The Catcher in the Rye Themes

The main themes in The Catcher in the Rye include the individual versus society, adolescent rebellion, and mental health challenges.

  • The individual versus society: Holden’s rejection of mainstream values represents an individual’s struggle to find a place in society. He's a perfect example of a discontented youth who feels alienated and powerless.
  • Adolescent rebellion: Holden's youthful idealism makes him hypercritical of "phony" people incapable of authenticity. He rejects the world of false appearances and longs to discard social conventions in favor of beauty.
  • Mental health challenges: Holden suffers from mental health issues that get steadily worse as the novel progresses.

Themes

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Last Updated on June 3, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1011

J.D. Salinger explores several rich themes about the challenges of life in the 20th century, particularly for adolescents as they come of age and realize the world doesn't always live up to their expectations. Among the most salient themes are the conflict between the individual and society, adolescent rebellion, and coping with mental health challenges.

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The Individual Versus Society

Throughout The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield is in conflict with the expectations of the society around him. He is bored by the typical lessons in school, which he expresses to his teacher Mr. Spencer. In addition to refusing to complete his school work, Holden also breaks the rules by leaving Pencey Prep early to go to New York City on his own. That is, he symbolically removes himself from his society, the world of his prep school.

Holden expresses extreme distaste for the society he lives in because he feels it is inauthentic and doesn't allow for the expression of genuine human emotion. Holden calls this "phoniness." He can't stand when people act a certain way because they think it's what is expected.

For example, he is turned off by the girls he meets on his first night in New York when all they can think about is meeting a famous actor; likewise, Holden is disgusted by Sally Hayes's imitation of adults when she talks about the actors on stage and suggests going skating because she wants to wear a cute skirt.

To Holden, society is too focused on superficial things like appearances and possessions. He tries to express his thoughts by telling Sally that he hates cars and would rather have a horse because they're "at least human, for God's sake."

Sally doesn't understand and leaves in a huff, highlighting Holden's isolation. Because Holden cannot bring himself to enjoy or even care about the same things as the people around him, he is left alienated from society at large. This conflict causes Holden great pain. He tries over and over throughout the novel to connect with the people around him, only to find that they don't understand his views. For Holden, society may not be worth joining, but being alone is a painful alternative and choosing isolation only results in more pain and self destruction.

Adolescent Rebellion

Society at large is often represented by the adults and authority figures in Holden's life, which casts the conflict of the individual vs. society as one of adolescent rebellion. For example, Holden's teachers expect him to apply himself to his studies, but he repeatedly chooses not to. Holden is an intelligent boy who loves to read, and past teachers like Mr. Spencer and Mr. Antolini see promise in him. However, Holden fails out of Pencey and deliberately chooses a topic for Stradlater's essay that doesn't match the assignment. At every turn, Holden pushes back against the adults in his life, choosing to disobey their rules and disregard their advice. He finally rebels against adult supervision entirely when he runs away to New York City.

Holden also copes with competing desires when it comes to women and sex. He is repulsed by Stradlater's cavalier treatment of the girls he dates, particularly when he imagines Jane Gallagher being taken advantage of. At the same time, Holden wishes to prove his own sexual prowess and goes as far as hiring a prostitute, though he ends up only wanting to talk to her.

Holden's conflicting desires are an honest reflection of the fits and starts of growing up, a process that Salinger portrays as exquisitely difficult, especially for a person as sensitive as Holden. Teenage rebellion may seem commonplace, but Salinger shows the reader that beneath the bravado and bad behavior lies real anxiety about how to live as an adult.

Coping With Mental Health Challenges

Though Holden lacks language to describe his anguish in clinical terms, readers will recognize that he is suffering a mental health crisis that worsens throughout the novel. The catalyst for Holden's pain is the death of his younger brother, Allie, which occurs before the events in the novel begin. At the time, Holden had an outburst in which he punched through the windows of the garage, permanently damaging his hand and making his parents to want to have him "psychoanalyzed." In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden is still grieving his brother, but no one seems to understand his lingering sadness. Even his sister Phoebe is frustrated when Holden insists that Allie is the one thing he likes.

Holden describes his feelings as depression throughout the novel, and his actions also show that he is suffering:

  • He isolates himself from the adults in his life, refusing to accept help from the teachers who care about him.
  • He feels that he can't go home because he will be a burden to his mother, who hasn't been the same since Allie's death.
  • He tries to connect with friends repeatedly, but he fails; instead, he wanders aimlessly alone, with no regard for his physical health in the cold or for his safety on the streets at night.

Holden's overwhelming sadness and growing inability to care for himself are clear signs of untreated depression. Holden also contemplates suicide. He reaches a low point when he is robbed by Sunny the prostitute and punched by Maurice. In pain and alone, he crawls into bed and thinks about killing himself by jumping out of the window.

Salinger paints an unvarnished portrait of what it's like to suffer from depression as a teen or young adult. It's unclear by the end of the novel if Holden has received the help he needs from the psychoanalyst he's been seeing in California during his recovery, but he is still sad. He regrets having shared his story, because it made him miss everyone. The fact that Holden recognizes he misses his friends from Pencey ultimately suggests that the antidote to alienation and depression lies in connecting with others. Whether he is able to move forward and make those connections or remains doomed to struggle into adulthood alone is left open to interpretation.

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