Why does Holden rescue others, but fail to rescue himself in The Catcher in the Rye?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Since the novel begins with Holden's narrating from an institution, it is apparent that he suffers psychologically. While this condition was not diagnosed in Salinger's time, the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress--depression, crying, uncontrollable rage, lack of concentration and motivation, sleeplessness--appear to be exhibited by Holden throughout the narrative. Clearly, because of his repeated allusions to them, he is traumatized by the untimely deaths of his beloved brother Allie and the innocent James Castle who threw himself out of window to escape his tormentors. He yearns for a better world, one in which goodness can be put into a glass case as in the museum which he frequented as a youngster, a world, at least, in which the innocent children can be caught and protected as they come through "the rye" of young adulthood and its accompanying disillusion.

Holden cannot rescue himself because the vicissitudes of his personal life overwhelm him. Like many gifted children, imperfections of character gravely disappoint him and he becomes cynical as a result, railing at the hypocrisy and mindless conformity of his world. Holden's focus is too narrow, too inward for him to be objective about himself or others. His efforts at independence are stultified by his obsession with death and fear of adulthood and commitment. He can write a composition for Stradlater, donate to Catholic nuns, throw some money at a prostitute, etc. because there is no obligation to them or deep personal interaction. But, he cannot go to the Annex and greet Jane, for whom he still has feelings, from whom he may suffer some judgment and memory, and have some demands placed upon himself. Holden Caulfied is unable to adjust to his society because of his traumatized perceptions that are colored by his feelings of alienation, disillusionment, and morbidity. His final words to his readers indicate injured and fragile nature: 

Don't ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.

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The Catcher in the Rye

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