Catcher in the Rye By J.D. Salinger: finding a place to belong (by Dr Jennifer Minter
As Desmond Tutu says, “We need other human beings in order to be human. I am because other people are.” In this regard, our lives and sense of self are enriched by the types of groups to which we belong and the connections we make with others. Connections to family, to sport or social groups, to school or friendship networks help us grow by sharing experiences with others whom we trust, and who value us as people. After all, as Maslow hierarchy of needs shows, belonging comes before identity. In order to achieve “self actualization”, a strong sense of belonging is needed. According to such a theory, a person must find comfort and security in the groups to which they belong so as to have a chance of realizing their potential. Where these groups help to nurture the individual and his or her needs are met then the individual is likely to prosper. However, if the group does not provide individuals with physical security or emotional solace then the individual’s sense of self is likely to suffer. They are likely to pay the price for their difference and inability to fit in.
To have the best chance of emotional fulfilment and success in life, individuals need to feel loved and cherished by family members and by those within peer networks. They need to be valued as individuals and treated with care and respect. As Tutu also says, “A person is entitled to a stable community life, and the first of these communities is the family.” Unrealistic expectations can create anxiety for family members. Those who fail to assert their own needs and withstand undue pressures of a future filled with material wealth and respect suffer emotionally and psychologically. The gap between a parent’s and a sibling’s desires leads to a feeling of disconnectedness and individuals may struggle to realize a firm sense of self.
In J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield does not connect well with his parents because they are part of the “phony” world that he detests. He resents their high professional expectations and although he keeps failing at school they constantly change schools in the hope that Holden’s psychological problems will disappear. The failure to find a sense of warmth in an emotionally-barren home environment leaves him feeling vulnerable and detached.
In particular, Holden rails against perversion, phoniness and materialism. Adulthood becomes associated with corruption and perversion; it’s anathema to all that Holden stands for. As he notes, “one of the biggest reasons I left Elkton Hills was because I was surrounded by phonies.” In particular, Mr Haas, the headmaster, was the “phoniest bastard” he had ever met in his life and the school brochures epitomise the pretentious environment that focuses on wealth, prestige and academic success. At school “all you do is study so that you can learn enough to be smart enough to be able to buy a goddam Cadillac some day.” He also hates the emphasis on sport and religion and the fact that everyone “sticks together in these dirty little goddam cliques”.
A study conducted by the Centre for Adolescent Health at Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital has found that adolescents are less likely to indulge in behaviour that can be destructive and dangerous when schools are prepared to listen to them and respond to their needs. Professor for Adolescent Health, George Patton, said most people in the group “remained connected in a positive way to their peers and their school and to what education was about. They felt that school was a better place to be, that it had something to offer them and that they didn’t have to look elsewhere for something to make them feel good about themselves. Likewise, Peter Sheehan, Principal Melbourne Grammar says that the importance of school is to support students and provide them the chance to develop their talents and become productive members of society. “Part of our role within school is to make young people understand that a productive, useful life as an adult does not require you to be a genius. There are enormous numbers of people in the community who were highly unsuccessful at school who have gone on to do great things in the outside community because they focused on their strengths. These experts echo the philosophical base of Maslow’s theory that an individual must gain physical, emotional and intellectual satisfaction before they can realize their true potential.
Conversely, a teenager’s emotional well-being may be adversely affected if they do not have a secure sense of belonging within their school community. Holden abhors his education that seems to insist on conformity, and appears aimless and pointless. Holden’s anxieties lead to sexual and existential angst and he becomes resentful and jealous of many of his peers, such as Stadlater, who beats him because he does not shut his mouth when he is told to. Holden is nervous about Stradlater’s relationship with his previous friend, Jane. He lies on the floor covered in blood from the fight. “I was so mad, I was practically bawling.” (39)
Likewise, after Maurice beats him up over the incident with the prostitute, he feels physically and emotionally shattered. “What I really felt like, though, was committing suicide.” I felt like jumping out the window.” (94) The only thing that stops him is the thought of people looking at him splashed on the footpath. (94)
Despite Mr Spencer’s warning that “life is a game that one plays according to the rules”, Holden refuses to abide by, or conform to, such “phony” rules. He refuses to write the descriptive essay according to Stradlater’s instructions. He fails the Oral Expression for the same reason. In fact, he finds it much more interesting if people do not stick to the point. He fails because he liked to “digress”. He also fails the history exam because he does not want to learn “that crap”. Instead of writing about Egyptian history, he writes a note to Mr Spencer explaining why he cannot complete his exam. “I can’t seem to get very interested in them”.
Holden fails four out of his five subjects because he refuses to learn “the crap” fed to him at school. Holden wishes to “digress” and grow in other areas; however, the school community restricts individuals’ behaviour to the point where retaliation can result in expulsion. Such restrictions hinder an individual’s wellbeing to the extent that they become extremely hypersensitive and vulnerable and, in Holden’s case, constantly angry.
Holden’s failure to “play the game” leaves him vulnerable. For this reason, Salinger depicts Holden as an individual who is heading for a “special kind of fall”. He is an individual who is “looking for something their own environment couldn’t supply them with.” (169) IN many ways, it would seem that neither his educational nor his family environment caters for his creative, sensitive and yearning personality.
Idealistically, Holden is looking for solace and comfort which is evident in his perception of himself as the “Catcher in the Rye’ who would “stop” at risk children from falling off the cliff. In the same way, he sees himself as an individual “at risk“ because he is at odds with his environment.
The “only thing” that Holden wants to be is the “Catcher in the Rye”. He recalls Burns’ poem, “If a body meet a body coming through the rye”. He adapts to his own idealistic version. He wants to catch the kids from falling off the cliff. He would come “out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day.” Holden is obsessed with children falling off the cliff and wishes idealistically that he would be able to prevent the accidents. He imagines helping the kids like himself who are in danger of “falling” in society because they fail to connect.
As the “catcher in the rye” he yearns to save Phoebe from “falling off the cliff” and from the trauma of corrupt relationships. However, Phoebe does not seem to understand Holden’s idealistic dreams and is constantly fearful that their father will “catch” him.
Holden searches for friendship in Phoebe whom he hopes can understand and appreciate his longing for an unadulterated place free from the corruption of the adult world. Phoebe loves riding the horses on the caroussel. He is scared that she will fall off, but he knows that he has to let her have a go. “If they want to grab for the gold ring, you have to let them do it”. (190) It is important to reach for “gold” or to have a dream or goal in life, even if it appears unattainable. Whilst Holden is scared that Phoebe will fall off the “goddam horse” (190), he also knows that he cannot cling to an impossible dream of idealism and innocence that are nostalgically rooted in a lost childhood.
Just because adulthood is problematic, phony and corrupt, Salinger also suggests that regression and escape are not feasible solutions. Holden’s flight into the past renders him vulnerable. Likewise, although we may be at risk of a fall, we must nevertheless find a “cause” that suits our personality. To resist, can be inherently self-defeating.
Holden turns to Mr Antolini, the “best teacher he ever had” to guide him. Mr Antolini reminds him that education is an important tool for self-discovery. He states that an education will “begin to give you an idea what size mind you have.”
He explains that sometimes men “are looking for something their own environment couldn’t supply them with.” He quotes Wilhelm Ekel who states that the “The mark of the mature man is to live humbly” for a cause, rather than to die for a cause. Employing images of “measurement” and size, Antolini suggest we should pursue an education because it can help us to find our worth and “size”.
Unfortunately and perversely, Mr Antolini undermines his advice and role as an authority figure by betraying the trust that Holden has placed in him. When he strokes his head as a pervert, Holden once again realizes that he cannot find what he is looking for and he continues his vulnerable path towards the “fall” – ironically so well predicted by his perverse mentor.
Perhaps it is finally a positive sign that he tells the psychoanalyst that he “thinks” he will apply himself when he returns to school. Perhaps, he has been caught. Perhaps he will not completely fall off the edge. He realizes that it is important to make connections and try to belong. He even finds that he is missing the people in his life that impacted upon him so negatively. (192)