Alienation In The Catcher In The Rye Essays

Salinger s The Catcher in the Rye

Defined as a withdrawing or separation of a person or a person's affections from an object or position of former attachment, alienation is considered by critics to be one of the most arousing themes in American fiction literature.  It becomes relevant in The Catcher in the Rye through the actions of a young man named Holden Caulfield.  To the reader, it seems as if every action of Holden, every reference to the setting, every symbol somehow relates to the overall theme of alienation, or loneliness in the novel.  By analyzing the devices of symbolism. characterization, setting, and narrative technique, Salinger s theme in The Catcher in the Rye is clearly portrayed.

In the controversial novel, The Catcher in the Rye, Salinger uses literary symbolism to illustrate the theme of alienation throughout the book.  One instance in which symbolism is used to this extent is, in fact, located in the title of the novel   The Catcher in the Rye.   The first time that the title is mentioned is in the sixteenth chapter of the novel where Holden recounts his encounter with a boy singing the  If a body catch a body coming through the rye  song (Salinger 150).  According to sources, the song Holden is referring to is a poem called  Comin  Thro  the Rye,  by Robert Burns, which questions the integrity of having a romantic affair out in the fields, away from the public eye ( Themes  1).  The second time that the title becomes of peak concern is in the twenty-second chapter, when Holden describes to Phoebe his aspirations for the future and dream of being a  catcher in the rye  (Salinger 224).  He wants to  catch  children before their innocence collapses over the edge of a cliff into a world of adulthood and knowledge of sex.   Because of Holden s uniqueness and indifference to societal norms, these instances clearly depict how the symbols associated with the title influence the theme of alienation.  

The red hunting hat and the Museum of Natural History are both symbols that convey the sense of alienation in the novel.  The displays are enclosed in glass cases and thus seem to Holden as being moments in history that are  frozen  in time (Salinger 156-157).  Holden is troubled by the ever-changing world around him and thus resorts back to his  catcher in the rye  fantasy, where life was terminally simple and predictable.  Because of his uncomfortableness, Holden attempts to remove himself from the unpredictable challenges of the real world thereby catapulting him to an intentional state of alienation.  Also, Holden s red hunting cap is a reoccurring symbol in the novel.  Outlandish as it may seem, the red hat symbolizes Holden s individuality and uniqueness and he carries it around anywhere he goes ( Themes  1).   Unknowingly anticipating a style that would be popular several decades later, he wears it backward.   Those who follow baseball cannot help noticing that this is how a catcher wears his cap, hence a connection to the title of the book  (Baldwin, 29).   It can be concluded that the red hunting cap is representative of Holden s need for alienation while simultaneously yearning for companionship.  

The theme of alienation is also depicted in the setting of the novel.  Salinger set The Catcher in the Rye first in a school in Pennsylvania called Pencey Prep.  According to Novels for Students, Pencey Prep was ironically the setting for much of Salinger s youth as well,  although the novel is not strictly autobiographical  (Telgen 124).  At the time of the opening of the story, Holden informs the reader that he has already flunked out of four subjects because of his refusal to apply himself in class (Salinger 6).  To Holden, Pencey represents all that is artificial, or  phony  as he refers to it, and all that is despicable about adult-run institutions.  Ranging from the modest school motto:  Since 1888 we have been molding boys into splendid, clear-thinking young men  (Salinger 4), to the brutal suicide at Elkton Hills (Salinger 18-19), Holden feels that the school is filled with lies and cruelty.  Because of his time spent at Pencey trying not to adjust to the school or conform to social norms, the reader notices the first instance of a developing sense of alienation in Holden. 

The remaining portion of the novel is set in New York City, where Holden evacuates to in attempt to escape the  phoniness  of adulthood.  Holden seems to be repelled by and attracted to the fear, danger, and decadence centered in the New York City of the time.  Susan Mitchell writes,  Can Holden, people, and society be entirely unchanging   always lying, always corrupt, always phony? Or are there internal forces within each that cause them to change (un)willingly?  (130).  Holden uses his isolation as proof that he is better than everyone else around him and therefore above interacting with them ( Themes  1).  He proves this throughout his stay in New York City.  Therefore it is clear that the theme of alienation is evident and visible in the settings of the novel.

The narrative techniques found in The Catcher in the Rye clearly illustrate the novel s theme of alienation, or loneliness.  Throughout the course of the book, the narrator goes through three stages.  First is J.D. Salinger, who takes the position of a thirty-two-year-old man, looking back in anger at his  lousy childhood  as Holden Caulfield.  The story is told as one recovering from a nervous breakdown in a mental health facility ( Catcher  1).  To Holden it is  this madman stuff that happened to me around last Christmas just before I got pretty run-down and had to come down here and take it easy  (Salinger, 3).  The reader can sense the  edge  in the narrator s voice as he describes the  phoniness  of his surroundings at boarding school.   The second narrator describes life more like a recollection.  Holden, now seventeen, becomes what seems to be more comfortable with telling his story, thus it becomes less  edgy  and more retrospective.  Finally, the third, most immediate narrator is in fact, sixteen-year-old Holden.  It is in this section of the novel that Holden seems to realize his destiny and the irony of The Catcher in the Rye.  Holden says,  And I m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff.  What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff  (Salinger, 224).  The narrators use first person,  I , to furthermore convey the message and theme of the story.

According to Telgen, the book proceeds in chronological order and the events are  related to the reader as Holden thinks of them  (Telgen, 124).  This form of narration is widely known as  stream of consciousness.  Telgen also goes on to point out that the reader tends to follow Holden whenever his mind wanders.  For instance, one may note that Holden s language throughout the novel reflects that of a ten-year-old more than the language of an intelligent sixteen or seventeen-year-old.  This may be partly due to the fact that Holden is unwilling to grow up and join the  hypocritical adult world  in which he despises.  The division of narrators and the technique of  stream of consciousness  clearly convey the theme of alienation in the novel.

Characterization is undoubtedly one of the most vital aspects in the analysis of The Catcher in the Rye as it pertains to the theme of alienation.  The main character who is essential to the plight of the novel is Holden, who happens to also be the narrator.  Holden is the seventeen-year-old protagonist in the story and tells this whole story in the form of a flashback from a mental health facility.   A too literal reading of Holden s divulgence that he is telling the story from some sort of rest home at the end of the novel  (Baumbach 136).  As the main story unfolds, Holden is described as being sixteen, a habitual smoker, and in poor health (Salinger, 8).  Throughout the course of the novel, the reader notices that Holden is literally about to crash.  In the novel, Holden states,   I m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff   (Salinger, 224).  He feels that he will disappear or fall into an abyss the moment he steps off the curb to cross the street.  Holden has an inability to come to terms with death, reminiscent of haunting visions of his dead brother Allie lying in the cemetery.   His guilt seems to arise primarily from an incident that occurred when Allie was alive.  (Mitchell 132).  Also, one can assume that Holden wants time itself to stop so that beautiful, happy moments would last forever.  For example, the displays in the glass at the Museum of Natural History show people doing the same things year after year (Salinger, 157).

Another unique thing about Holden which further conveys his alienation is his resentment of the adult world and his resistance to enter into it.  On one hand Holden is attracted to the benefits of adulthood such as cigarettes (Salinger, 8), the sense of independence, and the  idea  of sex.  On the other hand, he despises the compromises, loss of innocence, absence of integrity and loss of authenticity, or  phoniness , in the adult world.  In addition, Holden s younger sister, Phoebe has been made of importance.  She serves, among other things,  an ideal of innocence and honesty in contrast to the corruption and phoniness of the adult world  (Svogun, 1).  To the reader, Phoebe may at times seem like the only figure of joy and beauty in the world. 

After one s evaluation of the setting, narrative techniques, characterization, and symbolism found in The Catcher in the Rye, Salinger s theme of alienation clearly applies to this novel.  Holden s captivating story describes the maturing of an already mature young man through the reference to alienation in the novel.  Nevertheless, the overall theme is well-represented in the novel using the four literary techniques analyzed in this essay. 


Discuss The Theme Of Alienation In "The Catcher In The Rye" By J.D. Salinger And "The Chocolate War" By Robert Cormier

Growing Up and Loathing It

Alienation can be interpreted as loneliness caused by the lack of understanding of others, and may be caused by oneself or inflicted upon by another. During teenage years, boys are especially susceptible to the anguish felt as a result of alienation. Jerry Renault, the protagonist of the Chocolate War, is encumbered by both the alienation imposed upon himself, and that which is burdened upon him by a secret society known as the Vigils. The Catcher in the Rye introduces Holden Caufield who has segregated himself from all but a few of those surrounding him, and is deeply troubled by this. The alienation wrought by Caufield's awkward ascension into adulthood is manifested in his fallacious attempts to casually interact with others. Because of their ages, Jerry and Holden feel threatened by the individuals whom they would normally associate themselves. This intimidation spurs the alienation and loneliness felt by Jerry Renault and Holden Caufield.

Jerry Renault, an average teenager, has an issue with confidence that influences him to doubt himself, and thus alienate himself from his peers. Because Renault has low self-esteem and feels little influence from his classmates, he refuses to sell chocolates "like every other kid in... school"(Cormier 66). He lacks the school spirit that others posses because he is excluded from them in his head. This reinforces Renault's lack of influence felt as a result of others, and shows the fact that he is indeed alienated. In addition, after he refuses to sell the chocolates and is shunned by his classmates, "he [feels] invisible"(163). Jerry causes this himself, for his actions alone influence the entire student body to dissociate him from their ranks. Jerry who is suddenly forced to come to terms with the situation, instead, separates himself from his former peers even further. Also, even when the students realize that Renault is "some kind of rebel hero," he refuses to respond to them and continues his self-imposed alienation (175). Jerry Renault, who at this point has lost all hope of being a normal student, continues his assault on all of that which he would hold dear. If it would not have been for his minuscule sense of self-esteem, he would not alienate himself from the rest of the student body. Jerry's alienation from all the people that he would normally embrace has caused him mental and physical hardship concerning the interactions with others. The malicious gang known as the Vigils is responsible for much of the hardship faced by Renault. For instance, most students tend to display a certain demeanor known as "a Vigils thing;" they become very upset at Jerry when he doesn't act in this specified manner (103). When opposed, the Vigils rely on the average student's tendency...

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