Published on today’s date over 70 years ago, The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger is one of my favorite novels. This opinion gets me strange looks when I say it. Often in response I hear, “I hated that book in school!” or “but Holden is such a crybaby!” To these I say, you have not looked deeper into the character. The Catcher in the Rye is more than just the story of an overemotional dropout, it is a psychological deep dive into a troubled youth’s mind.
What’s the story?
Holden Caulfield tells his story while sitting inside a mental institution. He begins his tale describing how he flunked multiple prep school courses and had to drop out. Then, he goes on to say how he made bad choices and received bad consequences for them. Eventually, he explains how he was beaten up in a cheap hotel room after escapades of smoking, drinking and failing at acquiring a female partner for the night.
The next morning, Holden aimlessly wandered back to his childhood home where his little sister Phoebe is. He speaks of how they spent the day together while Holden’s mental health continued to deteriorate. At the end of the novel, he quickly ends his recount.
Who is Holden Caulfield?
Holden Caulfield is an angry young man. He is the epitome of an unreliable narrator: the reader can tell fairly quickly something is not right with him. He is failing in school and gets into fights with everyone around him. Holden went through at least two traumatic events: his brother dying and a schoolmate committing suicide. He is involved in drinking, smoking, and (attempts) at dangerous sexual encounters. He finds the world around him “phony” and out of touch, and applies these definitions to absolutely everything he engages with.
Throughout most of the novel, the reader would be correct to have some distaste for Holden. After all, who enjoys being around a judgmental, explosive narcissist? Then towards the end there is a change in Holden. He is a loving older brother and nostalgic of his childhood. Perhaps Holden could have been a good kid given different circumstances, but what made him the way that he is?
Psychoanalyzing the protagonist
Towards the end of the novel, Holden seems obsessed with being “the catcher in the rye”, from a poem. He wants to protect children, or rather the innocence of children. The reader can see this in other aspects of the book, such as Holden feeling comforted by his childhood memories. Holden feels he was unable to save his brother Allie, as well as the child inside himself, which causes him great grief.
The trauma of the schoolmate’s suicide reignited the guilt inside of himself. What happened to the happy little boy he used to be? How did he turn out this way? Holden acts out and attacks the world because he has hatred for himself. He does not understand why he is sexually attracted to people he has no emotional connection to. He is frustrated that he cannot seem to get close to anyone and so further pushes them away.
The way he smokes and drinks so much is indicative of self-harming tendencies. The same for his failing grades. Holden hates himself so much that he engages in activities, or inactivaties, to hurt himself. Everything this character does comes from fear and self-hatred, which presents itself as anger.
Entrance to psychology
As previously mentioned, I loved this book because it was such a great case-study on teenage psychology. Salinger did not make this character to be loveable. Rather, Salinger wanted the reader to experience the world through a troubled young mind. To us, the way Holden acts may be exasperating. Then, one must further question the “why” of his actions. Does he have depression? PTSD? To try and understand Holden, in a sense, one must become Holden.
Saligner forces the reader to try and look through Holden’s perspective. Any good psychologist will tell you, in order to understand the patient, you have to understand their thinking. The world you see is not the same world they see. The Catcher in the Rye gives a reader that taste of stepping into the world of someone with debilitating mental illness. Then, Salinger ties it off by showing how to aid those who are suffering: getting them professional help.
All of this is why The Catcher in the Rye is one of my favorite novels. If you would like to read more about mental health in books, read our article 9 Fiction Books That Focus on Mental Health.