). As a result of his repression, Holden does not share his trouble, which allows his depression to spread. He intentionally pulls away from others so he can conceal his trauma.
Mental illness can cause or prolong an identity crisis during adolescence. Teenage years are synonymous for personal discovery, but mentally ill teens such as Holden feel they do not belong. Mr. Antolini advises, “‘I think that one of these days,’ he said, ‘you’re going to have to find out where you want to go. And then you’ve got to start going there. But immediately. You can’t afford to lose a minute” (Salinger 245). Mr. Antolini tells Holden while he may not understand where he is now, everything will work out later; but Holden does not understand. It seems easy for teenagers to discover what they want to pursue, but mental illness can spiral into an identity crisis that could prolong into adulthood. Furthermore, Holden already has an image for his identity, “Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around—nobody big, I mean—except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff—I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be” (Salinger 224). Holden views himself as the preserver of innocence. When Phoebe suggests he pursue science or law, Holden does not see himself with a real career—instead, he associates his identity with what he despises most: adulthood.
One popular criticism attached to The Catcher in the Rye is Holden is not depressed, but a spoiled teen with no sense of identity. A critic scorns, “In the course of 277 pages the reader wearies of this kind of explicitness, repetition and adolescence, exactly as one would weary of Holden himself” (Goodman). In her original 1951 article, Goodman criticizes Holden Caulfield as the typical self-centered adolescent. The use of “repetition” implies this depiction has been done before. While Goodman makes note about the lack of authenticity in Holden’s character, nonetheless she misses subtle bits of isolation and self-destruction associated with depression and not typical adolescence. In his TED Talk, Solomon addresses whether depression is just a part of human personality, “Being able to have sadness and fear and joy and pleasure and all of the other moods that we have, that’s incredibly valuable. And major depression is something that happens when that system gets broken. It’s maladaptive” (Solomon 8). Usually, adolescence is accompanied by images of teenage angst. Yet teens suffering from mental illness more often than not feel only indifference. Holden’s inability to care—from being expelled to feeling threatened in Antolini’s home—is all a precursor to what Holden fears as a disappointing life.
A common criticism which attempts to invalidate mental illness is that victims from privileged backgrounds cannot suffer because they are not outwardly miserable. Solomon depicts this typical situation, “And yet it turns out that if you have a really lovely life but feel miserable all of the time, you think, ‘Why do I feel like this? I must have depression.’ And you set out to find treatment for it. But if you have a pretty awful life, and you feel miserable all of the time, the way you feel is commensurate with your life, and it doesn’t occur to you to think, ‘Maybe this is treatable’” (Solomon 7). Essentially, mental illness is a lottery and while the sufferers can be privileged or poor, they feel the same wave of sadness and apprehension. This reflects Holden and his depression, because even though he comes from a well-off family and a nice home, he has feelings of hopelessness and despair. In fact, Holden spends much of The Catcher in the Rye by recklessly spending his father’s money, and pleading his sister Phoebe for more. He was raised in an environment which holds money as a source for happiness. During when Holden reaches what is possibly his lowest point, “My bags were there and all, and I figured I’d sleep in that crazy waiting room where all the benches are. So that’s what I did. It wasn’t too bad for a while because there weren’t many people around and I could stick my feet up” (Salinger 252). Even though Holden has a stable family and home, Holden is so abhorred by the idea of going there that he sleeps on a subway bench. His depression is what denies him from the help he needs,symbolizing his isolation. Though he felt unsafe, he considers returning to Mr. Antolini, because Mr. Antolini offered him solace. Holden may have grown up privileged, but there was nothing money could buy to repair his esteem.
While the psychological lens is not the only lens to analyze The Catcher in the Rye, the discussions developed from analysis can be used to compare our modern perspective on mental illness to a much more primitive one. For decades, the idea that Holden was just a misbehaved teenager was common among critics, but failed to dig deeper into the suffering Holden feels from his social isolation and trauma brought in by events throughout his lifetime. It cannot be presumed that Salinger and Holden shared similar experiences, but the authenticity in his words conveys in a subtle manner that trauma affects everyone in different multitudes, and The Catcher in the Rye is just one perspective.