Suffering, Alienation and Protagonist’s Depression
Holden Caulfield, the protagonist and narrator of The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, constantly points out flaws in other people but is unable to see his own. Be it positive or negative, he loathes change. Through his general hatred of others and his inability to accept the prospect of an ever-changing world of people, Holden alienates himself from society and becomes an outcast. Almost all of his pain and depression stems, however, from one specific event that causes him distress to the point that it could almost be considered post-traumatic stress disorder: the death of his younger brother Allie. When one connects Holden’s constant pain and alienation to the death of his younger brother, the question of how Allie’s death influences Holden’s life arises. Although he never interacts with Holden, Allie still has the strongest influence on his life.
Holden constantly finds flaws in the people around him and complains about them, explaining in depth why each person hides who he or she truly is: “You remember I said before that Ackley was a slob in his personal habits? Well, so was Stradlater, but in a different way. Stradlater was more of a secret slob. He always looked all right, Stradlater, but for instance, you should’ve seen the razor he shaved himself with. It was always rusty as hell and full of lather and hairs and crap. He never cleaned it or anything. He always looked good when he was finished fixing himself up, but he was a secret slob anyway, if you knew him the way I did” (Salinger 27). Simply because Stradlater wants to look polished, Holden believes he is fake and hypocritical. Holden thinks of everyone in this fashion, however, and actively searches for faults in almost every other character. He appears to be unable to find a person who meets his criteria for perfection until he speaks of his younger brother Allie, who is now deceased.
Holden practically worships Allie, considering him a guardian angel: “Every time I’d get to the end of a block I’d make believe I was talking to my brother Allie. I’d say to him, “Allie, don’t let me disappear. Allie, don’t let me disappear. Allie, don’t let me disappear. Please, Allie.” And then when I’d reach the other side of the street without disappearing, I’d thank him” (198). In Holden’s eyes, Allie is the epitome of perfection because he was an innocent young person whose life was cut short before he was able to become anything else. Holden’s vision of Allie will never change because Allie himself cannot change. As unrealistic as it is, that is the way Holden likes people to be. Holden thinks of Allie as a guardian angel and subconsciously uses him as a standard for morality in others. Therefore, Holden can never be satisfied with others and hates the conditions under which he must live his life. To him, nothing is as pure as Allie was, and in this way Allie is the cause of Holden’s constant hatred of seemingly everything.
Holden cannot accept the concept of change. Whenever anything changes, he immediately becomes intensely frustrated with it. This theme comes up notably when he thinks about a girl he has feelings for, Jane. They knew each other when they were younger and more innocent, but Holden finds out that she is dating Stradlater and potentially having sex with him: “I kept thinking about Jane, and about Stradlater having a date with her and all. It made me so nervous I nearly went crazy. I already told you what a sexy bastard Stradlater was” (34). Jane is one of the few people that Holden has been able to look up to and appreciate as a person. He does not want his memory to be stained by a new image of her and Stradlater acting in more adult ways, ways that terrify Holden because he does not like anything to change or grow. He and Jane used to play checkers, and Jane had a certain quirk of keeping her kings in the back row. Before Stradlater leaves for his date with Jane, Holden tells him to “Ask her if she still keeps all her kings in the back row” (34). Holden wants to know if Jane is the same, or if she has changed into a person that he would no longer like and relate to, a thought that devastates him. To most people, change is not as terrible as it is to Holden. Because he lost Allie, he cannot accept when anything in his life is altered even slightly. After Allie dies of leukemia, Holden grasps for something else that can remind him of young innocence and the ease of childhood days. Then, he was not surrounded by phonies. He is terrified that one day he will be forced to change into an adult and live a life independently. Allie’s death leads to an epiphany: everything in life is ephemeral and nothing he values will stay.Although Allie is never seen as a living character, he is still the most important player in Holden’s life because he acts as a form of guardian angel and influential figure.
By basing everything he does and judging everyone else on his memory of Allie, Holden sets the bar unreasonably high. No one can live up to Allie’s standard. In reality, however, Holden is the phoniest of all because he lies to himself about his extreme hatred of everything. Allie’s death renders Holden unable to accept that in order for the world to work as it should, everything must change. Allie not only symbolizes the innocence that Holden has lost, but also serves as a reminder that Holden will one day lose everything that he loves.
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