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Catcher in The Rye: Holden Caulfield and Teenage Angst

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Even the smallest moment in someone’s life can change them forever. Holden Caulfield, the main character from The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger is the infamous personification of teenage angst. Though Holden is similar to the average teenager in many ways; he has mood swings, doesn’t like his parents, and doesn’t know what he wants to do with the rest of his life. Though, unlike normal adolescents, Holden is also struggling to cope with the death of his younger brother Allie, even though the death itself happened years ago. As a result of poor coping methods, Holden has lost the ability to function properly. He remains stuck in the past, frustrated that the world keeps turning and things keep changing, no matter how much he wishes everything would just stay the same. He has trouble talking to people, often inventing relationships in his head. This odd habit of his often leads to more frustration when a person he believes to be his friend acts differently and is seen throughout the novel in many of the encounters he has with others. Holden also has a pattern of briefly obsessing over seemingly pointless things, such as where the ducks go in winter and the way his little sister writes. These small obsessions are scattered throughout the novel and show how he has trouble dealing with unanswered questions and change. They also connect back to the death of his brother Allie in that he has trouble being in a world where Allie isn’t, constantly wanting his life to rewind back to when Allie was alive instead of pushing forth, the world refusing to stop spinning. Holden Caulfield is permanently damaged by the traumatic though long-past death of his beloved younger brother Allie and thus has unusual tendencies as a way of coping with his grief.

In a group of people who have experienced something that induces feelings of grief, one person is the affect, meaning they carry the grief for the group. In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield is carrying the grief of his brother’s death for his family. Filling this role has taken a toll on Holden. Though Holden’s downward spiral has already happened before the novel begins, one can see the remnants of his demise. When analysing how Holden relates to people one can see the effects of said demise. It is important to note that though Holden did experience quite a fall, he didn’t hit rock bottom. After all, he is still able to function and have relationships with others, as poor and possibly imaginary as they may be. Still, Holden is broken and unable to put himself back together correctly. Like anything broken, he can no longer function properly. He has developed odd habits and a twisted way of taking on the world. This is seen when he interacts with other people, he has a tendency to invent relationships. Holden has a tendency to “…rather than seek a complicated judgment for various people, Holden makes hasty categorical judgments about them” (Enotes). For example, when talking about Ackley, the boy who lives in a dorm near him at the school he goes to at the beginning of the novel, he first describes him as a disgusting boy who annoys him immensely. “He started talking in this very monotonous voice, and picking at his pimples” (Salinger 37). Yet, after several more instances where he interacts with Ackley, he begins to see him in a more positive light, speaking of him fondly. “‘You’re a prince, Ackley kid…’” (Salinger 47). Holden often believes that Ackley can read his mind and understand the strange things he does, but Ackley’s responses prove otherwise. The same goes for his relationship with Jane, a girl who lived near him over the summer. He casts her as a sweet, sad girl, imagining that she felt for him the same way he felt for her, refusing to believe that she has changed since he last saw her. When he learns that she is going on a date with his pompous roommate Stradlater, he feels betrayed and confused, unable to understand that she would go out with someone who, according to Holden, would treat her wrongly and wouldn’t make her happy. When discussing her with Stradlater, Holden first seems indifferent about her, but as he continues talking, reveals the true feelings he has for her. The only problem is, Jane has no idea that Holden feels for her, even though he pretends that she does. The fact that someone else is going out with Jane shatters the illusion he had of their romance. He fights Stradlater when he comes back from the date, angry that Stradlater even went out with her when in Holden’s head, Holden clearly didn’t want him to. “If you knew Stradlater, you’d have been worried too” (Salinger 40). Though Holden never speaks directly to Jane throughout the novel, he feels oddly protective of her, almost maniacally believing that she is his and his alone. This proves the fact that Holden, damaged by his brother’s death long ago, is unable to function correctly.

Another way that Holden reveals how damaged he is is by becoming almost manic when fixated on a person or an object that has affected him in some way. These obsessions are usually over something small,seemingly unimportant, and serve no purpose other than to convey how unstable Holden is and show his almost childlike demeanor a remnant of Allie’s passing. When in a cab in New York City in the wintertime, Holden asks the cab driver where the ducks go when the pond freezes over. The driver is irritated by this and doesn’t really answer him, but Holden can’t move on from the question until he gets an answer. In this scenario, the duck’s disappearance symbolizes Allie’s death. He desperately wants to know where Allie has gone, refusing to believe that he is gone forever. This proves that Holden so close to toppling over the edge into full lunacy, clinging on by only a few threads. Another small obsession of his is Jane. He brings up random, detailed memories of her throughout the novel, such as the way she looks or how she plays checkers. She always seems to be in the back of his mind. Unlike the ducks, Holden is never able to fully move on from Jane; she made a huge impact on him. She was the only person he showed Allie’s baseball glove to, proving that she held an important place in his heart. The glove is precious to Holden because Allie had written poems all over it while in the outfield when playing baseball. The most important thing about Jane is that she made Holden happy. “You were never even worried, with Jane…[all] youn knew was, you were happy” (Salinger 79). It is one of, if not the only instance where Holden describes himself as happy. He tells his memories with Jane in a fond manner, describing her down-to-earth, sweet personality, saying how he never worried when he was with her. As depressed as Holden is, it’s no wonder that someone who made him happy would mean so much to him. Sadly, the only way that he can deal with his feelings for Jane is by obsessing over her, refusing to forget about the moments they shared no matter how long ago they were. Jane is not the only person that Holden is fixated on. Phoebe, Holden’s little sister, proves to play an important role in his life as she is continuously referred to throughout the novel. The memories he brings up about Phoebe often have a more bittersweet tune than those of Jane, as he is saddened by the fact that his sister keeps growing up and changing. “She’s very affectionate. I mean she’s quite affection, for a child” (Salinger 161). Phoebe and Jane are similar in that they each have helped him relax and are people that he feels comfortable being himself with. When Holden is with Phoebe when he comes home from Pensfield Prep, he cries over how she is so willing to help him. Unlike Jane, however, Phoebe’s love for her brother is real and unimagined. She loves him very much, and would do anything to make him happy. She even tries to go with him near the end of the novel when he is leaving the city. Holden loves her just as much, proving it with the sentimental memories he tells the reader. Like his memories of Jane, they are oddly specific and detailed. One of them is the way she writes. He remembers each of her misspellings and characters, making him sad that he never sees her. Another is the way she acts, such as when he goes to the movies with her and she knows all the lines to her favorite film, The 39 Steps. “She knows the whole goddamn movie by heart, because I’ve taken her to see it about ten times” (Salinger 67). He says the things she does “kill him”, or make him depressed. Last but not least, Holden is fixated on his brother, Allie. This is yet another case where Holden brings up a character throughout the book. Allie made the biggest impact on Holden. When Allie dies, Holden is forever changed. This pain changes him. He now has trouble with relationships and relating to the world in general as he misses Allie and his childhood with his beloved brother.

Holden Caulfield is a tortured soul with a broken heart and a shattered mind. He is unsure of who he is and who he wants to be, wanting everything to stay the same. After his younger brother dies at a young age, Holden loses the ability to function properly. Refusing to accept the fact that change is inevitable, he can no longer act within the norm. He struggles when interacting with other people and tends to invent relationships in his head, when in reality they do not exist. Seen multiple times throughout the novel, this sad habit makes meeting and communicating with people hard for him, as he often holds half the conversation in his head. Holden also has a tendency to obsess over seemingly insignificant details in his life. This is a result of the fact that he does not accept change and thus holds onto details that he hopes will never be altered by the passing of time. Sometimes this obsession is brief, like when he wonders where the ducks go in winter. Other times the obsession resurfaces multiple times throughout the novel. These obsessions are often over people that are important to him, from his dead brother Allie to the girl he loves, Jane. All of Holden’s actions mentioned above prove that Allie’s death was the catalyst for Holden’s demise.

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Catcher in the Rye: Holden Caulfield and Teenage Angst. (2019, April 10). GradesFixer. Retrieved March 22, 2023, from
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