J.D Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye: a literary analysis and criticism
The Catcher in the Rye has been one of the most celebrated American classics since its publication in 1951. This work has also been the magnum opus of J.D Salinger as a writer. Narrated in the perspective of Holden Caulfield, around the late 1940s or early 1950s, this novel tackles profound things about the psychological and identity crisis young people, represented by Holden, experienced back then as they journey through the reality of life.
Set in post-World War II New York, the environment of the story plays a big role in the psychological being of the teenager Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of the story. It is not an unknown fact that war can affect not only the community but more so the behavior of the people. The Americans, just like any other nation affected by the Second World War, have been subjugated to a lot of psychological problems within each of them. In the case of Holden, he resorts to having a cynical perspective about life. He also has been represented very differently from other teenagers back then. The young people back then follow the standards and the rules set in front of them strictly, which is very contradicting to what Holden shows throughout the story. He has his own voice and perspective, and he is not afraid to break the status quo surrounding the young people.
“It’s partly true, too, but it isn’t all true. People always think something’s all true. I don’t give a damn, except that I got bored sometimes when people tell me to act my age. Sometimes I act a lot older than I am- I really do- but people never notice it. People never notice anything.” (12)
Holden may be suffering from a mental illness all throughout the narrative but his ways of behaving have a lot of underlying ideas. The portrayal of the unconscious things in his mind that has been repressed for so long that only just now he finally got the courage to stand and speak about has been very influential in the study of the psychological factors in the story. The representation of Holden as a depressed and rebellious teenager in the story adds up to many things that might be going on inside his head. Other readers see this novel only as a story full of rants about shallow things, but more than those rants about life shows the audacity and knowledge in store in a rebellious boy.
“I certainly began to feel like a prize horse’s ass, though, sitting there all by myself. There wasn’t anything to do except smoke and drink. What I did do, though, I told the waiter to ask old Ernie if he’d care to join me for a drink. I told him to tell him I was D.B.’s brother. I do not think he ever even gave him my message, though. Those bastards never give your message to anybody.” (96).
The novel also has a vague and unconventional plot which makes it harder to see deeper into the psychological factors present but since the novel utilizes its characters, especially Holden, the factors somehow have been visible later on in the story. Holden, being the main character has been maximized since the story revolves mainly around his whereabouts and shenanigans before telling his parents that he has been kicked out from Pencey Prep, the fourth school he attended to. Through the characters and the narration of the main character, it has been easy to unfold the mystery of what is really going on inside the mind of the protagonist.
In terms of psychology and related concept and their relation to The Catcher in the Rye in general, there is no doubt that the name Sigmund Freud will not be mentioned since he has been one of the most well-known names in the said field thus far. He is one of the many pillars of psychology that even in the current generation, his concepts and theories are all very relevant and worth studying. In connection with literature and in the literary work, the text obviously shows numerous ideas that validated Freud’s id, ego, and, superego concept.
In an article by Saul McLeod for SimplyPsychology, Freud’s human psyche (personality) is divided mainly into parts: the id, ego, and superego. In a nutshell, the id is the most primitive among the other remaining parts. This part also holds the sexual and aggressive drives and hidden memories of a certain individual. The superego, meanwhile, is the part where moral conscience is the main concern, and the ego is the part that mediates the id and the superego. Focusing on these three personalities, the story somehow establishes interesting scenarios that prove even more of the capability of these concepts to change a certain individual’s life. The superego in the text is represented by the presence of the individuals, groups, and institutions which restricted Holden from exploring his voice and individuality freely using their power over him. As mentioned above, Holden is not like the other teenagers before who follow the standards and the rules set in front of them very strictly. He despises the system of the society around him because aside from the fact that he cannot express himself freely, he cannot grow as the person he wanted to be because his environment did not believe in him. Although it is evident how he wanted to break the status quo, his environment has more power than him making him repressed from the things he believed in. One example presented in the text is when he tells at the beginning that he has been kicked out yet again in an educational institution because he failed to commit to the rules set out to him:
“They kicked me out. I wasn’t supposed to come back after Christmas vacation, on account of I was flunking four subjects and not applying myself and all. They gave me frequent warning to start applying myself- especially around mid-terms, when my parents came up for a conference with old Thurmer- but I didn’t do it. So I got the ax.” (6).
This incident leads to another important life decision and action that Holden did in his journey before he made his way back home. Due to the fact that Pencey Prep is Holden’s fourth school, his growing anxiety about what people will think and make of him when they found out that he failed his academics again forces him to impromptu decide what action to make. He left Pencey Prep even before the school releases him formally because he could not afford to interact with the people as well as with the system any longer. This is the part wherein his id comes into action in his life. Since the id is the manifestation of a certain individual’s unconscious desire in life, this triggers Holden to eventually escape from the grip of the growing force of the superego inside of him.
“What I thought I’d do, I thought I might go down and see what old Mal Brossard was doing. But all of a sudden, I changed my mind. All of a sudden, I decided what I’d really do, I’d get the hell out of Pencey- right that same night and all. I mean not wait till Wednesday or anything. I just didn’t want to hang around anymore. It made me too sad and lonesome. So what I decided to do, I decided I’d take a room in a hotel in New York some very inexpensive hotel and all- and just take it easy till Wednesday. Then, on Wednesday I’d go home all rested up and feeling swell. I figured my parents probably would not get old Thurmer’s letter saying I’d been given the ax till maybe Tuesday or Wednesday. I didn’t want to go home or anything till they got it and thoroughly digested it and all.” (57-58).
Holden’s constant lying all throughout the story is also another manifestation that he is letting his id operates for him. In the same article written by McLeod, the id of an individual has this pleasure principle in which it commits to an impulse decision that can bring about pleasure to the individual. The id as McLeod further explains, “The id engages in primary process thinking, which is primitive, illogical, irrational, and fantasy-oriented. This thinking has no comprehension of objective reality, and is selfish and wishful in nature.” thus only proves that the scenarios in the text wherein Holden lied to people around him clearly signify that his id along with his superego both have the capability to control his being. In this case, his id makes him lie continuously without any reason but the fact that it is just the way he is as an individual. The scene at the train right after he left Pencey wherein he met Mrs. Morrow, a mother of a schoolmate, shows numerous lies that Holden produced during a little span of time of conversation he had with the lady. “Then I started reading this timetable I had in my pocket. Just to stop lying. Once I get started, I can go on for hours if I feel like it. No kidding. Hours.“ (65). Holden’s statement is indeed true because even if he only shared a little time with Mrs. Morrow on the train, he already lied to the lady a couple of times. He lied about his name, the personality of Mrs. Morrow’s son at Pencey, and the operation that will remove the little tumor in his brain that he will undergo later on the day.
Holden’s ego has been very present as well. It does not only mediate his id and superego but shows the two forces they are in a way overboard towards the events happening in the boy’s life. Holden, as the current generation might call him, is a very woke boy. He is very much aware of the things, events, and changes going on around his environment. In fact, he does not let himself be just observant but he pushes himself to have a say and stand on things. He is just unfortunate to continue making his voice be heard because the society he belongs to does not agree with young people rebelling against the standards and the way things are. Even though Holden is a kid full of angst about just everything, some of it somehow shows concern towards the people around him especially the ones he truly treasured. One event is when his roommate, Stradlater, asks Holden to write a composition for his English class. Holden somehow honors his dead brother by making Allie’s (his dead brother) baseball mitt be the focus of the essay he wrote for Stradlater.
“He wrote them on it so he’d have something to read when he was in the field and nobody was up at bat. He’s dead now. He got leukemia and died when we were up in Maine, on July 18, 1946. You’d have liked him. He was two years younger than I was, but he was about fifty times as intelligent. He was terrifically intelligent. His teachers were always writing letters to my mother, telling her what a pleasure it was having a boy like Allie in their class. And they weren’t just shooting crap. They really meant it.” (43).
Present above is Holden’s concern and attachment to his younger brother even though he is no longer with them. He is aware of the things and achievements his brother got and is very much proud of those. He does not even need deeper thinking about the matter because he knew his brother more than any other mediocre things in front of him. Even if he can use simple things as his focus of description in the essay, he’d rather commemorate something special to his brother, “The thing was, I couldn’t think of a room or a house or anything to describe the way Stradlater said he had to have. I’m not too crazy about describing rooms and houses anyway. So what I did, I wrote about my brother Allie’s baseball mitt.” (43) As expounded more in the same article by McLeod, ego is almost the same as id but only differs by the fact that ego created pleasure through more possible and realistic devices.
The behavior of the ego of the main character is not only manifested in the people around him but also in his behavior towards society. Even if Holden hated the system in general, part of him still makes sure that he remains respectful of the community he belongs to. Although he is not a hundred percent believer of the ideologies presented by it, he still has the sense of acknowledgment instill in him.
Another important aspect to look at is how the sexuality of Holden has been represented throughout the text. Even if Holden’s angst towards everything is the more noticeable behavior of him in the story, the aspect wherein he is curious and willing to learn things about the state of himself, his individuality, and the reality of the world are also as important as being aware of his community. As a young adult, he is on the stage of his life wherein he is transitioning from childhood to adulthood. According to Steven Mintz in his article in Psychology Today entitled The Tangled Transition to Adulthood, the phase of transitioning to adulthood has been a prolonged and angst-ridden journey. “Filled with insecurity, self-doubt, and uncertainty as it is today.” Transitioning to adulthood also connotes the maturity of an individual as a whole. In Holden’s case, he shows that although he is struggling a lot with all the things going on inside his mind at the moment, he still somehow proves that maturing can be a step-by-step process.
“The trouble was, I just didn’t want to do it. I felt more depressed than sexy, if you want to know the truth. She was depressing. Her green dress hanging in the closet and all. And besides, I don’t think I could ever do it with somebody that sits in a stupid movie all day long. I really don’t think I could.” (107-108).
In the passage, the contrasting events of Holden’s curiosity and self-respect meet during his stay at a hotel in New York. The elevator guy named Maurice offered him a girl for the night and without thoroughly thinking, he agreed on the proposed deal in exchange for some cash. In the latter part, Holden’s principle and self-respect still tower the pleasure he can attain. This also proves that although there are times that he is unconscious and unable to think thoroughly about his decisions when he realized that it is against the principles he believed, he will make sure to fix it as long as he still can. Even at a young age, he knows that wrong can produce another wrong, meanwhile, upholding his principle can keep him safe in a society that is so quick to judge.
Holden’s principle and conscience somehow overpower his id in the scenario. Even though the young prostitute he is with is very much ready to take him, he still chooses to stand for what he believes in. It is very commendable of him to do such a courageous decision given that he is experiencing trouble with himself. The trouble he is facing during that time is one of the most challenging and difficult stages of his life thus far. It is rare for teenagers like him nowadays to uphold the things they believed in when the temptation is being paraded in front of them.
Another, in the latter part of the novel wherein he stayed for a couple of hours in his former English teacher’s house, there is a scenario that shows that Holden has a tendency of having a constant fear about the welfare of his sexuality. This is shown when Mr. Antolini (his former English teacher) touches or pats him in his sleep. Even though it is not intended in the passage if Mr. Antolini really has something in his mind that has something to do with violating Holden’s sexuality, the registration of fear for himself has been very evident in the way he talks and acts towards Mr. Antolini. Unlike before, the respect he has for Mr. Antolini somehow diminishes in an instant because he feels kind of unsafe to the person he should feel guarded.
“I woke up all of a sudden. I don’t know what time it was or anything, but I woke up. I felt something on my head, some guy’s hand. Boy, it really scared hell out of me. What it was, it was Mr. Antolini’s hand. What he was doing was, he was sitting on the floor right next to the couch, in the dark and all, and he was sort of petting me or patting me on the goddamn head. Boy, I’ll bet I jumped about a thousand feet.” (211).
There is a cycle going on which gives another growing conflict in the mind of Holden. Mr. Antolini, although very intelligent and has been more than just a mentor and now a father figure to Holden, has failed to guide him thoroughly. It is like the great point he told Holden before they sleep, “It was written by a psychoanalyst named Wilhelm Stekel… Here’s what he said: ‘The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one’.”(207-208). just went nowhere because he did not prove himself worthy enough of the confused young man’s trust during the time of need. Although it is only a short part of the novel, it still reflected one of the many reasons Holden did not trust the system and the society- because everything is a problem but the façade it presents which is picture-perfect.
The way his sexuality has been an open book, his stand on religion is also all the same. All throughout the narrative, Holden shows that he is the kind of person who expresses what he feels and thinks about a certain individual, group, or society. He is not the filtering kind of a person. At times, his honesty and straightforward opinions cause him trouble but it also shows that he is no hypocrite at all. He does not need the validation of the people. Since he is a kid who has a view on just about everything, his perspective on religion is also explored.
“I can’t always pray when I feel like it. In the first place, I’m sort of an atheist. I like Jesus and all, but I don’t care too much for most of the other stuff in the Bible. Take the Disciples, for instance. They annoy the hell out of me., if you want to know the truth. They were all right after Jesus was dead and all, but while He was alive, they were about as much use to Him as a hole in the head. All they did was keep letting Him down.” (111).
There is no doubt that this passage shows again how Holden gives importance to his principles more than anything. He does not try to pretend to be something religious at the moment because he needed the guidance and help of God at this dark time in his life, but instead, he’d rather not be like the characters in the Bible who only do things just so they can benefit from it. He has never been pretentious because his nature is living on what is in the moment and not on what the moment will positively give him. Also, it is not every day there is a Holden-kind in the world that has his audacity to be very vocal about being an atheist-like at a very young age.
Holden’s cynical view of life, his curiosity about his sexuality and identity, and the decisions and actions he made all throughout the narrative indicate that there is really an operation of id-ego-superego inside of him. The aftermath of Freud’s id, ego, and superego concept in the being and life of Holden in the story plays a huge part in the holistic examination of the factors regarding the psychology of the characters and text of the novel. These elements by Freud all prove that the mind can highly influence a certain individual’s behavior and attitude.
The Catcher in the Rye has both good and bad reputations in the public since it has been published in 1951 up until the current time. The novel continues to shock new readers because of the unconventionality of the writing style and the plot. The fact that the author challenges the status quo by his unconventional representation of his main character, Holden, who just like him rejects the system in general adds the shocking factor to others. Also, the character of Holden being different and very diverse sets him really apart from the people in the society. It can be concluded that although Holden is a nonconformist, he also has been represented as the personified counterpart of what society really looks like. He is the embodiment and produces of a system that has been complacent for so long about the standards it set upon the people. Holden makes people realize through his journey that it will never be an easy task fitting in the world where everything you do is bounded by rules and standards.
There is a form of resistance going on inside and outside of Holden. He is fighting the odds of the controlling society by being a nonconformist who is at times conforming because he got no choice but to be. He may be young, confused, and a lot of times misunderstood by people around him but he proves them all wrong by at least standing up and catching on to the things he wanted to do, wanted to be, wanted to say, and wanted to experience while he still can. The Catcher in the Rye is not like the other kind of stories out there that bring its readers to another experience about life. The Catcher in the Rye is a story that lets its readers just experience and contemplates the reality of life once more. Just like Holden Caulfield, The Catcher in the Rye celebrates the importance of living in the moment conscious yet free, and cautious yet ready to try things.
McLeod, Saul. (2007). Id, Ego and Superego. Retrieved May 10, 2018, from www.simplypsychchology.org/psyche.html
Mintz, Steven. (2015, August 4). The Tangled Transition to Adulthood. Retrieved May 10, 2018, from www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-prime-life/201508/the-tangled-transition-adulthood-0
Brizee, Allen J., et al. (2018, January 31). Psychoanalytic Criticism (1930s-present). Retrieved May 10, 2018, from owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/722/04/