Into the Wild vs. Catcher in the Rye

J. D. Salinger’s world-renowned book The Catcher in the Rye and director Sean Penn’s dramatic feature film Into the Wild both give us a unique perspective of society through a collection of descriptive imagery and riveting plot development. Both materials present us with protagonists Holden Caulfield and Chris McCandless, whom are deeply encompassed by self-introspection and who seem to be on a quest to find true happiness and meaning to their bland, corrupt lives.

A recurring theme in both works is the process of discovering one’s true identity, which can only be achieved through a journey of spiritual self-discovery.

In doing so, J. D. Salinger and Sean Penn effectively use their protagonists, their journeys and the relationships they build to express one simple statement; happiness is the most important and essential thing in our lives. Firstly, the pervasive theme of alienation and isolation in both The Catcher in the Rye and Into the Wild shall be examined.

Both protagonists are extremely discontent with the way society functions and this is expressed in a plenitude of examples: Chris disagrees with the boring conventions of life in which humans are born, get an education, work long hours and continue on the cycle of life.

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He states that human beings live a passionless life in the absence of the pursuit of our deepest desires. As he graduates from university en route to law school, Chris has a bright future laid in front of him; however his strong belief that society has been infected by materialism, inevitably leads to his isolation from society.

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As a result, Chris chooses to take a long adventure of discovery spanning the country, eventually ending up in Alaskan wilderness. Holden, on the other hand, does not criticize life itself, but rather the people that live in it. Holden philosophizes that people live boring, hypocritical lives, constantly referring to people as “phonies” especially when Holden insults old Ossenburger: “He said he talked to Jesus all the time. Even when he was driving in his car. That killed me.

I can just see the big phony bastard shifting into first gear and asking Jesus to send him a few more stiffs” (Salinger, 17). Through these instances, it is evident that both Holden and Chris have the same hatred for society because of its materialism and abundance of flaws. This suggests that there is something more to life, which will soon be analyzed. J. D. Salinger and Sean Penn accurately depict the problem with materialism in society and how individuals have unfortunately learned to become attached to it.

One parallel between the book and the film is perhaps the first word and connotation one thinks of when the word “materialism” is uttered; money. Prior to Chris’ departure in the film, viewers are engulfed in a breath taking scene where Chris attempts to erase his existence through the annihilation of identifiable materials. Chris proudly cuts up all his credit cards, throws away his licenses, defaces his social security card and surprisingly burns all his money. Similarly Holden spends his money or his “dough’ on useless things such as alcohol and prostitutes. Read about Jaden Smith in Pursuit of Happiness

One can see Holden’s lack of care for money when he boldly states: “I’d spent a king’s ransom in about two lousy weeks. I really had. I’m a goddam spendthrift at heart… Half the time I even sort of forget to pick up my change… ” (Salinger, 107). It is evident that Chris and Holden view materialism as a detriment to society; people have become so attached to materials that they have forgotten to embrace happiness in their lives. Chris shows his discontent for materialism as he reacts with futility and disgust when his father offers to buy him a new car.

Chris exclaims that: “[This car] runs just fine! ”, once again justifying his lack of care for materials. Holden similarly sees the human attachment for materialism in a comedic style when he observes his roommate’s actions as stated in this quotation: “The day after I put [my suitcase] under my bed, he took them out and put them back on the rack… he wanted people to think my bags were his” (Salinger, 108). What society fails to realize is that while materials might go away, wear out or disappear, happiness is something that will never expire.

Thus in an attempt to show that materials are not advantageous to life, Chris and Holden abandon their homes and go on an adventure in search for something much greater; happiness. Another key similarity between the two protagonists is the refusal to enter the stage of adulthood because of the lack of happiness that one can enjoy in this point of life. Chris’ rejection of adulthood is based on disappointment; Chris believes that he cannot discover the full essence and pleasure of life by entering into a stage of life where freedom is limited, which in this case is adulthood.

Chris’ negative impression on adulthood is probably at the cause of the memories of his abusive father fighting his mother; this is portrayed in a disturbing, fast-paced scene in which Chris’ parent’s boiling argument turns into physical abuse. Holden’s objection for adulthood is based on an entirely different concept; fear. He is afraid of becoming the superficial, hypocritical and phony adult that he constantly envisions. One can really see Holden’s disgust for adults when he describes Elkton Hill’s headmaster: “He’d be charming as hell and all.

Except if some boy had little old funny-looking parents… old Hass would shake hands with [parents] and give them a phony smile… I can’t stand that stuff. It drives me crazy” (Salinger, 14). Holden repeatedly sees the transition from adolescence to adulthood as a stripping of innocence, symbolized by a child plummeting off a cliff and “dying”. Holden effectively expresses that there is no point in living when one does not have the happiness of being a child, an age where everything is of pure comfort, innocence is bliss and materials do not hold value in our lives.

Holden and Chris’ philosophies have made it evident that adulthood induces a lack of freedom and does not let one fully enjoy the simple pleasures in life; in particular happiness. Lastly there is the examination of the most important similarity between Holden and Chris; the adventures they go on. While both protagonists seem to yield different paths/quests as the book and film progress, they both seem to be in search for happiness or a place of comfort, away from society’s many problems. Chris goes on a literal adventure ranging from railroads, to hippies, to bars and finally ends up in Alaskan wilderness.

In contrast, Holden goes on a wreck less journey in New York City spanning a short 3 days. Although Holden and Chris take journeys that are widely different in many areas, they seem to be searching for meaning to their lives. Chris is a ‘backpacker’ in search of happiness and comfort; one can see direct proof that Chris was searching for happiness when left with the last, spine-tingling excerpt from his journal: “Happiness is only best when shared”. Conversely, Holden is searching for a way to preserve innocence, which is his form of happiness.

Holden feels that he is “The Catcher in the Rye” and that his actions will lead to the protection and thus happiness of everyone. Through the careful examination of both the book and the film, it has become evident that Chris and Holden are in search for true happiness, in absence of materialism, while going through the adversity and perils that are needed to receive true comfort. Both J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and Sean Penn’s Into the Wild present us with protagonists who are searching for a new identity and are ultimately on a quest for happiness and comfort.

Holden and Chris exhibit their search for happiness by isolating themselves from the corrupt society, realizing the flaws of our materialistically-driven world, refusing the conventions of entering adulthood and by going on wild adventures in an attempt to live a life of meaning. Both J. D. Salinger and Sean Penn have created two ‘romantic heroes’ and their epic quests by utilizing a variety of effective literary techniques, masterful plot, riveting imagery and ironic contrasting.

In doing so, Salinger and Penn have taught us something that stretches beyond the novel study group and the movie theater; instead of abiding by the conventions of our society and living blatant lives, one must choose a life of happiness and meaning. Individuals should not be forced into a lifestyle that conforms to society, but rather live a life where we are governed by our own choices. After all, a life without happiness is a life wasted in its entirety.

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Into the Wild vs. Catcher in the Rye. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from

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