Holden Caulfield: Depressed, Psychotic and All

Caulfield may be a screw-up, more than a savior, but he has a generous heart and should be a paragon for those who believe in good deeds, not acts of violence.
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In honor of April Fools' Day, I thought it appropriate to pay homage to that jokester, much beloved of all adolescents and many adults, Holden Caulfield, protagonist of The Catcher in the Rye. In Caulfield, J.D. Salinger, who just passed away a few months ago, created a famously world-weary youth, who fibs about his age and name, horses around with his roommate and numerous others, and, like Bob Dylan in his early years, generally puts everyone on.

But I am less interested in his pranksterism than I am in his mental state. At the suggestion of my wife, Barbara, I have recently re-read the book in light of my own past psychosis. While it is obvious that Caulfield is depressed (he says so throughout the book, and he exhibits symptoms of depression, such as an inability to concentrate and anhedonia, a lack of interest in just about anything), it may be less obvious that he appears to be both manic and psychotic.

He may not engage in random acts of sex as some manic people do, but he drinks almost as frequently as a Hemingway character, and he spends money, smokes and swears wantonly in the novel. Indeed, it may be impossible to find a single page where he is not drinking (or attempting to drink) alcohol, smoking, spending money or swearing, behavior characteristic of someone in the thralls of mania.

Even more intriguing to me are his psychotic symptoms. When he picks up a magazine in Grand Central Station, he reads an article in which he seems to resemble the man in the piece who has "lousy hormones"; then, he reads an article about sores in your mouth possibly leading to cancer. He gets quite depressed, reacting almost as I did years ago during my second psychotic break, when I thought the newspapers were sending me subliminal messages just to torment me.

As one gets deeper into the book, the psychosis picks up and takes on a vertiginous, frenetic quality as if Caulfield risks falling into a vortex. He starts fearing that he won't be able to get across street intersections, and to help him he talks to his deceased brother, Allie, whom he adored.

Some have cited the parallels between Caulfield and Hamlet, both of whom are grieving a loved one. The parallel is in fact made by Caulfield himself when he discusses seeing the Laurence Olivier version of Hamlet; Caulfield is upset that Olivier played the Prince of Denmark as a warrior, rather than as a "sad, screwed-up type guy." Caulfield also invokes Hamlet in referring sarcastically to Ackley, one of his prep school floor mates, as "a gentleman and a scholar," a phrase used by Hamlet to describe Horatio.

Furthermore, Caulfield's world-weariness echoes that of Hamlet, the most world-weary of young men (though he is 30 years old, not a teen like Caulfield). Hamlet of course refers to the world as "weary, stale, flat and unprofitable." Then there is the contempt that Hamlet heaps on Osric, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern, and Polonius, which is not unlike the contempt Caulfield displays toward all the phonies like his girlfriend, "old Sally."

It is ironic to me that killers like Mark David Chapman or wannabe killers like John Hinckley have allegedly hailed Catcher, stating that they were reading Salinger's book before they shot John Lennon and President Reagan respectively. Some claim that Chapman and Hinckley suffer from mental illness. But they strike me as being psychopaths, not psychotics.

A true psychotic, like Caulfield, is much more likely to be a pacifist, than a murderer. Caulfield says on several occasions that if there is another war he hopes that they just line him up and shoot him, rather than force him to commit violent acts. And while Caulfield gets into two fights in the book, he does not start them.

Holden Caulfield will always be known for decrying phoniness, but perhaps he should also be remembered for his myriad acts of kindness throughout the book, filling the donation box of two nuns, balancing a see-saw so a kid won't fall off, generously tipping a woman at the coat-check, giving his turtleneck sweater to a boy who later commits suicide, and buying his kid sister, Phoebe, a record, though it slips from his hand and breaks.

Phoebe still appreciates the gesture.

It is Phoebe, who has the salient insight into Caulfield, when she says, "You don't like anything that's happening."

Other than his love for Phoebe and his deceased brother, Caulfield does have trouble thinking of one thing that he likes, until he pictures himself catching little kids in the rye, preventing them from falling off a cliff. Caulfield may be a screw-up, more than a savior, but he has a generous heart and should be a paragon for those who believe in good deeds, not acts of violence.

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