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Daniel Issacson, the narrator of Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel, is perhaps not as beloved and well-known as Holden Caulfield, the voice behind Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. It could be that we can empathize more easily with a misguided teenager than a moody, radical adult. Nonetheless, Daniel and Holden have much in common. Both are faced with a past in which a senseless death shapes their view of the present; they become the walking wounded, it’s them versus the world. Holden and Daniel stumble through their worlds pursuing a mission that they cannot seem to complete. It is this failure that torments them both.
Holden and Daniel were both faced with death at an early age. For Holden, it was the death of his younger brother, Allie. Allie’s death isn’t mentioned until about forty pages into the book, but once we learn of it, we gain a greater sense of who Holden is, and why he struggles. Allie died of leukemia, a death that was beyond his – or anyone else’s – control. Allie was not at fault for his death. He didn’t deserve it, and Holden couldn’t protect him from it. He died as an innocent child, and from this, Holden’s mission is born: he becomes the catcher in the rye. He is to protect the innocence of children, as he could not protect Allie. He must make sense of Allie’s death.
In the same fashion, Daniel struggles to make sense of the death of his parents. Their death, of course, is more controversial than Allie’s – some would argue that it wasn’t at all senseless, but necessary. However, to Daniel as a young child, his parents were seemingly taken away from him for no reason. This, in turn, shapes his view of the world, as it sahpes Holden’s view of the world. Daniel knows that he is marked by what his parents died for. He laments: “I live in constant and degrading relationship to the society that has destroyed my mother and father” (p.72). Daniel’s world is shaped by seeking to understand this society and the role he is to play in it.
Stemming from the losses each has experienced, then, Holden and Daniel are both thrust into a kind of mission, a life’s purpose. Holden views Allie’s death as a fall from innocence, a premature departure from the sanctuary of childhood. In an attempt to preserve childhood and innocence, Holden envisions himself as the metaphorical “catcher in the rye.” He explains to his younger sister, Phoebe:
You know what I’d like to be?…I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all…and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me…What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff…That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye (p.173).
Holden seeks to protect these children as he could not protect Allie. It’s the only way he can come to terms with his senseless death.
The death of Daniel’s parents also gives him a sense of a mission, but this mission is thrust upon him, more so than in Holden’s case. Daniel becomes the unwilling inheritor of his family’s struggle. His grandmother lays it out for him: “Or perhaps it is that I recognized in you the strength and innocence that will reclaim us all from defeat. That will exonerate our having lived and justify our suffering…Just remember, though, this placing of the burden on the children is a family tradition” (p.70). Daniel is faced with more than a personal mission; it’s his family’s mission, a mission they could not complete. This is why Daniel struggles – he is attempting to function in a society that destroyed his parents. He wants to act out, to rage against this society – but he can’t.
Thus, we are presented with another commonality that binds Holden and Daniel: both have a mission that they cannot complete. Both want to act out, but are misguided and don’t seem to know where to direct their anger. They are aware of their missions. Holden is to preserve youth; Daniel is to avenge his parents’ deaths. They know their purpose, but cannot find it in themselves to act. Holden’s inaction is apparent in the following passage:
But while I was sitting down, I saw something that drove me crazy. Somebody’d written ‘Fuck you’ on the wall. I thought how Phoebe and all the other little kids would see it, and how they’d wonder what the hell it meant…I kept wanting to kill whoever’d written it…I kept picturing myself catching him at it, and how I’d smash his head…But I knew, too, that I wouldn’t have the guts to do it…That made me even more depressed (p.201).
Not only is Holden unable to do anything, he is achingly aware of it, which only intensifies his internal struggle. He wants to make these wrongs right, yet can’t seem to do it.
Daniel’s internal struggle stems from his inability to act, as well. His family’s burden has been passed down to him; responsibility lies in his hands. The weight of what his parents represented would make it unsurprising, in fact, if Daniel were to act out, were to be a revolutionary. He is aware of that, and he despises it – and perhaps, for that reason alone, he does not do anything. This is best illustrated in Daniel’s struggle with his sister, Susan, over the issue of creating a foundation for revolution in their parents’ names. Susan is all for carrying out a mission in the name of her parents; Daniel, on the other hand, is reluctant. Perhaps we can better understand Daniel when we examine his feelings during his march on the Pentagon:
I come under the awful conviction of everyone’s greater right to be here…Itseems to me that practically everyone here…has taken possession of the event in a way that is beyond me. I feel as if I have sneaked in, haven’t paid, or simply don’t know something that everyone else knows: that it is still possible to do this, perhaps (p.254).
It could be that Daniel simply knows something that all of these young people don’t: that revolution is futile. That, after all, is the lesson he learned from his parents. Their death jaded him, in a sense. They fought for a cause, and for what? They still lost in the end. Maybe, then, this is why Daniel cannot act – because he simply doesn’t see the point.
This feeling of helplessness, on the part of both Daniel and Holden, seems to convince them that the world is conspiring against them. They cannot possibly function in a society that, to them, seems at times frightening, absurd and frivolous. In this sense, then, they are able to act out – their action is simply misplaced. Holden rebels against authority – he fails out of school, he disobeys his parents – for authority represents adulthood, which is the opposite of childhood and innocence. He wages war on authority, because that, in a way, brings him closer to his mission. Daniel moves through life feeling as though he is marked by who his parents were. Society brought them down, so it must be attempting to bring him down, too. “And it seemed to me then that I was marked,” Daniel explains. “Because they seemed to have a lot more power than we had” (p.36). He wants to challenge the societal structures that killed his parents. Daniel is helpless, though, and he acts out where he can. He abuses his wife. He is irresponsible, moody, and hot-tempered. It’s him against the world – just as it is Holden against the world.
The only people that both Holden and Daniel seem to have any control over protecting are their younger sisters, Phoebe and Susan. The difference is that Daniel is the unwilling protector of Susan, in a sense; he was forced into it, it was passed on to him. Holden, on the other hand, makes himself Phoebe’s protector. He seeks to save her. He couldn’t save Allie, but he still has a chance with Phoebe. Daniel’s tie to Susan is different: he has had to step into a parenting role, almost. His need to protect Susan is more real than Holden’s need to protect Phoebe, for Phoebe isn’t in any real danger. She has loving parents and a home. Susan, on the other hand, lost her parents at a young age, and Daniel is all she has. Daniel speaks of the imprint Susan leaves on him: “The small warm hand in my hand. It is given to me and not withdrawn” (p.174). Both Daniel and Holden act as the protectors of their sisters. But while this position comforts Holden, it brings Daniel grief, for he knows that he cannot protect her as she needs to be.
They are the walking wounded, Holden and Daniel. Daniel was wounded as a child with the loss of his parents, and the scar he carries is what they died for. Holden’s pain stems from the loss of Allie. There is an image of Holden as the walking wounded – he imagines himself walking around with a bullet in his stomach: “I started that stupid business with the bullet in my guts again. I was the only guy at the bar with a bullet in the guts…I didn’t want anybody to know I was even wounded” (p. 150). Holden and Daniel are martyrs, in a sense. Imperfect and misguided martyrs, but martyrs nonetheless.
Perhaps that is what draws us in to the stories of Daniel and Holden. They are unlikely heroes – and yet neither are quite heroic. They stumble, and they fail. And that makes them real. Daniel may be a less noble, less likable version of Holden. Daniel is unapologetic while Holden expresses remorse for his actions; Daniel is crude and unappreciative, while Holden seems more genuine and vulnerable. Nonetheless, the two characters almost seem to be modeled after each other. They are the same in both their sense of mission and their difficulty in carrying it out. And while we want everything to work out for the two of them, we can’t be certain, at the end of either book, that the two will find peace. Daniel could surely appreciate Holden’s humorously cynical observation: “You can’t ever find a place that’s nice and peaceful, because there isn’t any. You may think there is, but once you get there, when you’re not looking, somebody’ll sneak up and write ‘Fuck you’ right under your nose” (p.204).
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