Catcher And The Bell Jar – Two Coming Of Age Novels
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The Catcher in the Rye and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar are two entirely different novels with different themes at first glance, both tell tales of teenagers who are coming of age and learning responsibility. In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield has been kicked out of school and is trying to decide what he wants to do with his life. In The Bell Jar, Esther Greenwood tries to kill herself and is trying to figure out what she wants to do with her life. In both novels, the protagonists are learning to grow up and take responsibility. Both are experiencing difficult situations and are dealing with them. Throughout both novels it can be seen that Holden and Esther are becoming better able to deal with their situations. While both novels deal with coming of age in different manners, the main idea of growing up is shown through the characters struggles to figure out what they want, looking at death, and examining the characters relationships with their parents.
Holden and Esther are both trying to deal with life changing problems in these two novels. Holden has been kicked out of school and is debating running away. Esther is depressed and has been put in an institution after trying to kill herself. While their problems are very different, the thoughts behind them are not. Holden does not really know what he wants to do with his life. His only dream is to become “the catcher in the rye,” and this is obviously not something he can do for the rest of his life (Salinger 173). Esther too, does not know what she wants to do with her life. Esther however wants to be everything instead of nothing as is Holden’s case. Esther talks about how she sees her life “branching out before [her]” like a fig tree.
In each fig, she sees something that she could do with her life, or some choice that she could make. She then says that she sees herself sitting in the tree not being able to decide which fig she wanted. “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” (Plath 63). So while they are dealing with different problems, the similarities are clear. Holden and Esther’s problem of not knowing what they want is a problem that typical teenagers can identify with.
Death also plays an important role in both of these novels, though it is used in different ways. In The Catcher in the Rye, the deaths of Holden’s brother, Ally, and a classmate, James Castle are discussed. Both of these deaths have a profound impact on Holden. Ally was not only his brother but also his best friend. While Holden feels that he is in a world that is surrounded by fakes, he views Ally as one of the few truly real people he has ever known. On the same note, James Castle stands up to some students who are bullying him instead of backing down, which earns Castle Holden’s respect for not being a phony (Salinger 170). Holden respects both Ally and Castle.
In The Bell Jar, the death of Esther’s father is discussed and a student Esther knows, Jane, dies. It is not Esther’s father’s death that plays the important role in the novel, but more how she felt toward him, which is the same in The Catcher in the Rye. Esther says that she remembers being at the beach with her father when she was nine years old, and that was the last time she can remember being truly happy. Then there is the death of Joan. Although Esther does not care for Joan, she is upset over her death and feels that she may be somehow responsible for it. In The Bell Jar death is much more apparent than in The Catcher in the Rye because half of the novel deals with the repercussions of Esther’s suicide attempt. Even though death is discussed in different ways, it helps both Holden and Esther to realize things like respect and what it means to grow up.
Both novels also deal with the main characters relationships with their parents. These relationships are important to the novels because both show in different ways how the characters feel towards others. In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden does not want his parents to know that he has been kicked out of yet another boarding school. He knows that his mother will be upset, and he feels guilty about upsetting her. At the end of the novel, Holden ultimately decides to go home and accept responsibility for what he has done, and to face his parents. He has learned to think about others more than himself. In The Bell Jar, Esther seems to not like her mother at all. She tries to please her and eventually realizes she needs to do what is best for her and stop worrying about her mother. One of the largest differences between these two novels is shown here. Throughout The Catcher in the Rye, Holden begins to realize to take responsibility and to not only think about himself, but about the people he cares about as well.
In The Bell Jar, Esther begins to realize that sometimes she needs to make herself happy before she goes around trying to please the world. Looking at two instances in the novel shows her growth in this aspect. Towards the beginning, Esther agrees to let her mother teach her shorthand at night, because her mother is always saying that she needs to learn some sort of practical skill for when she grows up (Plath 95). Towards the end of the novel, Esther stops trying to please her mother and when she comes to visit on Esther’s birthday, Esther tosses the flower her mother gives her into the trashcan (Plath 166). Although these are small actions, they show how her attitude towards her mother has changed.
This change in the way Esther acts towards her mother shows how she is learning that she can’t please everyone all the time and that sometimes her own well being should take precedence over the well being of those around her. Although Holden and Esther are seemingly learning opposite things, they are both learning about taking responsibility. Holden is learning the responsibility of putting others before himself while Esther is learning the responsibility of taking care of herself before others.
The Catcher in the Rye and The Bell Jar may seem at first light to have no similarities. But upon looking at the main characters’ problems and how they learn to deal with them, the similarities can be seen. Both novels deal with accepting responsibility and growing up. While Holden and Esther are two very different people, with different lives and different problems, some of their base emotional issues are the same. They both want to come to terms with their surroundings and learn how to live their lives.
Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. New York, NY: Harper and Row, 1971.
Salinger, J.D. The Catcher in the Rye. Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company, 1951.