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The Catcher in the Rye: Holden Caulfield’s Mental Breakdown Essay Sample

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The Catcher in the Rye: Holden Caulfield’s Mental Breakdown Essay Sample

J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye” portrays a troubled teen in New York City. Over the few days the novel depicts, the boy displays his critical and unhealthy mindset. Eventually he has a mental breakdown. Through psychoanalysis of Holden Caulfield, one may suggest that Allie’s death, social development, and an identity crisis are large contributing factors in Holden’s mental breakdown.

Allie Caulfield is an important person to Holden and his death affects him greatly. In response to his brother’s passing, Holden attempts to recover by using defense mechanisms as a shield against reality. The concept of defense mechanisms strategies for avoiding or reducing threatening feelings such as fear and anxiety” (Strickland 182). While defense mechanisms are normal, healthy coping tools, they may grow to be problematic when their usage becomes habitual. Holden appears to use several defense mechanisms in response to Allie’s death. Additionally, he implements them into his daily activities.

One of the defense mechanisms Holden employs is denial. Denial, as defined by Plotnik, is “refusing to recognize some anxiety-provoking event or piece of information” (437). In Holden’s case, he does not fully accept Allie’s death; instead, he subconsciously remains in delial to avoid the pain associated with this loss. Although he tells Phoebe, “I know he’s dead! Don’t you think I know that?” (Salinger 171) Holden’s reactions do not reflect his claim. He speaks of and to Allie as though he is still alive. While acknowledging his brother’s death on the surface, Holden does not fully accept it. For instance, as he stumbles along the sidewalks of New York City subsequent to visiting Phoebe, he begins speaking to Allie, asking for his brother to keep him safe. By asking Allie for help, Holden demonstrates his belief that Allie is present, not dead. At an earlier time, when Phoebe challenges Holden to name one thing he really likes, all he can respond with is “I like Allie.” While many feel affection for a deceased friend or relative, the only subject Holden can initially admit to liking is his dead brother. This, too, exemplefies Holden’s inability to accept Allie’s death.

A second, stranger, and more uncommon defense mechanism Holden uses is fixation. Fixation is a halt of emotional development caused by some anxiety producting event–such as a death. The individual will not lose any previous developmental progress, but his or her maturation will halt for a time (Strickland 170). In the first chapter of Salinger’s book, Holden’s comments seem to support the idea that he uses this mechanism: “I was sixteen then, and I’m seventeen now, and sometimes I act like I’m about thirteen” (9). Firstly, one should note that Allie died when Holden was thirteen. By him saying “I act like I’m about thirteen,” Holden corroborates the idea that he has not matured and lingers in the psychological state of a young teen. This may be an important factor in why he rejects mature relationships and desires to be “the catcher in the rye.”

A second aspect affecting Holden’s personality as well as self-esteem is his environment. Holden’s parents appear to raise him with a lax, permissive style of parenting. According to Plotnik, “permissive parents are less controlling and behave with a non-punishing and accepting attitude toward their children’s impulses, desires and actions” (413). While his parents are only just introduced in the story, the passive and accepting reaction Mrs. Caulfield has to Phoebe’s smoking supports the notion that the Caulfield household is under a permissive rule as opposed to a stricter family. Permissive parenting seems to result in less achievement-minded children who will not take responsibility for their behavior. Holden seems to fit that profile perfectly. He remains completely unmotivated in school and blames everything on others.

Peer acceptance also has a big affect on Holden and his self-esteem. Self-esteem is primarily based on two factors: Physical attractiveness and how well a person relates to others. Holden find himself attractive, “I think I am quite sexy” (Salinger 55). Because he believes himself to be good looking, his appearance is not an issue. However, he tends to push others away (probably unintentionally). Therefore, his peers avoid or ignore him. Peer rejection instigates low self-esteem in Holden, resulting in feelings of loneliness and depression in addition to social difficulties. Throughout the story, Holden frequently mentions feeling depressed and lonely. He also has problems getting along with people. Few outside his family desire him around. An example of this is occurs when Holden meets with Luce, an old prep school acquaintance, in a bar and is blatantly cast off.

An impending identity crisis is another contributing factor in Holden’s breakdown. According to Plotnik, “Identity refers to how we describe ourselves and includes our values, goals, traits, interests and motivations” (394). Erik Erikson theorized about identity by way of “eight developmental periods during which an individual’s primary goal is to satisfy desires associated with social needs” (Plotnik 393). These stages span from infancy to old age. During adolescence, Erikson views people in the psychosocial stage of identity vs. role confusion.

This stage involves finding a sense of self through trial and error. If this stage is unsuccessfully completed, the adolescent will experience roll-confusion, resulting in low self-esteem and social withdrawal. These people will likely feel depressed, have a desire for isolation and an incomplete sense of reality (Sanford 153). They may be viewed as being in the phase of identity diffusion.

Identity vs. role confusion further divides into four stages in which a teen partakes to find themself. They may switch between any stage at a whim and do not follow any particular order. The four stages are: moratorium, identity foreclosure, identity achievement, and identity diffusion. They range from a fixed decision on the future (foreclosure), successfully having personal values and beliefs (achievement), experimentation via trial and error (moratorium), and finally, the stage in which Holden resides (Pinsker 154-155).

According to Erikson’s stages, Holden is in a state of identity diffusion. Identity diffusion entails having no real sense of self and not attempting to find one. The adolescent wanders from crisis to crisis, resulting in a lack of self-identity and no real commitment to values or goals. They may also feel depressed, desire isolation, and have suicidal tendencies. These traits identify in Holden through comments like “It was really depressing.” He also mentions his desire for isolation:

I figured that I could get a job at a filling station somewhere…I didn’t care what kind of job it was, though. Just so people didn’t know me and I didn’t know anybody. I thought what I’d do was, I’d pretend I was one of those deaf-mutes. That way I wouldn’t have to have any goddam stupid useless conversation with anybody. If anybody wanted to tell me something, they’d have to write it on a piece of paper and shove it over to me…and then I’d be through with having conversations for the rest of my life. (Salinger 198)

His longing for seclusion is an effect of his identity crisis. Not only do Holden’s emotions embody Erikson’s stage of identity diffusion, but he also appears to have the mindset of such. He maintains no real goals or aspirations. Even by the end of the novel, he does not express any true dreams for the future, commenting, “A lot of people, especially this one psychoanalyst guy they have here, keeps asking me if I’m going to apply myself when I go back to school next September. It’s such a stupid question, in my opinion. I mean how do you know what you’re going to do till you do it?” (Salinger 213) Holden still does not have any definate ambitions. He may anticipate trying hard in school, but he has no real self-expectations or goals. Through these examples, one can clearly see how Holden resides in Erikson’s stage of identity diffusion.

Holden Caulfield has multiple issues made apparent throughout the book. By analyzing his character and actions, he demonstrates his unhealthy mindset. He seems to wander through New York without and purpose and remains critical of everyone. In sum, Allie’s death, social development and an identity crisis are great contributers to Holden’s mental breakdown.

Works Cited:

Plotnik, Rod. Introduction to Psychology. 5th edition. Belmont: Thomson, 1999.

Pinsker, Anne and Sanford Pinsker. Understanding The Catcher in the Rye. Connecticut: Greenwood, 1999. 149-155.

Salinger, J.D. The Catcher in the Rye. Boston: Little, Brown, 1991.

Strickland, Bonnie, Ed. The Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology. 2nd ed. Detroit: Gale, 2001.

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