Illustration of a man smoking a cigarette

The Catcher in the Rye

by J. D. Salinger
Start Free Trial

In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden felt like committing suicide. Why didn't he?

In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden does not commit suicide because he is too indecisive to do anything so final.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Among Holden's many character traits is indecisiveness. Here is a young man, not unlike Hamlet in this regard, who finds it difficult if not outright impossible to make a firm decision and stick to it.

Like Hamlet, Holden contemplates suicide as an escape from a world that has become nothing more than a vale of tears. But again like Hamlet, he doesn't go through with killing himself, not least because that would involve making a firm decision, something Holden has often shown himself to be incapable of.

At the risk of indulging in armchair psychology, one could argue that Holden's expressed wish to commit suicide isn't really genuine; it's just an immature reaction to an unpleasant situation.

Not everything in Holden's world is unpleasant, whatever he might say. As well as his beloved sister Phoebe, he has Jane Gallagher in his life, a girl for whom he has romantic feelings, as well as being one of the few people he knows who isn't actually a phony. Holden may have put Jane on a pedestal, making her somewhat less real as a consequence, but she's real enough to make a positive difference to his life all the same.

So it seems that Holden has something worth living for, something that makes it unlikely that his apparent desire to take his own life has any real substance to it.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In The Catcher in the Rye, one of Holden's most characteristic traits is his uncertainty. He is continually vacillating, uncertain what he wants from moment to moment. He loves Sally Hayes, and he also hates her. At one point, he asks her to run away with him to a cabin in New England, but moments later, he is so irritated by her that he cannot stand her company. He is eager to lose his virginity, but he is also repelled by sex, and, when he has a prostitute in his hotel room, he feels sorry for her and cannot bring himself to do anything but talk.

Holden does not know quite how he feels about anything, and his indecisiveness prevents him from committing suicide, since this would be a final and irrevocable act. Perhaps the most potent argument against killing oneself is the obvious fact that deciding to do so is final, whereas deciding not to do so is provisional. If someone feels suicidal today, they may not feel the same tomorrow, but if they commit suicide, there is no tomorrow. Holden is never sufficiently certain of anything enough to know how he will feel about life in the future. This means that, however bleak life appears to him, there is always hope.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Holden says "What I really felt like, though, was committing suicide" after an encounter with the two pimps who come banging on his hotel room door to demand full payment for the prostitute he hired but didn't have sex with. The encounter is sordid and overhung with the threat of violence (as well as some low-level violence), and it leaves Holden feeling miserable.

Holden, however, loves Phoebe too much to want to commit suicide. The two of them have both already lost Allie, and Holden is not about to add a second brother's death to Phoebe's troubles. He wants to protect Phoebe as well as all the other children of the world. That is why he imagines himself as the catcher in the rye, the person who saves children before they run off the edge of a cliff. He can't do that if he kills himself.

Further, as the novel shows, Holden is deeply engaged with life. By the end of the novel, when Phoebe shows up with her suitcase, he no longer wants to run away.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Holden is obviously depressed for much of the story and he explicitly states his wish to commit suicide at the end of Chapter 14, following his run-in with Maurice the pimp:

I felt like jumping out the window. I probably would've done it, too, if I'd been sure somebody'd cover me up as soon as I landed. I didn't want a bunch of stupid rubbernecks looking at me when I was all gory.

The only reason why he doesn’t top himself at this point, according to him, is that he doesn’t want to run the risk of making a spectacle of himself; he fears that all the stupid phonies won’t leave him alone even in death. However, it is unlikely he would have killed himself in any case, as although he appears to despise other people, he still has connections to them.  In fact, he is even able to say, at the end of the story, ‘I think I even miss that goddam Maurice’ (chapter  26). Really he needs other people and he needs to be part of society; it is just that he is going through a very confused stage, common to adolescence, of trying to adjust to the adult world and find his place in it. Most of all, he needs and cares for his family, and doesn’t ever want to do anything to hurt them. He often gets very low, and it is not surprising that he should be feeling particularly bad after being beaten up by Maurice, but he is not genuinely suicidal, even at this point.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team