The Catcher in the Rye: Holden Caulfield's Mental Breakdown

Topics: Erik Erikson, Developmental psychology, Erikson's stages of psychosocial development Pages: 5 (1392 words) Published: December 3, 2006
J.D. Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye" portrays a troubled teen in New York City. Over the few days the novel depicts, the boy displays his critical and unhealthy mindset. Eventually he has a mental breakdown. Through psychoanalysis of Holden Caulfield, one may suggest that Allie's death, social development, and an identity crisis are large contributing factors in Holden's mental breakdown.

Allie Caulfield is an important person to Holden and his death affects him greatly. In response to his brother's passing, Holden attempts to recover by using defense mechanisms as a shield against reality. The concept of defense mechanisms strategies for avoiding or reducing threatening feelings such as fear and anxiety" (Strickland 182). While defense mechanisms are normal, healthy coping tools, they may grow to be problematic when their usage becomes habitual. Holden appears to use several defense mechanisms in response to Allie's death. Additionally, he implements them into his daily activities.

One of the defense mechanisms Holden employs is denial. Denial, as defined by Plotnik, is "refusing to recognize some anxiety-provoking event or piece of information" (437). In Holden's case, he does not fully accept Allie's death; instead, he subconsciously remains in delial to avoid the pain associated with this loss. Although he tells Phoebe, "I know he's dead! Don't you think I know that?" (Salinger 171) Holden's reactions do not reflect his claim. He speaks of and to Allie as though he is still alive. While acknowledging his brother's death on the surface, Holden does not fully accept it. For instance, as he stumbles along the sidewalks of New York City subsequent to visiting Phoebe, he begins speaking to Allie, asking for his brother to keep him safe. By asking Allie for help, Holden demonstrates his belief that Allie is present, not dead. At an earlier time, when Phoebe challenges Holden to name one thing he really likes, all he can respond with is "I like Allie." While many feel affection for a deceased friend or relative, the only subject Holden can initially admit to liking is his dead brother. This, too, exemplefies Holden's inability to accept Allie's death.

A second, stranger, and more uncommon defense mechanism Holden uses is fixation. Fixation is a halt of emotional development caused by some anxiety producting event--such as a death. The individual will not lose any previous developmental progress, but his or her maturation will halt for a time (Strickland 170). In the first chapter of Salinger's book, Holden's comments seem to support the idea that he uses this mechanism: "I was sixteen then, and I'm seventeen now, and sometimes I act like I'm about thirteen" (9). Firstly, one should note that Allie died when Holden was thirteen. By him saying "I act like I'm about thirteen," Holden corroborates the idea that he has not matured and lingers in the psychological state of a young teen. This may be an important factor in why he rejects mature relationships and desires to be "the catcher in the rye."

A second aspect affecting Holden's personality as well as self-esteem is his environment. Holden's parents appear to raise him with a lax, permissive style of parenting. According to Plotnik, "permissive parents are less controlling and behave with a non-punishing and accepting attitude toward their children's impulses, desires and actions" (413). While his parents are only just introduced in the story, the passive and accepting reaction Mrs. Caulfield has to Phoebe's smoking supports the notion that the Caulfield household is under a permissive rule as opposed to a stricter family. Permissive parenting seems to result in less achievement-minded children who will not take responsibility for their behavior. Holden seems to fit that profile perfectly. He remains completely unmotivated in school and blames everything on others.

Peer acceptance also has a big affect on Holden and his self-esteem. Self-esteem is primarily...

Cited: Plotnik, Rod. Introduction to Psychology. 5th edition. Belmont: Thomson, 1999.
Pinsker, Anne and Sanford Pinsker. Understanding The Catcher in the Rye. Connecticut: Greenwood, 1999. 149-155.
Salinger, J.D. The Catcher in the Rye. Boston: Little, Brown, 1991.
Strickland, Bonnie, Ed. The Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology. 2nd ed. Detroit: Gale, 2001.
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