AP English Language
9 June 2014
Alienation as the Embodiment of Self-Preservation in The Catcher in the Rye
Written in 1951 during Post-World War II America by J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye details the deteriorating psychological state of the protagonist, Holden Caulfield, a pessimistic misanthrope who is convinced that the adult world is spurious and full of “phonies.” Throughout the bildungsroman, Holden’s various interactions with incommensurable individuals highlight his frequent obsession with the child-like innocence that he desperately covets and fails to protect in himself and others around him. While resisting maturation, Holden believes he resents society because society is fraudulent and artificial, but all he really yearns for is someone who is willing to listen to his fears regarding his transition into adulthood. When nobody gives him the attention he craves, Holden subconsciously estranges himself from others, and in his mind, it is the validation he seeks as to why he is more copacetic than everyone else around him. His cynical sense of superiority is his habitude of self-preservation, and while it does offer him some stability, it also debilitates his mental soundness and social capability. Holden craves human interaction but his contemptuously defensive barrier prevents him from doing so; thus it not only becomes his sole source of strength, but it also morphs into his biggest detrimental obstacle. Through the usage of recurring symbolism, juvenile first-person narration, and the contradictory hypocrisy of the protagonist in the novel, Salinger realistically portrays the chronic feelings of alienation and isolation that characterize a coming-of-age story while also adamantly addressing the abstruse issue regarding the loss of one’s innocence.
Inseparable from the protagonist, the obnoxious red hunting hat has come to be one of the paramount symbols that epitomize the distinctive child-like identity of Holden Caulfield. Although seemingly proud and boastful of the flamboyant hat, Holden becomes very self-conscious when he is in the public eye and does not wear it, but in his moments of vulnerability, the hat shows up to aggrandize his confidence and transmute his attitude into a tough, lackadaisical one. Thus, the red hunting hat transforms into a crucial way by which the protagonist perceives himself because when he wears it, he can be as insular and individualistic as he desires. Conversely, the hat also represents Holden’s inability to love others, Holden himself states, “This is a people shooting hat. I shoot people in this hat” (Salinger 30). The hostile indifference in his tone solidifies his defense mechanism against others and halts all insightful interactions with the “phonies” and other individuals. At the time of the novel’s publication, young people wore hats with the bill turned front. However, Holden deliberately wears the hat backwards “as a badge of his nonconformity and his rebellion against the rest of society,” which also symbolizes his self- appointed task of preserving innocence (Vanderbilt 297). “To be a catcher in the rye, Holden’s ambition, is to be a kind of secular saint, willing and able to save children from disasters” (Bloom 1-2). In addition, the backwards bill also symbolizes the reverse direction of his enigmatic journey for love. “As long as Holden wears the bill to the back, he remains a victim of his neurosis and continues to be unreceptive to the regenerative power of love” (Unrue 40). The presence of the hat deftly mirrors the central struggle of the book which is the protagonist’s frantic tendency towards peaceful isolation versus his critical need for attentive companionship.
Repeatedly, the ducks at the central lagoon materialize throughout the novel and Holden’s fixation with them has come to embody his struggle with change and the torment of maturation. In the frigid wintertime, Holden frets over where the ducks will go...
Cited: Bloom, Harold. J.D. Salinger 's The Catcher in the Rye. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2000. Print.
Costello, Donald P. “The Language of The Catcher in the Rye.” Critical Insights: The Catcher in the Rye. American Speech: A Quarterly of Linguistic Usage (1959): 251-64. Print.
Heiserman, Arthur, and James E. Miller Jr. “J.D. Salinger: Some Crazy Cliff.” Critical Insights: The Catcher in the Rye. Western Humanities Review (1963): 3-7. Print.
Salinger, J. D. The Catcher in the Rye. Boston: Little, Brown, 2001. Print.
Unrue, John C. Literary Masterpieces The Catcher in the Rye. Detroit: Gale Group, 2001. Print.
Vanderbilt, Kermit. “Symbolic Resolution in The Catcher in the Rye: The Cap, the Carrousel, and the American West.” Critical Insights: The Catcher in the Rye. Western Humanities Review (1963): 297-305. Print.
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