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The Catcher in the Rye: Obsession Essay

Assumptions about an individual that are based solely on his or her actions are often incorrect.  A person’s behavior is shaped by human experience, the culture they grow up in; therefore, knowledge of their history is necessary in order to completely understand the person. Holden Caulfield, the cynical narrator of J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, has bizarre ideas and fears of the outside world that accumulate until he suffers a nervous breakdown. Initially, one may assume that Holden is insane, or that he is the victim of a personality disorder; however, after considering his troubled past, one may find such characteristics about him to be highly inappropriate. Despite the impression he conveys, Holden Caulfield is in truth a normal person who, in order to cope with issues surrounding the death of his younger brother, resorts to obsessions with protecting innocence and all children who embody it, himself included, from the faulty outside world, a fascination that precipitates his eventual nervous breakdown.

Although Holden attempts to avoid coping with the death of his thirteen-year-old brother Allie, the impact of his death frequently surface in Holden’s thoughts and actions throughout the novel. Holden first discusses Allie and his death when writing an essay about Allie’s baseball glove as a favour for his roommate Stradlater. After going to great lengths in praising Allie, he proceeds to mention the night that Allie died, when “[he] broke all the goddamn windows in the garage with [his] fist, just for the hell of it … it was a very stupid thing to do … but you didn’t know Allie” (Salinger, 39). In this statement, although Holden’s awareness of the violence and imbalanced nature of his reaction is clear, he fails to acknowledge his emotional reaction to Allie’s death throughout the passage, merely stating facts about the death. However, despite his tendency to avoid and ignore Allie’s death, Holden often reveals the extent of his grief and his lack of closure in his conversations with others. When Phoebe, Holden's younger sister, argues that Holden can not only ‘like’ Allie because he is dead, he suggests that “just because somebody is dead, you don’t just stop liking them… especially if they were a thousand times nicer than the people you knew who were alive and all” (Salinger, 171). Although such statements reveal Holden’s true sorrow regarding Allie’s death, he never truly admits that the death upset him. Also, Holden is plagued by feelings of regret because of an event that occurred when Allie was alive, when he refused to let Allie accompany him on a bike ride. Holden admits that he recalls this incident whenever he is depressed, demonstrating the connection between Allie’s death and Holden’s feelings. Holden, however, fails to notice the connection and thus remains troubled, refusing to acknowledge the obvious impact of Allie’s death. In summary, though the death of Holden’s brother clearly causes extreme turbulence in his life, Holden, perhaps in an attempt to assuage the pain, opts to deny that he was emotionally affected by it.

 

Allie’s death is an indirect catalyst for several of Holden’s anomalous behaviors, notably his constant criticism of others, which he uses as a means of deviating his attention from his own major defect, that is, his failure to grieve for Allie. “I’m the most terrific liar you ever saw,” Holden admits a statement that is validated by the numerous fibs he tells throughout the story (Salinger, 16).  Because Holden grows accustomed to lying to himself in order to convince himself that Allie’s death had no effect on him, he finds no difficulty in lying to others. Holden’s tendency to lie is merely a result of the self-deception that he endured in order to avoid having to deal with his issues and, essentially himself. Rather than acknowledging and dealing with his own imperfections, mainly his self-blame for Allie’s death, Holden chooses to criticize others, labeling most as ‘phonies.’ The growing population of phonies in the world is also Holden’s excuse for getting kicked out of multiple schools:  “One of the biggest reasons I left Elkton Hills was because I was surrounded by phonies. That’s all. They were coming in the goddamn window,” explains Holden, defending himself to why he flunked out of school (Salinger, 13). Holden’s tendency to search for the phoniness everywhere he goes and in anyone he encounters is extremely prominent in the novel. By doing so he is merely evading the fact that he, having avoided mourning Allie’s death, is in fact the biggest 'phony’ of all.

Holden’s obsession with phonies is intertwined with his fantasy about becoming a catcher in the rye in that this belief also revolves around the central issue of Allie’s death and his fear of accepting it. When Holden’s little sister asks what he intends to ‘be’ in the future, Holden explains his vision: “I keep picturing this big field of rye and all … and I’m standing on the edge of this big cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch little kids if they start to go over the cliff” (Salinger, 173). Holden’s future career plan is an indication that he fears becoming an adult. Instead of having children growing and becoming tainted by the adult world, he would like to prevent them, who are the embodiment of purity and innocence, from experiencing what he has already begun to experience. Metaphorically, he wants to catch the children before they stumble over the cliff.  As previously stated, Holden’s fear of adulthood and fixation with phonies is linked with Allie’s death. Holden mourned over Allie and, as he told Phoebe, harbored bitter feelings because he was unable to comprehend how Allie could be denied the right to live when he was “a thousand times nicer than the people …who are alive and all” (Salinger, 65).  Also, Holden still has regrets about when Allie was alive, in particular, the bike ride incident. Thus, by becoming a catcher in the rye, Holden feels he will finally be able to compensate for his failure to save Allie and treat him the way that he deserved when he was alive by saving all children and innocence instead. 

All of Holden’s fears concerning the preservation of innocence reach a pinnacle when he discovers graffiti in the Egyptian tomb of the museum – soon after this, he suffers a nervous breakdown.  Holden is extremely bothered by the numerous ‘Fuck you’s’ that adorned the walls of the school, and is especially perturbed when he discovers it written in the Egyptian tomb of the museum:

That’s the whole trouble.  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” under your nose.

(Salinger, 188)

 

The museum, a place in which Holden had formerly associated with safety, childhood, and most importantly sameness, has been vandalized. For the first time since Allie’s death, Holden is being forced to confront the harsh reality that sometimes even the things that seem invincible cannot escape fate.

Certain things should stay the way they are. [One] ought to be able to stick them in one of those big glass cases and just leave them alone. I know that’s impossible, but it’s too bad anyway. (Salinger, 110)

Common graffiti elicits a response from Holden that is perhaps more infuriated and passionate than the average person because Holden is realizing that he is powerless to prevent the immorality of fate from corrupting innocence, unable to catch a body coming through the rye because some bodies are simply destined to fall off the cliff.

Overall, despite the impression he conveys, Holden Caulfield is in truth a normal person who, as a result of the death within his family, resorts to obsessions with the world’s imperfections and protecting all innocent children, including himself, from it, which eventually leads to a nervous breakdown.  Holden experiences a mental breakdown due to his attempt in coping with Allie’s death, he developed an obsession with preserving all innocence, and when he found it impossible, he simply collapsed. Holden is not a victim of insanity; instead, he is simply an average person who attempts to cope with life-altering events. Perhaps all people who suffer from nervous breakdowns or other mental afflictions are not mentally unstable, instead, people like Holden just simply attempt to cope with too many problems at once which inevitably leads to ones downfall.

References:

Salinger, J.D. The Catcher in the Rye. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, Inc., 1951.


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