Discuss the recurring motif of death in The Catcher in the Rye. Refer to Allie's death, James Castle's suicide, and Holden's thoughts of his own death.

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The recurring motif of death in J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye proves that the deaths of James Castle and his brother Allie are the biggest reason that Holden experiences his mental breakdown. He is deeply grieved by the abrupt suicide of James Castle and his brother Allie's losing battle with leukemia that it really gets him thinking about death in an unhealthy way. Part of the reason that Holden thinks about his own death is because he didn't receive the counseling and emotional support that he needed after experiencing these two tragic events. People didn't understand the trauma that death can cause a person back in the 1940s and 1950s. Even if they did, people didn't talk about mental illnesses with the same sensitivity and understanding as they do today. There really wasn't much help for Holden to find at that time in history; as a result, he suffers with the instability, grief, and loss felt from being so close to two deaths of two young boys. It would have been different had these been the deaths of aging and sick grandparents; but these were kids who died senselessly, and Holden doesn't know how to deal with the confusion.

Another effect that these two deaths have on Holden's life is the fact that he becomes very critical of "phonies." James Castle died because phonies bullied the poor boy right out the window. As for Allie, a senseless and unpredictable illness took him out of this world too soon; and according to Holden, Allie was the only non-phony person who ever lived. If good, young kids die, then Holden doesn't want to face anyone or anything that is phony in life. Most of all, Holden doesn't want to grow up to become a phony and that scares him the most. If he dies young, then he will have died without becoming a phony and that is very important to him.

"I think, even, if I ever die, and they stick me in a cemetery, and I have a tombstone and all, it'll say 'Holden Caulfield' on it, and then what year I was born and what year I died, and then right under that it'll say 'F*** you.' I'm positive, in fact" (204).

The above passage shows Holden's attitude on life and the fact that he is always disappointed with most everyone and everything. He thinks life is full of phonies, he doesn't trust anyone, and at every turn he is failing. Death seems like a pretty good option for good people, apparently. Fortunately, Holden winds up in a hospital in California and hopefully get the help that he needs to let go of childhood and enter the adult world with a more positive attitude on life.

Read the study guide:
The Catcher in the Rye

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