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Madonna-Whore Complex in the Catcher in the Rye

By patmanki Oct 28, 2008 1321 Words
Holden Caulfield, the main character in The Catcher in the Rye, suffers from a Madonna/whore complex, meaning he can only see women in two ways; as perfect and innocent or as dirty whores, without any ground in between. According to psychiatrists, this disorder may be caused by an excessive bond between one’s mother as a child, or conversely a lack of a bond, resulting in looking towards the one you love as a motherly figure, while nobody else can meet those standards. (Speyer) Holden’s experiences in this novel reveal to us this problem, as he cannot seem to deal with women at all. Even at times when he is Horny and wants to have relations with a women, he finds it impossible because they are either too perfect to sully or to dirty to console doing anything with them. This leaves Holden in a tough spot that he cannot escape from, and throughout the novel we see that he cannot break this problem and he cannot bring himself to see both the good and bad in women, as he can only focus on the extremes.

Holden Caulfield tells us of many people in this novel who were perfectly innocent, such as Jane Gallagher and his little sister, Phoebe. Jane is Holden’s friend from a few years back whom he had had a relationship with. All of Holden’s memories of Jane, which are the only real indications of how she is, portray her as an innocent girl who does childish things such as “Leave it [the kings] in the back row” (Catcher, 33) while they played checkers. Holden never went anywhere with Jane in sexual terms. The closest he had ever gotten to such a thing was when he kissed her face after she broke down while telling Holden about her drunken step-father (Catcher, 78-79). This could be the reason for the way he views her, as she was the only girl he had ever met that was nice, attractive, and not interested in partaking in sexual activities. Every other girl in the novel (minus Phoebe) is showed by Holden as “crumby” or uninteresting, someone that he would not like to get together with.

The other girl that Holden holds as the epitome of innocence is Phoebe. He sees Phoebe as intelligent, funny and naïve, even though we see that she sees a lot more than Holden believes she should. She sees through Holden’s lies about Pencey, and we see that she is much more mature than we are initially told by Holden. Because Phoebe is a child, Holden holds her in high regards, and she is the only female character Holden has direct contact with in the novel that makes him truly happy. Phoebe, which was the name of a titaness who was revealed as Artemis, the Goddess of the moon in Greek mythology, gives more insight into how Holden views her. Phoebe is always in his thoughts, helping guide the decisions he makes in life, just as the moon is always circling around the earth and affecting how the earth runs. (Downey, 4) Phoebe is Holden’s perfect person, innocent, funny and naïve all at the same time, and he runs his life on the principle that he must protect Phoebe from ever reaching the corruption of adulthood and ruining his “Madonna” figure.

On the flip side of things, Holden also views many women in this novel as whores or as someone he would rather not associate with, whether because they are stupid or shallow, such as Sally Hayes or the three women in the bar. Sally Hayes, who was a girl Holden had gone out with and had “necked”, was an incredibly beautiful girl in Holden’s views. She was so beautiful that Holden actually said, “The funny thing is, I felt like marrying her the minute I saw her. I swear to God I’m crazy. I admit it.” (Catcher, 124) Holden is also led to believe she is smart because of her vast knowledge of media and pop culture at the time, however over time he realizes that she is quite the opposite. Once Holden realizes she is not as smart as she once was, he sees through her guise, however he cannot get over how beautiful she is. He realizes that she is just as phony as everyone else, and the author very likely chose her name for a reason. Hayes, which is a homophone of haze, which could mean that she clouded his views of her solely with her beauty. Upon reflection of her, it seems that Holden does not hold her in very high regards, and that he saw her as shallow and quite stupid, however beautiful she is. She is definitely no Madonna in his eyes, rather quite the opposite.

The episode with the three girls is a perfect example of how Holden views women as anti-Madonnas. As soon as we are introduced to them we are given the image in our minds of three unattractive girls who share the same mental capacity as Sally Hayes. Their minds are wrapped up in movie stars and famous people and lack the social skills to continue a conversation with Holden. Holden, however, continues to buy them drinks and dances with them, even though he tells us how crazy and uninteresting they are. He seems to be arguing with himself at this point, as he believes that they are stupid and uninteresting and yet is fixated on trying to win their attentions. It would seem as though Holden, even though he is disgusted by these women, is attracted to them in a completely sexual way. He goes so far as to say he was “half in love with her by the time I sat down.” (Catcher, 73) Holden can not console the idea of actually doing anything with the women and yet cannot fight his basic instincts of wanting sexual relations with the women, especially the blonde. The way that Holden describes these women is a total opposite of the way he describes Jane.

The only possible case where Holden has a bit of trouble distinguishing between where to classify a woman is with Sunny, the prostitute he hires from Maurice. The way that Holden describes Sunny is as a child, about his age. This shows that he wants to see her as an innocent being, which is enforced by her vocabulary throughout the event, such as when Holden gives his fake age and her response is, “Like fun you are.” (Catcher, 94) Sunny, who is actually a whore, gives Holden a hard time seeing her as such. He sees her as an innocent child, giving him a great inner conflict. How could someone be both a whore, which she obviously is, and the innocent adolescent which Holden perceives her. This episode reveals to us Holden’s belief in the innocence of youth, as Sunny’s youth makes it impossible for him to come to the conclusion of the obvious; Sunny is a whore.

Holden suffers from a very complex psychological disorder known as the Madonna/whore complex. Throughout this novel we are shown many characters that reveal to us just how Holden is affected from this disorder, from Jane to the three women in the bar to Sunny. All of these women represent the different aspects of this complex given to us to see exactly how Holden is affected by this disorder and how it affects his interaction with the world around him.

Bibliography
Downey, Sarah. "The Etymology and Symbolism of Characters."
Essay, 13 May 2001.Grade Saver. 2006. 4 May 2008 http://homepage.mac.com/mseffie/assignments/catcher/
Etymology.pdf.

Salinger, J D. The Catcher in the Rye. 1945. Boston, MA: Little Brown and Company, 1951.
Speyer, John A. "The Madonna/Whore Complex." Primal Feelings. 4 May 2008 <http://primal-page.com/madonna.htm>.

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