Using chapters 21-26 of The Catcher in the Rye, discuss whether society embraces or excludes individuals.

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Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye does an excellent job of showing that society excludes individuals, especially ones we might call social outcasts. Many examples can be seen with respect to Holden's prep school, especially with respect to Ackley, a boy rejected by many but whom Holden tolerates and also with respect to James Castle, who committed suicide after being tormented by the other boys in the school. We see further examples of society's rejection of the individual in chapters 21-26. Phoebe especially gives us an excellent example when Holden returns home in Chapter 21. So happy to see her brother, one of the things she gaily babbles about is a film she had just seen with her friend. The film was about a doctor who applied euthanasia to a crippled child by smothering her with a blanket. As Phoebe points out, the doctor made the choice to perform a mercy kill because he was overwhelmed by sorrow over the fact that the child was crippled for life. What's more, even though the law of society condemned the doctor to life in prison, making him a social outcast, Phoebe said the girl (possibly the girl's spirit?) visits the doctor daily in prison to thank him, showing that at least the girl appreciated what the doctor did as an individual, as we see in Phoebe's passage:

He feels sorry for it, the doctor. That's why he sticks this blanket over her face and everything and makes her suffocate. Then they make him go to jail for life imprisonment, but this child that he stuck the blanket over its head comes to visit him all the time and thanks him for what he did. He was a mercy killer. (p. 87)

Another example of society excluding the individual can be seen with respect to Holden's former English teacher, Mr. Antolini. In Chapter 23, Holden thinks back to when Mr. Antolini was the only one who approached James Castle's broken body after he jumped out the window. Based on Holden's description of Mr. Antolini checking for a pulse and wrapping Castle up in his coat, carrying him "all the way over to the infirmary," not even caring if his "coat got all bloody," we see that Mr. Antolini is a brave, caring, and generous person. However, later in Chapter 24 when Mr. Antolini says Holden can stay the night at his house, Holden jumps to the conclusion that Mr. Antolini was making a perverted sexual advance when he wakes to find Mr. Antolini stroking Holden's forehead with his hand, as we see in the passage:

I woke up all of a sudden. I don't know what time it was or anything, but I woke up. I felt something on my head, some guy's hand. Boy, it really scared hell out of me. What it was, it was Mr. Antolini's hand. What he was doing was, he was sitting on the floor right next to the couch, in the dark and all, and he was sort of petting me or patting me on the goddam head. (p. 103)

The problem with Holden's assumption is that he and Mr. Antolini had just had a very serious conversation about Holden's academic problems, especially his struggles with society and how intelligent Mr. Antolini believes Holden to be. Hence, Mr. Antolini stroking Holden's head may actually have been a demonstration of Mr. Antolini's characteristic compassion rather than a sexual advance, and when Mr. Antolini replied, "Just admiring," he may have meant it in a more intellectual way. Hence, it could be argued that Holden, like the rest of society, was too quick to judge Mr. Antolini and ostracize him as a pervert.

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