One theme that prevails throughout the eight chapters of The Catcher in the Rye under discussion is the social malaise that exists. For, either the individual cannot relate to society, or society is such that it alienates the individual. There is no question that Holden Caulfield feels dissatisfied with life as he vacillates between imitating the conventions of society by smoking and drinking, while at the same time, he decries phoniness. In his ambivalence, Holden would like to escape by recapturing the past with Jane or the memory of Allie or freezing time as in the museum where Holden observes "everything stays the same." And, yet, in Chapter 17, when he asks Sally if she will run away with him, Sally is too practical, and is wary of his ill-formed plans.
In his ambivalence and disappointments and impulsiveness, Holden becomes very confused and disillusioned at times, an emotion reflective of his times. For, in the 1950s, there was sense of guilt in America after the release of the atomic bomb, and the other killings of World War II.
This disillusion and sense of the meaninglessness of life was also experienced previously after World War I. In Eric Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front, a testament of the German Paul Baumer, a youth induced to become a soldier, the alienation of the young man as well as his sense of emptiness and disillusion is expressed. For instance, in Chapter Six he narrates,
We have lost all feeling for one another....[there is] a vast, inapprehensible melancholy. Once we had such desires--but they return not. They are past, they belong to another world that is gone from us.