The Catcher in the Rye, a novel written by J. D. Salinger is a story about a unique yet troubled boy named Holden Caulfield. Salinger masterfully depicts the story’s protagonist as a well rounded character who feels the full range of emotions. Holden is consumed by the desire to live in a world where he can play the hero and surround himself with love and acceptance. Holden’s need for love and belonging, however, creates an irony because it provokes an intense aversion to society that pushes Holden further away from achieving a sense of belonging.
While in several ways Holden epitomizes the average teenager, he is also exceptionally unique and shows maturity beyond his years. According to Granville Hicks, Salinger depicts a character that expresses teenage rebellion using the quintessential speech of Americans in the Twenties. At times, however, Holden’s voice is one of sophistication and his dialogue is recognizable for its distinct style (502). Regardless of Holden’s sophistication, he does not apply his intelligence and flunks out of Pencey.
In the first chapter of the novel, Holden’s history teacher knows that Holden is capable of much more than failure.
He tells Holden, “I’d like to put some sense into that head of yours, boy. I’m trying to help you” (Salinger 14). Nevertheless, Arthur Heiserman and James E. Miller, Jr. state that Holden is preoccupied by his inordinate desire to become a hero and save good society from the corruption he equates to phoniness. Within Holden is a desire to belong to a world full of only love “for Holden loves the world more than the world can bear” (497. ) Unfortunately for Holden, the world has no room for his views and remains unchanged no matter how hard he wishes save himself from harsh realities.
Throughout The Catcher in the Rye, Holden has difficulty identifying with people and his image of the world is affected as a result. Privitera says Holden’s “efforts to connect with any stereotypical kid his age result in abject failure” (204). Such experiences frustrate Holden and are the cause of his diminishing social interest. He has lost any feelings of companionship and thus has an increasingly difficult time empathizing with others. Not only does he begin to distance himself from society, but he also overgeneralizes and creates a preconceived notion that society will continue o reject him (Irving 87). Because Holden feels constantly rejected, he equates his inability to relate to others to an incompetence in society as a whole. Holden speaks in absolutes when he says, “people always ruin things” (Salinger 37). Instead of seeking to change himself, Holden blames society and the world as a whole for his friendless existence. This causes him to go through his life with a biased image of world and instead of seeing all that encompasses the reality of society, he only sees the negative aspects.
A view of the world such as this is haunting to Holden and instills within him a deep-seated internal conflict. Psychologist Abraham Maslow’s humanistic theories can be used to assess the presence of internal conflict. Gardener Murphy and Joseph K. Kovach proclaim that Maslow composed a hierarchy of needs that highlights an individual’s inner conflicts and stops said person from achieving the highest level–self actualization (426). They also state that Maslow’s theories represented a new psychology from the standpoint that each living person is a vessel of potential greatness (302).
Furthermore, the theory of a hierarchy of needs maintains the idea that every person has within them a dire need to establish a purpose and eventually self-actualize. Maslow says, “If you deliberately plan on being less than you are capable of being, then I warn you that you’ll be unhappy for the rest of your life” (“Abraham Maslow”). In other words, a person who has the potential to reach a high level on the hierarchy of needs, but is unable to do so, will suffer the resulting internal conflicts. Maslow might deduct that Caulfield has not overcome his need for love and belonging.
Maslow explains that the hierarchy of needs consists of five levels of basic needs. An individual on the third level–the need for love and belonging–seeks to overcome loneliness, give love, and receive love in a stable way (47). For example, instead of staying at Pencey until Wednesday, like Holden is supposed to, he attempts to go to New York and escape the loneliness that Pencey brings him. His decision to leave is set off by his argument with Ackley, a boy in the dorm next-door. “I just didn’t want to hang around anymore,” says Holden, “it made me too sad and lonesome” (Salinger 51).
Maybe Holden believes that he’ll be able to find a sense of belonging in New York. Carl Strauch infers that Holden’s inability to relate to others and constant rejection drive him to humiliation (506). Since Holden feels Pencey is the source of these painful emotions, it is not surprising that he seeks to reinvent himself somewhere else so that he may have a chance at having a sense of belongingness. Similar to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Alfred Adler had a theory called the style of life that can be used along with his other theories to assess an individual’s internal conflict.
On the authority of Joanne Irving, Adler’s theory of the style of life, formerly called the life plan, comprises the fundamentals of Adlerian psychology. It states that every individual must establish a set of goals with which they can apply their creative self in hopes of succeeding (82). These goals however, can be hindered by many aspects of Adlerian psychology such as social order, and inferiority vs. superiority complexes. Murphy and Kovach discuss Adler’s theories and the human race’s need for power.
In a world where norms and values depend on status, man strives to find comfort in social order, struggling to diminish inferiority and enhance superiority (294). Often times, internal conflict can develop as a result of difficulty with social order. Adler might reason that Holden struggles to establish his place in the social order of society and subsequently faces conflicts because of this. Strauch explains that Holden’s difficulty with social order stems from reoccurring rejection from society.
He is part of “A society that ignores or rejects his gesture for understanding, that preempts his possessions, body and mind, that invades and violates his inner being” (506). Irving’s analysis shows that as a result of Holden’s difficulty with social order, he strives for superiority because of his uncontrollable inferiority complex (81). Holden attempts to regain control of the social order by rejecting others before they have the chance to reject him. “Holden repeats so often that he hates the movies that we suspect it’s an accusation against others for liking them” (Irving 82).
While Holden’s initial efforts come from a desire to find his place in the social order, he becomes discouraged when he cannot successfully do so. In turn, Holden justifies himself by being a nonconformist and criticizing those who have found a comfortable place in society. Holden’s dialogue is a very important indicator that he struggles with intense feelings of inferiority. His very first words to the reader are a strong depiction of his low self-esteem and latent inferiority complex: “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like” (Salinger 1).
The undertones of this statement suggest that Holden not only feels he lacks the reader’s interest but also that his childhood was lousy. Such feelings are a result of a growing inferiority complex. Another large contributor to Holden’s inferiority complex is his constant struggle to feel noticed. Holden says, “I still act sometimes like I was only 12. Everybody says that… sometimes I at a lot older than I am–I really do–for people never notice it. People never notice anything” (Salinger 9). In this quotation, Holden explains that people notice his shortcomings but do not notice anything positive about him.
In a situation such as this, Holden has no choice but to desperately wish he could escape his feelings of inferiority. It is possible that Holden’s feelings of inferiority are a result of his failure to live up to his family’s expectations. Irving discusses birth order and the effect it can have on Holden’s attitudes and life style. Because Holden was born second to the successful and wealthy D. B. , he struggles with having to follow in D. B. ’s footsteps (82). Holden says, “As a matter of fact, I’m the only dumb one in my family” (Salinger 67).
Clearly Holden strives to reach competence in his family and feels as if his family members have something that he does not. It may be inferred that Holden does not feel a sense of belonging within his family. Irving says that since the family is the first social environment, it may affect how an individual acts in future social environments (82). Holden carries his attitude with him through many other social encounters, further building his inferiority complex. According to Adler, Holden may attempt to hide his feelings of inferiority by finding ways to establish himself as superior.
For example, Holden says, “I’m the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life” (Salinger 16). Since Holden is a person who constantly feels inferior, he may be most proud of the feats that make him feel superior. According to Irving, “Lying seems to be a way that Holden can feel superior because he controls the situation. Only he knows the truth so he can dominate and manipulate others. He can save face, cover any feelings of inferiority by lying” (83). It makes perfect sense for Holden to be a liar because it enables him to alter reality.
As long as Holden can lie, he can portray himself however he pleases without feeling vulnerable or exposed. Holden may believe he can attain a sense of belonging if he demonstrates superiority, but his visions are unrealistic. He tells his sister Phoebe that if he had the choice, he would want to be the catcher in the rye. To become this fantasy, Holden would catch all the little children that are in danger of falling off of a large cliff. There would be “thousands of little kids,” according to Holden, “and nobody’s around–nobody big, I mean–except me. Holden paints a scene in which he is bigger or more superior than the children and is saving them from their fate below the cliff. Irving infers that Holden’s fantasy is a key indicator of his goal to become superior by being the big hero (86). Holden subconsciously believes that if he is a hero, children in all their innocence would look up to him and deem him superior. Heiserman and Miller say that Holden is driven mad by his desperate desire to become a hero mostly because the real world has no place for the hero Holden wishes to become (497).
Adler could possibly use his theory of exclusion tendency to explain Holden’s actions when he cannot successfully make himself feel superior. Since Holden cannot find a way to feel a sense of belonging in society, he rejects said society before it can reject him. Irving says, “By hating society, Holden is able to pretend he is superior without having to be competent” (92). For example, if Holden shows a hatred for society’s rules and acts too good to follow these rules, he establishes himself as superior and feels secure.
Strauch indicates that Holden does this in order to “rationalize his belonging” (505). As long as Holden is superior, he feels a pompousness that hides his insecurities. To Holden, whether he belongs or not, being superior is the next best thing. Though Holden longs to be accepted, his attitude results in the exact opposite. According to Holden, Sally is the “queen of the phonies” (Salinger 126). Regardless of his judgmental attitude, it is obvious that Holden desires Sally’s companionship when he asks her to run away with him.
However, when Sally rejects Holden’s offer, he immediately becomes bitter and can no longer explain why he wanted to take Sally away to begin with. After Holden and Sally argue, he says, “I probably wouldn’t have taken her even if she’d wanted to go with me. She wouldn’t have been anybody to go with. The terrible part, though, is that I meant it when I asked her. That’s the terrible part. I swear to God I’m a madman” (Salinger 134). Holden’s sudden change of opinion can be explained by his change in personality when he is rejected and unable to feel loved.
According to Heiserman and Miller, “The phoniness of society forces Holden Caulfield to leave it, but he is seeking nothing less than stability and love” (497). Holden defines society as phony when his ego is bruised by rejection. Underneath all the lies and projection, however, Holden is just a young man in search of love. In conclusion, Holden manages to intertwine himself in a complicated irony. Based on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Holden is unable to satisfy his need for love and belonging because he feels rejected by his family.
Alfred Adler’s theories expose Holden’s latent inferiority complex, superiority complex, and use of exclusion tendencies. Because Holden is restricted by his conflict with finding his place in the social order, he unconsciously rejects society before it has the chance the reject him and instead makes up fantasies that are part of the world inside his mind. Holden’s vision of being a hero explains his concept of the catcher in the rye. An analysis such as this capitalizes Salinger’s characterization of Holden, making his need for love and belonging a key theme in the novel.
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