The Themes of Loneliness & Alienation in J.D. Salinger’s ‘The Catcher in The Rye’
Loneliness and alienation are two very important themes in J.D. Salinger’s novel ‘The Catcher in The Rye’. In this essay I will discuss these themes and how they have had an impact on the protagonist – Holden Caulfield’s life. I will look at how Holden uses alienation to protect himself from becoming emotionally attached to others and how death plays a key role in his feelings of loneliness.
One of the most prevalent themes in J.D. Salinger’s ‘The Catcher in The Rye’ is the complex relationship that Holden Caulfield has with his emotions. On one hand, he is overwhelmed by the pain that his emptions can cause, but on the other hand when he tries to shut off these emotions he feels numb which can be equally as devastating for him. Loneliness is something that is recurring throughout the novel and in some ways, Holden’s loneliness is a manifestation of the alienation he feels from the people around him. Throughout The Catcher in The Rye, Holden is separated from those around him and is constantly in search for a way to fit into a world in which he feels that he doesn’t belong. A large portion of the novel focuses on Holden’s ongoing quest for some form of companionship. This results in him moving from one meaningless relationship to another which only serves to increase his loneliness. Holden uses this alienation from the world around him as a defence mechanism in order to protect himself. He finds interacting with other people confusing and overwhelming, so by alienating himself from people he does not have to face up to this.
A great deal of Holden’s loneliness and alienation can be traced back to the death of his younger brother Allie. Holden was devastated by the tragedy, which has already happened by the time we are introduced to Holden. He has essentially shut down and repeatedly mentions how important it is for him not to get too attached to people. A good example of this would be where Holden says, ‘Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody’ (Salinger, 1951, p.67). This highlights the fact that Holden is not comfortable in opening up to anybody, because he is afraid of making a connection and then losing that person. This goes a long way towards explaining why Holden almost seems to be sabotaging any relationship that he begins to form!is because he is afraid of losing another person close to him. This fear has such a tight grip on Holden that he continues to spiral into deep depression and loneliness to the extent that by the end of the novel he is afraid to even speak to anyone.
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Life and death have a huge impact on Holden’s emotional state and we already know that most of his behaviours are a reaction to Allie’s death and to the fact that his absent parents were not there to guide him through his grief. Holden struggles with the fact that Allie died too soon at such a young age and did not choose to do so. However, when James Castle jumps out of the school window to his death Holden begins to consider the possibility of suicide as a way to end the constant emotional pain. It is only a passing thought and although he can see a romantic ideal when he considers suicide, he is so affected by Allie’s death that he actually thinks death might be worse than living with the pain. One of the things that really bothers Holden about James Castle’s death is the thought of him lying on the stone in a pool of blood with nobody picking him up as though even in death nobody loved him. This is a thought that terrifies Holden and ultimately stops him from genuinely considering suicide as an option.
In conclusion, the theme of loneliness and alienation is very important in The Catcher in The Rye. Holden is too afraid to open up his heart to anyone for fear of losing them, but he is also suffering from extreme loneliness at the same time. His brother’s death has impacted Holden’s emotional state and mental well-being and without the support of a proper authority figure he has never learned to deal with his grief leaving him caught in a vicious cycle of desperately wanting to be loved, but being far too afraid to allow it to happen thus alienating himself from the rest of the world.
Salinger, J.D. (1951), The Catcher In The Rye.