There are two major events in Holden's past related to death: his brother Allie dying from leukemia, and James Castles's suicide at the Elkton Hills school. How has each of these events affected...

There are two major events in Holden's past related to death: his brother Allie dying from leukemia, and James Castles's suicide at the Elkton Hills school. How has each of these events affected Holden and his thoughts about mortality?

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gmuss25 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Both Allie and James Castles's deaths dramatically affect Holden's outlook on life and shape his view of mortality. Holden continually thinks about his younger brother Allie, who died of leukemia at a young age. Holden recalls the night he died and mentions that he had to miss his brother's funeral, because he was in the hospital with a broken hand after he punched out the windows of his parents' car. Holden regrets not inviting Allie to go with him and a friend to the lake and talks to Allie aloud when he gets depressed. During a conversation with Phoebe later on in the novel, she asks him to name one thing he likes a lot. Holden mentions that he cannot concentrate and recalls the death of James Castle. Holden mentions that James Castle jumped out of his window and Holden heard his body hit the ground. Holden also remembers looking at his classmate's dead body. These two deaths are extremely traumatic events that happen early on in Holden's young life. Judging from Holden's negative, depressed, cynical attitude towards life, he does not seem to value life in general. He even casually mentions the possibility of killing himself several times throughout the novel. At the end of chapter 14, Holden even says,

"What I really felt like, though, was committing suicide. 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" (Salinger, 57).

Holden also has no desire to grow old and enter the world of adults. The two boys that died were young, and Holden may envy the fact that they do not have to experience the difficulties of life. Holden also has a tenuous grasp on the concept of death. There are moments throughout the novel where Holden speaks about Allie as if he is living. Holden clearly continues to struggle with accepting the fact that Allie is dead, which is evident from his feelings towards visiting Allie's grave. Holden says,

"All the visitors could get in their cars and turn on their radios and all and then go someplace nice for dinner--everybody except Allie. I couldn't stand it. I know it's only his body and all that's in the cemetery, and his soul's in Heaven and all that crap, but I couldn't stand it anyway. I just wish he wasn't there. You didn't know him. If you'd known him, you'd know what I mean" (Salinger, 84).

Overall, Holden views death as inevitable and a possible solution to escaping the difficulties of life. Considering the fact that his favorite person is dead, Holden does not seem to view dying as such a terrible thing and shares a unique perspective on death. Death is ever present in Holden's mind and the traumatic events have dramatically impacted his outlook on life. 

tinicraw eNotes educator| Certified Educator

One way to answer this question is to cross reference chapter 14 with chapter 22 in Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. In chapter 14, the reader gets a glimpse into how regretful Holden feels about a decision he made in the past with his brother Allie; that is, he told Allie to go home rather than allowing him to go with him and a friend. Holden says that he talks to Allie when he is depressed and tells him to come along with him. The connection here is that Holden does acknowledge that Allie isn't coming back and that death is real. However, when he is talking with his sister in chapter 22, he speaks about Allie as if he were still present and Phoebe feels the need to remind him that their brother is dead. It's as if Holden can't consistently accept Allie's death. When Phoebe asks Holden (chapter 22) if there is one thing he likes in life, he answers with "Allie" but then thinks of another death in his life when Phoebe rejects that answer as mentioned above.

James Castle committed suicide after being bullied by some boys at Elkton Hills school. Holden's thoughts must have drifted from Allie, whom he loved, to the only other death he had experienced up to that point in his life. As a teenager, both experiences with death were very traumatic and involved young people who should have lived out long lives. Teens usually feel invincible but Holden witnessed death very early on in life. He even describes James Castle's teeth having been strewn around him on the steps where he was found (170).

Because of these experiences, Holden must view death as an escape from a dark and tough world. Later, he even says that if he were to go to war, he'd rather that they just go and shoot him rather than make him suffer through living in the army for so long. He references this remark to his older brother's time in the army and seems to imply that living just isn't as easy as dying. Even throughout the book Holden complains about almost everyone and everything. He hates living, he sees no real purpose in life, and can't come to a decision about whether to live life (in reality) or simply try to avoid it.

Read the study guide:
The Catcher in the Rye

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