What are some problems that Holden faces in The Catcher in the Rye?

Holden faces two major problems in The Catcher in the Rye, from which his other problems stem. First, he struggles with guilt over his younger brother Allie's death, and second, he struggles with the adolescent desire to save the world. These two problems collide in his wish to atone for Allie's death by becoming the catcher in the rye, the person who saves the innocent from disaster.

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Two major problems collide for Holden: the survivor's guilt he experiences over his brother Allie's death and the issues of adolescence. These two originating problems lead to other issues, such as his inability to succeed in prep school.

Adolescents often have an inflated idea of their role in the...

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Two major problems collide for Holden: the survivor's guilt he experiences over his brother Allie's death and the issues of adolescence. These two originating problems lead to other issues, such as his inability to succeed in prep school.

Adolescents often have an inflated idea of their role in the world as they struggle to adopt the mantle of adult responsibility. The burden Holden bears is his desire to protect and save all the innocent and vulnerable people of the world as a way to atone for his younger brother's death. This pattern plays out in the novel: Holden fights with Stradlater out of a misplaced desire to defend Jane; he won't sleep with the vulnerable teenage prostitute he hires; he gives the nuns he meets in the diner money because it bothers him that their breakfast is so meager; and he shows the boys at the Metropolitan Museum of Art the way to the mummies. When he goes to visit his little sister, Phoebe, he tells her he would like to be the catcher in the rye, the person who stands at the edge of the cliff near where children play and saves them before they can fall off.

To mature, Holden needs to learn that it is not up to him to save the world—a lesson he begins to learn at the end of the novel as he lets Phoebe take risks to reach for the gold ring on the merry-go-round.

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The main problem for Holden is that he can't bridge the gap between adolescence and adulthood. He feels more intensely than most young adults the pressure to find a place for himself in a world that's scary and largely incomprehensible. Yet he lacks the ability to do so. His chronic cynicism gives him a perspective on the world that precludes any meaningful involvement in it. Everyone and everything in the big old world outside is just "phony," and so Holden refuses to engage meaningfully with people he regards as being terminally fake and insincere.

Most young adults go through a difficult period of readjustment, but it's much harder for Holden. Psychologically, he's still a child, still incapable of living in the world, despite his constitutional cynicism. He just wants to be "the catcher in the rye," protecting the innocence of children, the innocence which he himself has lost, yet yearns so much to recover. But he cannot do this. He can't even protect himself. In order to live up to his heroic self-image he needs to take a step up and become a responsible adult. But for Holden, this is an impossibility. And it's this chronic inability to reconcile the two elements of his developing personality that leads more than anything else to his institutionalization. 

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One of the major issues that Holden deals with throughout the novel concerns the death of his younger brother Allie, who died of leukemia when he was eleven. Allie's death significantly impacts Holden's mental health and well-being. On the night that Allie died, Holden broke every window in his garage and had to be hospitalized. Holden then sinks deeply into depression and does not get over his brother's untimely death. Holden's traumatic childhood experience negatively impacts his grades, relationships, and overall perspective on life. Holden is unable to maintain close friendships with boys his age and cannot focus on the majority of his subjects at school. He also has a negative disposition toward practically everything he encounters in life and seems to live in the past. Even Holden's fear of becoming an adult is connected to the death of his younger brother. Holden's psychological issues mimic the symptoms of individuals suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Holden never sought therapy following the death of his brother and proceeds to live an unfulfilling, depressed life. Allie's death is the root of Holden's many social and mental issues throughout the novel. 

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One major adolescent issue that Holden faces in the novel is dealing with his sexuality.  Near the end of the book, Holden assumes that Mr. Antolini is trying to make a sexual advance on him, and he says that these types of things have happened to him many times before.  It is unclear whether Holden means that he has been molested in the past or whether he has received advances by other males in the past.  In either case, the experience with Mr. Antolini makes Holden uncomfortable at the moment when it happens (Holden later considers that Mr. Antolini was just being affectionate towards him because he felt sorry for him).  Earlier in the novel, Holden also displays his inexperience with women.  Even though he talks a great deal about making out with girls, when he invites Sunny to his room, he does not have sex with her.  He claims that he realized he was not in the mood, but he often says this to cover up his true intentions (he also used this line to get out of speaking to Jane when she went on a date with Stradlater).  Holden is still caught in his desire to go back to his childhood, so his adolescent sexuality is an issue that he is not prepared to address.

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