Holden’s Spiritual Journey in “The Catcher in the Rye”
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What is it that defines the infamous teenage years that everyone at one point or another goes through? Is it all the struggle of trying to break through the crowd or the stress of facing the endless conflicts that didn’t exist when you were a child? Maybe it’s the pain of shedding the protective cocoon called childhood, to face your deepest fears and understand that all those simple truths might not be so simple. At the other end of these terrible years filled with confusion and tears is light. Every child comes through as an individual with a better idea of his or her self and place in society. In J.D Salinger’s coming of age novel The Catcher in the Rye, the protagonist Holden Caulfield embarks on a spiritual journey, during which he comes to terms with himself and the world.
In the opening chapters of the novel, one can easily suspect that Caulfield is psychologically ill, judging by his cynical tone, hypocritical behavior and immature views. His constant criticism of society’s phoniness displays his cynical views; and when he bluntly lies to his fellow classmate’s mother about her son during a train to New York, he reveals his own hypocrisy as a phony. Another trait visible from Holden’s narration is the immaturity in understanding change, which is obvious from the way his thoughts are constantly revolving around preservation such as his school essay about Egyptian mummies. Over the course of his odyssey, Holden becomes enlightened to the idea that there may indeed be a problem with his emotional health and at the end of the novel, pursues counseling to help him deal with his troubles.
Holden hints that the source of his mental trauma is related to his inability to cope with the death of his only brother, Allie. Though he never affirms this as the direct cause of his insanity, he manages to acknowledge his instable behavior only started after Allie’s death; such as smashing all the windows. He makes this connection through the words “I broke all the goddam windows with my fist the night he died… It was a very stupid thing to do I’ll admit, but I hardly didn’t even know I was doing it, and you didn’t know Allie.” Throughout his journey, Holden faces various experiences which help him overcome his inability to accept change and learn to stop fighting desultory battles, as well as helping him understand that the society is not against him and he is part of the society.
One of the most severe internal conflicts Holden overcomes is his incapacity to accept change. It’s clear to read that Holden has trouble in both the physical and emotional aspect of change; he wants to prevent death, which he views as when a subject vanishes from view, as well as to prevent maturing emotionally to deal with more complex emotions. His relation to preserving things becomes clear in his child-like concern to save the ducks in the pond during winter, his trouble over being unable to stop the record from falling and breaking and his interest in being frozen in time and space at the museum. The most major sign of indication about Holden’s trouble to accept death is his constant reference to his dead brother Allie such as with the baseball glove.
His problem with letting go of his brother is reflected in “I certainly don’t enjoy seeing him in hat cemetery- surrounded by dead guys and tombstones and all;” (155), in which, Holden’s referral to his brother shows that he does not think of Allie as dead. Holden’s main concern of preservation lies in his anxiousness to stop his younger sister Phoebe from losing her innocence to face the pains of growing up. This is most evident as he envisions himself in a field or rye on a cliff top, acting as barrier to stop children from falling over the edge, symbolizing the fall from innocence. While watching Phoebe of a carousel, he finally realizes that he cannot stunt her growth and that she must grow up one day. He also accepts death and the fact that he will one day die as he imagines his own tombstone and his family’s reaction to his death by saying “I think that I might die too one day, just like Allie did. I felt sorry as hell for my mother and father;” (155).
Another major challenge in Holden’s journey is his lack of instinct to understand when to fight for his rights and when to realize that something is a lost cause. For example, Holden pursues his hopeless argument with the pimp Maurice over just five extra dollars, resulting in getting himself physically assaulted. This also connects to his failure to understand that stopping children from growing up is pointless, since change is inevitable. Another lost battle that Holden fights is the so called “Phony” ways of the society and confronts an inner battle where he views all the members of the society ganging up on him, to rob him of his innocence. Holden should learn to embrace the fact that fighting the society is pointless since he is part of the society too. His incorrect opinion of the society is only furthered by Mr. Spencer’s scolding Holden for breaking the rules at the beginning of the novel; “Life is a game, boy.
Life is a game that one plays according to the rules.” (8). These words make Holden feel that by breaking the rules, he is against the society and results in making feel more isolated. A midst his journey, Holden meets two kinds of people; he meets Maurice and Sunny who prove his cynical ideas about the society true; and he also meets the nuns who are kind and smart and prove him wrong. Maurice and Sunny show Holden the darker side of the world in their encounter and the nuns on the other hand make him realize that the society has both bad and good sides to it. Towards the end of the novel, Holden gets very angry at some offensive words written in public where children can see them. Later on realizes that he himself has used those same words many times and that someone might write them on his grave considering his actions towards others when he says “If I ever die and I have a tombstone and all it’ll say ‘Holden Caulfield’ on it, and then what year I was born and what year I died, and then right underneath it’ll say f**k you for all the times I said it to them.” At this point, Holden is closest to admitting his own hypocrisy and relating himself to the “Evils” of the society.
Showing emotion and dealing with situations in a civil manner is another important issue that Holden proves he is incapable of. Without counselors and parents to properly identify his emotional problems in the 1950’s and to take proactive action, Holden’s situation builds up from a mole into a mountain to the point of a nervous breakdown. He keeps his thoughts and true feelings locked inside him, unsure of how to let others know about his opinions, concerns and needs. This is pretty clear when he is talking to his teacher Mr. Spencer at the start of the novel and replies with retorts that are completely different to what he thinks. His cynical thoughts start to grow inside him, and start to show on his date with Sally. Holden can see that his behavior with Sally was highly inappropriate with all his ranting about the phoniness, the boys at his school, the society of New York and the yelling of verbal insults. He himself states “I swear to God I’m a madman,” (134) and yet he carries on with his crazy tirade, until he completely loses touch with reality when he asks the shallow socialite to run away with him to a cabin in the wilderness.
Another issue faced by Holden is his trouble expressing his need for company and at the same time his need for privacy. He pushes everyone away when he runs away, not stopping to think everything through, until he finds him lonely and desperate for companionship. We can see this clearly in his attempts to interact with people during stay at the hotel in New York, such as with the three older women in the club and his constant flashbacks of all the people in his life during his stay in New York. Holden’s final statement “I’m sorry I told so many people about it. About all I know is, I sort of miss everybody,” (214). His final words show that he has begun to shed the impenetrable skin of cynicism that he had grown around himself. He has begun to value, rather than dismiss, the people around him. His nostalgia-“miss everybody”-reveals that he is not as bitter and repressed as he was earlier in the book.
Holden’s journey in the novel Catcher in the Rye by J.D Salinger is crucial for him to find his true identity and to learn to accept himself as well as the society around him. In his journey, Holden realizes his need for psychological mentoring and learns several morals including the fact that change is inevitable and that he is part of society, rather than against it. He also discovers that he can’t isolate himself from everyone and that he needs companionship as much as he needs privacy. Other teenagers going through spiritual voyages in search of identity find themselves facing their deepest concerns, questioning the beliefs that have formed the very basis of their lives and confronting their inner most emotions of hope, despair and pain. All go through the same journey that Holden has but each journey is unique to everyone and like the famous proverb “There is always light at the end of the Tunnel”, the future is always brighter at the end of these dark murky years called the teenage.
Salinger, JD. Catcher in the Rye. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1951