Many parallels can be drawn between the main protagonists in John Green’s Looking for Alaska, and J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye.
Although these two coming of age novels differ greatly in setting and in circumstance, many of the broader, more fundamental themes in each are actually quite similar. John Green was very much influenced by J.D. Salinger, and even admitted that Miles “Pudge” Halter in Looking For Alaska, was based largely off of Holden Caulfield, the main character in Catcher in the Rye. In reading the two books, this statement becomes less and less difficult to believe as we see ignorance, rebellion against authority, death, isolation, and eventually maturity, and self-reassurance as underlying subject matters in both coming of age novels.
Almost immediately, we see immaturity in both Miles, and Holden in something as discernible as each of their voices. It doesn’t take long to notice that most of Miles’ main concerns are ones that directly affect himself, and his pursuit of the affections of Alaska Young.
Even after Alaska passes away, we see Miles torturing himself over her still, asking himself things like, “Did she ever love me? Would she have left Jake for me? Or was it just another impulsive Alaska moment? It was not enough to be the last guy she kissed. I wanted to be the last one she loved. And I knew I wasn’t. I knew it, and I hated her for it. I hated her for not caring about me.
” (Looking For Alaska, p. 171). While Miles shows his immaturity subconsciously in the sense that his biggest worries revolve around himself rather than others, Holden demonstrates his own sophistication, or lack thereof, through his recklessness in school, casually telling the reader things like, “They kicked me out. I wasn’t supposed to come back after Christmas vacation, on the account of I was flunking four subjects and not applying myself at all. They gave me frequent warning to start applying myself – especially around midterms when my parents came up for a conference with the old Thurmer – but I didn’t do it. So I got the ax.” (Catcher in the Rye, p. 6). It’s borderline disconcerting how nonchalant Holden clearly feels towards his education.
The persistent rebellion against authority is another reoccurring matter in both books. Specifically, the recreational use of alcohol and tobacco happen regularly in both books, and is especially highlighted in Looking For Alaska since all of the characters who choose to participate in such behaviors are underage. Somehow, this paradoxically enhances the thrill in Miles’ perspective when he asks himself, “Why did we drink? For me it was just fun, particularly since we were risking expulsion.” (Looking For Alaska, p. 111). It sounds a lot like Miles and Holden would make quite good friends on this subject matter. In fact, it would be rather hard to tell apart the two rebels after hearing what they have to say about it. Holden recalls, “I lay on my bed and lit a cigarette. You weren’t allowed to smoke in the dorm, but you could do it late at night when everybody was asleep or out and nobody could smell the smoke. Besides, I did it to annoy Stradlater.”
A lot of illicit, in-room smoking happens in Looking For Alaska as well, between Miles and his roommate, Chip, who had many strategies for not getting caught. In addition, it is not to be overlooked that there is a looming figure of authority in both of the schools in each book, described in the eyes of both protagonists as having power, yet are worthy of at least some sportsmanship-like respect. At Pencey, there is the Thurmer, and at Culver Creek Boarding School, there is the Eagle. Notice how Miles and Holden have undermined each of their headmaster’s authority by giving them a moniker to call them by other than their name.
Both Holden and Miles have to deal with death, and despite the fact that the specific loved ones who die in each book have a very different relationship to the two boys, both of them cope with their loss in comparable ways. Miles, of course, does not take the news of the death of his first love, Alaska Young, lightly. In a conversation with her after she passes, he says, “You can’t just make me different then leave. (…) Because I was fine before, Alaska. I was fine with just me and last words and school friends, and you can’t just make me different and then die.” (Looking For Alaska, p. 172). It’s interesting that Miles seems to personify Alaska throughout the rest of the book after she’s dead, much like Holden does in The Catcher in the Rye. Although the reader never meets Holden’s little brother, Allie Caulfield, we sure do hear a lot about him throughout the book. He died of leukemia on July 18, 1946, when he was eleven and Holden was thirteen.
He describes the dark memory to the reader by saying, “I was only thirteen, and they were going to have me psychoanalyzed and all, because I broke all the goddam windows in the garage. I don’t blame them. I really don’t. I slept in the garage the night he died, and I broke all the goddam windows with my fist just for the hell of it.” (The Catcher in the Rye, p. 50). It’s clear that Holden and Miles have in common that they can’t just move on when dealing with a death, but they have to heal and take their time to work it out.
Holden and Miles both individually deal with isolation in their respective circumstances, Miles experiences it post Alaska Young’s sudden death, and Holden goes through it merely being on his own. Some time after Alaska’s funeral, Miles speaks to Takumi for the first time in quite a while. He wants to reach out to his friend after having been triggered by her death into this reclusive state of mind. Miles internally imagines an apology to Takumi by thinking, “Sorry I haven’t talked to you because you couldn’t know the truth about the Colonial and me, and I hated being around you and having to pretend that my grief is this uncomplicated thing – pretending that she died and I miss her instead of that she died because of me.” (Looking For Alaska, p. 175). Now listen to Holden Caulfield’s description of feeling alone after having left Pencey. He tells the reader that he feels like he hasn’t got anyone to call, and in this way he internalizes a lot of his sadness and loneliness much like Miles feels he must do. Holden says, “The first thing I did once I got off at Penn Station, I went to this phone booth. I felt like givig somebody a buzz (…) but as soon as I was inside, I couldn’t think of anybody to call up. (…) So I ended up not calling anybody. I came out of the booth, after about twenty minutes or so.” (The Catcher in the Rye, p. 77).
After having gone through such hardships, it’s challenging not to develop some sort of empathy for Miles Halter and Holden Caulfield – especially since some major character development takes place in both novels. As Miles’ first year at Culver Creek Boarding School comes nearer to an end, there are clear examples of how he’s matured as a person since the beginning of his time there. Having gone through the loss of a loved one, Miles truly shows that the experience has not only helped him to understand and accept death overall, but also it has helped him to evolve as a person. His final thoughts about Alaska Young that the reader hears are, “But I ultimately do not believe she was only matter. The rest of her must be recycled, too. I believe now that we are greater than the sum of our parts. If you take Alaska’s genetic code and you add her life experiences and the relationships she had with people, and then you take the size and shape of her body, you do not get her. There is something else entirely. There is a part of her greater than the sum of her knowable parts. And that part has to go somewhere because, it cannot be destroyed.” (Looking For Alaska, p. 220). Here we see that Miles’ attitude about Alaska’s absence in his life is much more developed because he’s taken a long time, and has gone through a lot of suffering to come to this conclusion. The passage also demonstrates his development as a person because his thoughts are solely centered towards Alaska’s passing and well being in the after life, whereas immediately after her death, we see Miles’ biggest concern as being figuring out if he ever had a chance with her in the first place.
Likewise, one of the last notes that J.D. Salinger leaves the reader with is Holden really stating what his values are about himself as a person, and what he truly wants out of life: to be the catcher in the rye. Holden describes, “I thought it was, If a body can catch a body, (…) 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 – 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’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it sounds crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.” (Catcher in the Rye.) This is an extremely selfless description of a positive life goal, and I believe J.D. Salinger wanted it to be prominent in his book that this new, matured Holden, is a completely different person than the class-cutting, cigarette-smoking drop out that is first introduced to the reader at the beginning of the book.
It isn’t difficult to see that in John Green’s, Looking For Alaska, and J.D. Salinger’s, The Catcher in the Rye, the main protagonists, Miles Halter and Holding Caulfield, are very similar to one another in more ways than one. Both of them go through hardships, isolation, and loss, and in their experiences, they heal and learn from them, coming out better people. The theme of perseverance in these novels shows that regardless of selfish, reckless, or immature tendencies, humans are overall resilient and have an impeccable power to overcome and develop.