In J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, what does Holden mean when he says, "Mothers are all slightly insane"?
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As the main character in J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield is in an emotional and psychological downward spiral throughout the book. As we listen to his first-person narration we begin to realize that we cannot take everything he says at face value.
Holden makes quite a few value judgments over the course of the story. Sometimes these judgments are valid critiques of life from an adolescent point of view. Sometimes, however, the judgments have an ironic meaning—Holden doesn’t realize that he is revealing his own character weakness.
In chapter 8 (page 55 in my edition) Holden is riding the train home. When an attractive older woman sits next to him, he learns that she is the mother of a Pencey student named Ernest Morrow that he does not like. When he says “Mothers are all slightly insane,” he is commenting on a mother’s tendency to see the best, and ignore the worst, in their own children.
Previous to this statement, Ernest’s mother reveals that she is concerned about Ernest because he is too “sensitive” to “mix” well with others. This draws a critical comment from Holden (keep in mind that he says this to the reader, but not to the mother):
The truth about Holden is that he is actually the one who is slightly insane. He is suffering psychologically and will soon reach a breaking point. Late in the story he reveals that he has been in treatment, and, although he does not give details, we know he was struggling emotionally. Throughout the novel he has criticized those around him, and the revelation that he has had a breakdown of some sort brings into question all of his judgments about others.
We don't need to read any more into what Holden Caufield means with this now classic statement "Mothers are all slightly insane" from Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. Although we may hear people say things today that are similar, the line was novel in the 1950's when the book was written.
The character Holden is referring to the worries and challenges of motherhood and all they endured from conception to present in making them "slightly insane". We often overlook the rantings of what one might call a worried mother.
When Holden meets a classmate's mother on the train to New York in chapter 8, everything he tells her is a lie. He lies and says that his name is Rudolf Schmidt and then lies about how wonderful he thinks her son Ernest is. Mrs. Morrow is polite, unassuming, and nonjudgmental. He also goes on to say that he starts to like Mrs. Morrow because of her great qualities. She proves to him that she isn't a phony, so he starts to feel a little guilty for lying to her. All things considered, Holden says that mothers are slightly insane because of their unconditional love for their children, but also because he thinks that she believes him and all of his lies. She also seems to believe him when he tells her that Ernest is popular and humble. He thinks moms are crazy for believing anything positive they are told about their children.
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