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In J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, adulthood is one of the most dominant themes. The story follows main character Holden’s three days of loneliness in New York. Throughout three days of flashbacks and soul searching behaviors, the reader discovers that Holden’s guilt from death of his little brother Allie, has lead Holden to develop bad habits and self destructive tendencies as he is unable to mature into adulthood. Transitioning into adulthood presents Holden with difficult challenges, because he will have to move on from his brother’s death, end his relationship sabotaging behavior, and realize that being an adult is more than saying and doing what he believes are adult things, to finally grow up.
The death of Allie, Holden’s brother, is so traumatic that Holden is unable to move on, to the point where his guilt touches every part of his life and thoughts. After his brother’s passing, Holden’s parents are unable to provide him with the support and guidance that he needs to process his grief.
This leads to Holden’s negative perception of adulthood and his romanticised perception of childhood. Holden views his younger brother as pure hearted which he indicates through the dialogue , “[Allie] never got mad at anybody”(38). In reciprocity, because of his struggles to grow up he believes he is now corrupt and reasons that growing up is a corrupting experience. This combination leads him to stereotype children as being pure and innocent and adults as corrupt and phony.
Later, Holden confides that he dreams of catching the children in the rye before they can fall off the cliff, where the rye represents innocence and the cliff, adulthood. If Holden can make peace with his brother’s death he may be able to change the way he perceives the world and mature into adulthood.
Another problem that Holden is facing while maturing into adulthood, is his inability to connect with other people; leaving him lonely and trapped in his persistent depressed mindset Holden sabotages his own relationships because is he is afraid of the emotional price. Losing his brother has made Holden afraid of losing people, so he becomes skilled at pushing others away. In the lines, “I’d like to put sense in that head of yours, boy. I’m trying to help you. I’m trying to help you, if I can.” He really was too. You could see that…Boy I couldn’t have stayed there another ten minutes to save my life,” it is shown that Spencer cares enough to try and help Holden, but Holden creates excuses and disregards what he has to say, (18). Ironically, throughout the novel Holden craves connection with others and to not be lonely, while his loneliness is his fault. This presents such a large challenge to his growth because he is unable to realize that his fear of emotional investment overwhelms his need for connection, and that he is actively pushing away the people that care. If Holden continues to deem his emotional comfort zone as worth more than his relationships, he may never be able to grow up.
Lastly, Holden’s three days in New York show his natural immaturity. Holden spends his time and excessive amounts of money chasing false happiness. Holden attempts to act like an adult by constantly trying to drink alcohol, engage in sexual activity, dance with older women, constantly uses foul language, he lies a lot, picks fights, and looks down on others. Holden is unable to admit that adulthood scares him and so he creates an image of phoniness around adults and is trying to become what he has stereotyped an adult should be. To overcome this common immaturity Holden must understand how his fear and denial contribute to his stunted growth, and that there is more to being an adult than what he sees.
In conclusion, Holden has the odds stacked against him when it comes to growing up. Adulthood holds many challenges that Holden might not be able to overcome. He will have to make peace with his brother’s passing which is the root of his problems, change his approach to relationships, and acknowledge that he doesn’t have to know everything and that growing up terrifies him. Not only does Holden face these difficult revelations but also a number of other challenges, like his bad habits of getting kicked out of school, denial, inability to ask for help, and others.
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