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J. D. Salinger’S The Catcher In The Rye: Holden And Posttraumatic Stress Disorder

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In J. D. Salinger’s novel, The Catcher in the Rye, Holden, a high schooler from New York narrates his action-packed few days after being “given the ax” by his old school. During this time, we see how Holden views himself and those around him with displeasure. Despite the fact that the narrative takes place in a time where Holden is coming of age, hormonal factors are not the root causes of Holden’s seemingly irrational behavior and volatility. Holden’s thoughts and actions are those of a person suffering from PTSD, which is evident in Holden’s adherence to traits typically exhibited by survivors of childhood sexual abuse, the symbolism throughout the book, and his obligation to protect innocence. A typical symptom of PTSD includes strangely irrational behavior to occurrences that are related to the traumatic event. This is seen throughout the book with Holden’s prominent lust yet inability to follow through when it comes to sex.

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For instance, Holden becomes hooked into the idea of losing his virginity through the means of a prostitute. At first, he was quite interested. He felt “pretty sexy and all” and acts “suave as hell” but as soon as the prostitute took off her dress, he immediately changed in mood. He suddenly feels depressed, another symptom of PTSD. This wave of depression and feeling of peculiarity can be linked back to the fact that he is subconsciously avoiding sex due to his sexual abuse, another trait tied to PTSD. This is later reinforced by the fact that earlier he claims that every time he comes close to losing his virginity, something strange happens. This “something strange” that happens is mirrored with his sudden depression with the prostitute. Holden seems to lie to the reader telling them that “her parents always come home at the wrong time – or at least you’re scared they will” (Salinger 92) which is really him trying to cover up his discomfort in losing his virginity to the reader to preserve a masculine image. One of these attempts to seem masculine to the reader would be when he envisions scenes of him taking action and fighting those who hurt him like Maurice to show he is would’ve fought back if he could. Prevents himself from losing his virginity by always stoping when the girl tells him to stop. This is contrary to what many men of that time period think they can do to women, override her requests and get her drop her guard. One example of this in the novel is when an Ivy League looking guy was feeling his date up as she uttered, “ … Don’t, darling. Please, don’t. Not here” (Salinger 86). Holden, traumatized by his experience with someone trying to force sexual acts on him, finds this revolting and finds One symbol included throughout the text as one of Holden’s lies is his tumor on his brain. He refers to this tumor twice, once as an excuse for him leaving Pencey and the other as an excuse for him not to have sex with the prostitute, an excuse from an activity that would remind him of his traumatic event.

This tumor in the context of the plot may serve as Holden’s “eject button” to escape from difficult or uncomfortable situations, but in the context of the book it serves as a symbol of a mental disorder or issue. As cancers are damaging to health and consist uncontrollably multiplying aberrant cells, this represents the type of mental damage Holden has to deal with. Holden’s mental damage is a type of damage that is difficult to remove and totally get rid of. If left unchecked, it could spread throughout a person’s life and intensify until the person suffers under its impacts. Like a tumor, Holden’s trauma has resided within him and likely only shows itself in small instances. We see this when Holden “snaps” and begins talking to himself after running away from Mr. Antolini’s strange actions towards him in his house. During this moment, Holden began panicking, talking to himself, and seemed completely delusional, finding himself struggling to even cross the street. Moments of pain like these are what motivates Holden to be the “Catcher in the Rye”, an allegory that represents how Holden feels about his role and responsibility to children as a survivor of sexual abuse. In this allegory, the children playing games represent lively and light-hearted innocence. The cliff represents a fall towards impurity, irreversible, rapid, and frightening. The fact that this cliff is in the midst of a field of rye represents how to the children, the fall is inconceivable and can be a sudden shift. Holden’s role as the catcher is to prevent children from losing their young innocence by watching on the edge of the cliff and catching them as they fall. But rather than seeing this as a burden, Holden would fill this this position with a sense of fulfillment as he claims, “it’s the only thing I’d really like to be”(Salinger 173).

This claim exemplifies how he feels his duty to save the children through desire to protect their innocence and from the pain he has experience from losing his. The first instance where we see Holden’s urge to protect innocence is evident in the way he reacts with Stradlater after his date with Jane. Holden describes his seemingly deep attachment to Jane through his vivid descriptions of him playing checkers with her leaving her kings in the back row. This attention and remembrance of what would be a trivial detail over a board game is a display of the image Holden desires to maintain about Jane, and childlike innocence. Stradlater’s lack of attention to Jane’s more personal aspects of her life shows he is likely not interested in that part of her. Alongside Stradlater’s history with his previous dates. Holden begins to question what he did with Jane as his voice quivers asking if he had “give her the time in Ed Banky’s goddamn car”(Salinger 43). His uneasiness turned to rage as Stradlater gave Holden a vague and suggestive answer. This irrationality was fueled by his desire to preserve Jane’s image of innocence and anger at the fact she was possibly taken advantage of by Stradlater desire for intimacy.

A situation that Holden holds personal due to linkages to his experiences with sexual abuse. A second instance where Holden has an extreme reaction to the possible loss of innocence of children is when Holden is wandering around Phoebe’s school. While walking around the school to calm down from his strange occurrence with Mr. Antolini, he sees the word “Fuck you” written on the wall of the school. From there he begins to concoct a multitude of violent thoughts to whoever may have written those words such as “smashing his head on the goddamn steps” (Salinger 201). This sudden sense of violence was derived from his anger at the ruin of the children’s innocence after finding out what the words meant. Holden’s passion against this ruin of innocence derives from his role as being the “catcher in the rye. ”Holden’s trauma is masked throughout the book as him simply being an indecisive, hormonal child full of angst and merely a phase in Holden’s life to the typical reader.

Although, key details such as Holden’s seemingly irrational actions, the allegory of the catcher in the rye, and Holden’s intense need to protect innocence reveal the undertones that Holden is undergoing mental trauma from sexual abuse in his childhood. Despite attempts to claim he is simply being a teenager, it cannot be overlooked in the blatant evidence that shows he has dealt with sexual abuse and how that sexual abuse has influenced his actions and how he views those around him.

15 April 2020

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