How are the themes of depression and loneliness shown in The Catcher in the Rye? 

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator
One does not have to look hard in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye to find evidence of Holden Caufield’s loneliness and despair.  On the contrary, Holden is quite revealing about his sentiments throughout his narration.  In addition to his general state of ennui with regard to his status in life, his ruminations regarding his surroundings are replete with expressions of dismay, as when he visits his history teacher, Mr. Spencer, and thinks about how depressing is the environment in which he is immersed.  Evidence regarding Holden’s state of mind, however, is available at the outset.  The very first sentence of The Catcher in the Rye reads as follows:
"If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, an what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”
And that’s just the beginning.  In Chapter Two, he comments regarding his position in life by noting:
"Game, my ass. . .If you get on the side where all the hot-shots are, then it's a game, all right--I'll admit that. But if you get on the other side, where there aren't any hot-shots, then what's a game about it? Nothing. No game.”
During the aforementioned visit to Mr. Spencer’s home,  Holden is given to reflect further on the depressing nature of his existence.  It is during his conversation with the elderly teacher, in fact, that the depth of the young man’s ennui is presented.  Having discussed his dismissal from the Pencey Academy with the closest thing he has to a mentor, Mr. Spencer draws Holden’s attention to a note the latter had earlier submitted to his teacher:

DEAR MR. SPENCER [he read out loud]. That is all I know about the Egyptians. I can't seem to get very interested in them although your lectures are very interesting. It is all right with me if you flunk me though as I am flunking everything else except English anyway.

Respectfully yours, HOLDEN CAULFIELD.

Holden’s note to Mr. Spencer illuminates the extent of his loneliness and despair.  Holden is the quintessential alienated youth, unable to fit comfortably in any environment, and so full of self-loathing that he transposes those feelings onto everyone and everything around him.  His scathing descriptions of Ackley, who occupies the room next door, is a case in point.  Having escaped to Ackley’s room to escape the continued beatings from his own roommate, Stradlater, Holden continues to reflect on the extent of his despair.  The following quote from Chapter Seven provides an informative glimpse into his psychological state.  In the scene, Ackley is attempting to ascertain the reason for the loud banging from Holden’s room and the sudden appearance of a bloodied friend at his door:

"Listen, what the hell was the fight about?"

I didn't answer him. All I did was, I got up and went over and looked out the window. I felt so lonesome, all of a sudden. I almost wished I was dead.

Caulfield's novel is a classic of American literature.  That its subject matter involves the sense of alienation common to teenagers, especially those who don't fit easily into a ready-made clique and for whom the looming specter of adulthood is a depressing thought, has rightfully made it a staple of high school education.  It resonates with those for whom the high school years are a melancholy time.

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The Catcher in the Rye

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