A Psychological Interpretation: the Irony of Holden Caulfield’s Inner Conflict with Society

Topics: Maslow's hierarchy of needs, Alfred Adler, Superiority complex Pages: 7 (2482 words) Published: December 10, 2012
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 to 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.


Cited: "Abraham Maslow." BrainyQuote.com. Xplore Inc, 2010. 2 June. 2010.

Heiserman, Arthur and James. E Miller, Jr. “J. D. Salinger: Some Crazy Cliff.” Western Humanities Review 1956: 129-37. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Dedria Bryfonski. Vol. 12. Detroit: Gale, 1980. 496-97.
Hicks, Granville. “J. D. Salinger: Search for Wisdom.” The Saturday Review 1959: 13. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Dedria Bryfonski. Vol. 12. Detroit: Gale, 1980. 502-03.
Irving, Joanne. “The Catcher in the Rye: An Adlerian Interpretation.” Journal of Individual Psychology. 1976: 81-93. EBSCOhost. .
Maslow, Abraham H. Motivation and Personality. New York: Harper and Row, 1987.
Privitera, Lisa. “Holden’s Irony in Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.” The Explicator. 2008: 203-206. EBSCOhost. .
Salinger, J. D. The Catcher in the Rye. Boston: Little, Brown, 1951.
Strauch, Carl F. “Kings in the Back Row: Meaning through Structure--A Reading of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.” Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature 1961: 5-30. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Dedria Bryfonski. Vol. 12. Detroit: Gale, 1980. 505-510.
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