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The novel “The Catcher in the Rye” by J. D. Salinger is a novel, which centres around the theme of isolation. This study will examine this theme, along with the writer’s use of characterisation and setting, which help to convey the character’s eventual break down.
“The Catcher in the Rye” is a personal account told by Holden Caulfield, the narrator of the book. He recalls a weekend of his life from a psychiatric hospital, and throughout gives off an impression of his loneliness, and isolation from society. We see everything through Holden’s eyes, and so he cannot always be said to be a reliable narrator, however we still see him to have problems and so there is still room for an outside perspective.
Throughout the novel, Holden shows feelings of alienation. He says he feels trapped “on the other side” of life, and generally doesn’t feel he fits in with the world around him. He finds interaction with other people confusing and difficult, and so makes out to himself that he is above interacting with other people, and almost superior to anyone else around him. “I thought what I’d do was, I’d pretend to be one of those deaf-mutes. That way I wouldn’t have to have any goddam stupid conversations with anybody.”
Holden tries to escape from social situations, as he finds them difficult to cope with and uncomfortable. However, as well as causing Holden problems, his isolation from society also acts as the little stability that he has in his life, and the only aspect he can control. As a sixteen-year-old boy growing up, these feelings of alienation could simply be seen as regular teenage emotions, however in Holden’s case his isolation eventually leads to him breaking down, and ending up in psychiatric care.
Holden is at the stage in his life where both society and his own body are telling him that he should be progressing into adulthood. He can be a very immature character, and even Holden himself realises this, but justifies it by saying he is going “through a phase.” He seems to want to resist the process of maturing, and fears the change and complicity of adult life. He enjoys the innocence, and lack of responsibility of childhood, and doesn’t want to swap this for the grown up and more serious things in life. However, Holden is attracted to some aspects of grown up life, such as independence, sexuality and alcohol. Throughout the book he experiences these aspects, but he refuses to accept the others. He believes that adulthood is full of “phonies,” and that many people around him are fake and superficial.
Having said this, Holden himself lies and deceits people throughout the story. He tells the woman on the train that he is the school janitor because he “didn’t feel like giving her his whole life history,” and he says himself that he is a compulsive liar, “the most terrific liar one could meet.” Throughout the book though, it is unclear whether people actually believe him, and so his deceitfulness and lies could be seen to simply help his own self-delusion, and be another part of him not understanding who he is.
As Holden cannot fully accept that he is maturing, and becoming an adult, he doesn’t appear to really know who he is. He seems to be trying to find himself in the story, and is looking for direction in life. We see this when he asks people several times where the ducks fly away to in the winter. This shows that he is searching for a way to lead his life, but is not sure where to go from his current situation.
During the book, Holden stays in the same place for very little time. He moves from his school, “Pencey,” to several locations in New York, and then ends up back in his hometown. This constant change of scenery reflects Holden’s feeling of not belonging, and shows that he is struggling to find his place in society.
While at Pencey, Holden does not get on overly well with his classmates. After being thrown out of many schools previously, Holden is asked to leave Pencey, and so goes to New York City hoping to find something to do with himself. While in New York, he visits many places such as pubs and clubs. These places are usually seen to be for adults, and more mature people and so they act as a contradiction to Holden’s feelings towards adult life. While in the clubs Holden can experience the only aspects of adulthood that he is willing to accept, and so he goes in order to drink and meet new people.
After being in several places away from home, at the end of the novel Holden returns back to his hometown. Originally Holden’s intentions are to move away, and live away from his parents. However after speaking to his younger sister, he decides that he will stay at home. This shows that he is finally beginning to accept that he has to face up to real life, and deal with the things that truly matter such as his family. It is ironic however; that it is after talking to his younger sister that he makes this decision. She manages to convince Holden to stay put, and it is when watching her on the merry-go-round that he finally breaks down into tears and realises what is happening to him.
Holden does not finish the story, but ends it here, only going on to say that he is now in the hospital. While in the hospital it seems that he has had time to reflect on what happened to him, and possibly think about who he is as a person. After inventing his own fantasy of adulthood, full of superficiality, he must realise that all of his presumptions are not necessarily true and that he himself has been behaving in an unrealistic manner.
The character of Holden could be seen simply as a troubled teenager, however it is made more believable that the character does in fact have mental problems, having ended up in a psychiatric ward. “The Catcher in the Rye” raises issues of isolation and how Holden as a young individual deals with it. J.D. Salinger expresses very well how the character struggles to cope with life; its effects on him and the way he ends up, using the technique of setting and the development of Holden as a character.