Holdens Struggle with Mental Illness in The Catcher in the Rye, a Novel by J.D. Salinger

J.D Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is known by many to be one of the best coming of age novels of all time. The book explores the complex story of Holden Caulfield, a struggling teen growing up in the late 1940’s. Salinger’s work is extremely well-known and is taught to our youth as the typical “coming of age story”. Though known for its strong adolescent insight, defining the work as a “typical” developmental novel creates a handful of concerns.

Holden’s story is unique and often misconstrued. Though he does face many of the storms and stresses teens normally deal with, there is a hole in the story Salinger completely overlooks: Holden is mentally ill. Illness is constantly hinted at throughout the entire story, but Salinger never takes the time to diagnose Holden or be straight forward with his readers about mental illness. By not diagnosing his character it leaves readers thinking that Holden’s experience is normal and the things he faces are experienced by everyone when growing up; this is not the case. If we deny the fact that Holden has a mental illness we are denying mental illness as a phenomenon. It is essential that we identify Holden’s illness in order to understand his experience better and to categorize where the work stands in the Young Adult genre.

The Catcher in the Rye is not a blanket for our entire youth, but instead a novel about an individual dealing with mental illness. Because The Catcher in the Rye is told in first-person, getting into Holden’s head is easy. We experience what he experiences, and through that we acknowledge the suffering and trauma he is truly facing. Holden’s actions, thoughts and emotions would most likely link him to some sort of mood disorder; presumably depression. According to the text Abnormal Psychology by James N. Butcher, Jill M. Hooley and Susan Mineka, depression is an emotional state characterized by extraordinary sadness and dejection. (612, Butcher) One of the leading causes of depression is trauma. Depression caused by trauma can put a hold on your life and stunt your capability to function normally.

In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden is traumatized by the death of his brother Allie. Due to this trauma, we see Holden experience a slew of emotions, put himself in risky situations and slowly but surely, mentally breakdown. The death of Holden’s brother causes Holden to develop depression. Though it is obvious Holden is facing trauma, not once is it noted that he developed a mood disorder from it. Abnormal Psychology lists the criteria for major depressive disorders. In order to fit the criteria, the individual must be facing at least three of the symptoms listed in this DSM-5, which is The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Holden is dealing with a multitude of these symptoms, one major one being “Markedly diminished interest or pleasure in all, or almost all, activities most of the day, nearly every day (As indicated by either subjective account or observation).” (213, Butcher)

Another being “Diminished ability to think or concentrate, or indecisiveness, nearly every day (As indicated by either subjective account or observation).” (213, Butcher) The third being “Depressed mood most of the day, nearly every day, as indicated by either subjective report (e.g., feels sad, empty or hopeless, thoughts of suicide) or observation made by others (e.g, appears tearful). (Note: In children and adolescents, can be irritable mood).” (213, Butcher) There are a handful of situations in which we see these symptoms dominate Holden’s character. In identifying their presence in his life, we can rule that he is indefinitely suffering from a depressive mood disorder.

Most readers would assume after finding evidence that Holden’s “depression” is primarily caused by the death of his brother. Allie dies at the very young age of eleven due to leukemia. “It wasn’t just that he was the most intelligent member in the family. He was also the nicest …. God, he was a nice kid, though” (21, Salinger) Holden idolized Allie and obsessed with morality due to experiencing such a close death at such a young age. The way Holden perceives life as a teen and the way he handles his own are all based off of the trauma of his brother’s death. Harvard Health Blog and Barbara Okun write the article “Can Grief Morph into Depression?” In the article it is stated “That is one key difference with depression.

People suffering from major depression tend to be isolated and feel disconnected from others, and may shun such support and assistance. People who don’t get such support, or who avoid it, may be at greater risk for slipping into clinical depression during the grieving process. Dr. Miller points out that for some people who have previously struggled with acknowledged or unacknowledged depression, the death of a significant other can be the catalyst that brings depression to the foreground. In such cases, professional treatment such as therapy and/or medication can be helpful.” (Okun)

Allie’s death not only creates the grief and sadness Holden carries with him, but changes Holden’s entire outlook on life. It is obvious Holden is suffering from depression. There are a handful of clues throughout the novel that help us diagnose Holden’s character.

First we must note Holden’s diminished interest in daily activities. The situation in which this lack of care dominates is his absence of motivation when it comes to his academic career.

From the very beginning of the novel, we see that Holden is a highly unmotivated student. Not only is he failing out of his current school, Pencey Prep, but he makes us aware that this is not the only school he’s been dismissed from. He claims that his reasoning for failing school is because he feels like an outsider surrounded by “phonies”. Uncomfortable in his social setting and with the people who inhabit the institution, he uses it as an excuse to not go to class and put no effort into any of his work.

“They advertise in about a thousand magazines, always showing some hot-shot guy on a horse jumping over a fence. Like as if all you ever did at Pencey was play polo all the time. I never even saw a horse anywhere near the place. And underneath the guy on the horse’s picture, it always says: ‘Since 1888 we have been molding boys into splendid and clear-thinking young men.’ Strictly for the birds. They don’t do any damn more molding at Pencey than they do at any other school. And I didn’t know anybody there that was splendid and clear-thinking and all” (2, Salinger)

Holden believes the school itself bases people off of their social status. It is apparent that he strongly dislikes Pencey, but he somehow ties the way the school structure is molded into how life in general is portrayed. He notes that life is unfair and based on the physical and social advantages people have over each other. His closed mind to Pencey becomes an obsession that he lets get in the way of his own success. Due to his hatred for the school, his negativity deters him from succeeding. As Holden breaks down, we see characters like Mr. Spencer, his old History teacher, try to encourage him to do well despite the unfair hand life had given him. He is aware of Holden’s struggles and tries to tell him life is a “game” in hopes of influencing Holden to want to “play” it. “Yes, sir. I know it is.

I know it.’ But he was thinking, “Game, my ass. Some game. If you get on the side where all the hot-shots are, then it’s a game, all right–I’ll admit that. But if you get on the other side, where there aren’t any hot-shots, then what’s a game about it? Nothing. No game” (8, Salinger) Holden disagrees with Mr. Spencer and is completely turned off by the idea of life being a game. He truly believes the only reason people go to school is so one day they can have expensive material possessions. He even expresses this to Sally, a girl he dated, later on in the novel.

“You ought to go to a boys’ school sometime. Try it sometime,…It’s full of phonies, and all you do is study so that you can learn enough to be smart enough to buy a goddam Cadillac someday, and you have to keep making believe you give a damn is the football team loses, and all you do is talk about girls and liquor and sex all day, and everybody sticks together in these dirty goddam cliques”” (131, Salinger)

Because this is how Holden views school and the world, it leads him to believe school will do nothing for him. Holden’s incapability to understand there is a purpose in life and school contribute completely to his lack of interest in school; causing him to fail out. According to the article Five Major Reasons Teens Drop Out of School written by Amy Leforge, depression rates second on a list of five. She writes “Depression and physical illnesses can result from numerous things, including heredity, family or financial situations, or an eating disorder.

Any of these factors can precipitate prolonged feelings of sadness and disease. Once this happens, a student’s motivation to do something productive and positive-like attain a diploma-can decrease dramatically.” (Leforge) We know Holden is struggling with the death of his brother, and this could be the stemming in which the lack of productivity comes from; categorizing him as depressed.

Next, we can focus on Holden’s diminished ability to think or concentrate, or his indecisiveness, nearly every day. His indecisiveness and inability to concentrate put a damper on his capability to have any life goals. He has no focus or drive to be able to collectively accomplish one thing in his life. Holden’s behavior is sporadic; he cannot decide who he wants to be or what he wants from anything. He also has unrealistic dreams of what he wants for himself. When his younger sister Phoebe asks him what he wants out of his life he says: “What I have to do, I have to catch everybody is they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy” (173, Salinger)

When speaking to Phoebe, it is apparent this ideal is unrealistic. Not only does he have unrealistic goals, but his idolization of his brother Allie gets in the way as well. “Just because somebody’s dead, you don’t stop liking them, for God’s sake – especially if they were about a thousand times nicer than the people you know that’re alive and all” (171, Salinger) He is entirely too focused on the life Allie could have had over his own life that he has now. His goal is to escape reality instead of working towards succeeding at it. The situation in which he is describing to phoebe is a dream in which we all stay young forever, and Holden catches the kids who fall away from their youth.

In this reality Holden creates, no one will grow up, which means no one will have to work towards any life goals; no one would need school or money. In Ian H. Gotlib’s Handbook for Depression, he speaks about how thinking affects depression. Our thought processes becomes altered and overtaken by the illness causing us to think irrationally or unrealistically. Gotlib writes, “Many depressed people have unrealistically high standards for themselves and for other people. They believe that they (or others) shouldn’t make mistakes, their job should be free of conflict or should be fun all the time, or that their marriage should be completely happy. Another group of depressed people have unrealistically low standards – they continually accept less than they could probably get elsewhere.” (111, Gotlib)

Finally, we can link Holden to depression with the overwhelming feelings of sadness, emptiness, hopelessness and thoughts of suicide. Suicide tends to be one of the larger issues those suffering from depression face. Mental Health America writes the article entitled Facing the Danger of Teen Suicide. They write:

“Sometimes teens feel so depressed that they consider ending their lives. Each year, almost 5,000 young people, ages 15 to 24, kill themselves. The rate of suicide for this age group has nearly tripled since 1960, making it the third leading cause of death in adolescents and the second leading cause of death among college-age youth. Studies show that suicide attempts among young people may be based on long-standing problems triggered by a specific event.

Suicidal adolescents may view a temporary situation as a permanent condition. Feelings of anger and resentment combined with exaggerated guilt can lead to impulsive, self-destructive acts.” (Mental Health America)

Holden lacks any kind of connection to the world. He has trouble fitting in, accomplishing anything academically, accepting reality and is stuck in the trauma of his brother’s death. “What I really felt like, though, was committing suicide. I felt like jumping out the window” (104, Salinger). Holden says this shortly after he is assaulted in the elevator of the hotel he was staying in. He confesses he would have rather killed himself than go to sleep. His reasoning behind not committing suicide makes contradictory nature apparent. He claims he wants to be isolated, yet is overly concerned with what everybody else thinks about him. He wants to die because everybody is a “phony” yet wants to live because he doesn’t want the “phonies” to judge him.

The fact that suicide is even a thought in Holden’s mind shows us he is extremely unhappy with his life and ultimately reflects his depression. The fact that Holden doesn’t have a stable relationship with any character in the book besides his sister, Phoebe, can link to depression as well. He is unable to form a connection with anyone his age, and when they try he shuts them out. “… he had a terrible personality. He was also sort of a nasty guy. I wasn’t too crazy about him, to tell you the truth.” (Salinger, 19)

Anytime he mentions a peer that may be considered a “friend”, like Stradlater or Ackley, he just says something negative about them, pushing them away from him. It is almost ironic though, because despite his feelings of negativity towards those around him, he gives us hints here and there that he longs for a connection with someone. He is searching for a perfection connection that doesn’t exist, reflecting Holden’s guilt of realistic expectations all over again. Even his relationships with women is twisted. He barely knows the women he attempts to connect to, but is extremely pushy and persistent about what he wants from them and how they should live and act; like with Sunny, the prostitute, and Sally, a girl he goes on a date with. Sunny’s situation with Holden is peculiar, since he is basically a child hiring a sex escort, but it is his interaction with Sally that really shows how incapable he is when it comes to connecting with another human being.

“Look,” I said. “Here’s my idea. How would you like to get the hell out of here? Here’s my idea. I know this guy down in Greenwich Village that we can borrow his car for a couple of weeks. He used to go to the same school I did and he still owes me ten bucks. What we could do is, tomorrow morning we could drive up to Massachusetts and Vermont, and all around there, see. It’s beautiful as hell up there, It really is.” I was getting excited as hell, the more I thought of it, and I sort of reached over and took old Sally’s goddam hand.

What a goddam fool I was. “No kidding,” I said. “I have about a hundred and eighty bucks in the bank. I can take it out when it opens in the morning, and then I could go down and get this guy’s car. No kidding. We’ll stay in these cabin camps and stuff like that till the dough runs out. Then, when the dough runs out, I could get a job somewhere and we could live somewhere with a brook and all and, later on, we could get married or something. I could chop all our own wood in the wintertime and all. Honest to God, we could have a terrific time! Wuddaya say? C’mon! Wuddaya say? Will you do it with me? Please!” (71, Salinger) When they go out on a date, Holden insists they run away, completely ignoring what Sally would want and how ridiculous the act would be. He attempts over and over again to drag people into this unrealistic world he wants to be living in.

It is apparent through various examples that Holden is suffering from depression. Not only does he possess obvious qualities of depression, but his actions would lead any observer to believe he was ill as well. We know by the end of the work that the entire novel is Holden expressing to a therapist the account of a weekend he spent running away from reality. If Holden is in therapy, and the clues he gives us can diagnose him as depressed, why does Salinger fail to do so? If Holden was diagnosed, would The Catcher in the Rye be taught as a generalized “coming of age” novel? Levi Fox defines the genre in their work “The Historical Coming of Age Genre”. Fox quotes: “When referring to genre, a coming-of-age story is a genre of literature and film that focuses on the growth of a protagonist from youth to adulthood. Coming-of-age stories tend to emphasize dialogue or internal monologue over action, and are often set in the past. The subjects of coming-of-age stories are typically teenagers. It is especially prominent in literature and focuses on the protagonist’s psychological and moral growth, and thus character change is extremely important.” (Fox)

Because The Catcher in the Rye deals with Holden facing the realities of growing up, the book became a “general” piece in its genre. Though this is an aspect of the work, it is obvious Holden is having a mental breakdown, dealing with depression and facing a handful of issues that are not present in the lives of our youth as a whole. Saying The Catcher in the Rye is the layout for a typical teens coming of age tale creates a giant problem when it comes to defining the genre and understand mental illness. If we excuse the fact that Holden is facing severe depression, we are excusing depression and mental illness as a whole in our youth.

Marketing this book to our youth as a “hand-book” is completely unjust. Holden’s character himself is telling readers what issues are present, and they are completely ignored by Salinger’s inability to diagnose Holden by theend of the work. By doing this, readers look over the fact that Holden has this emotional burden and will excuse it by just saying he is a “sad” teen who will eventually move forward. By ignoring Holden’s depression, we are ignoring depression as a phenomenon.

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