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A Light At The End Of The Tunnel: Holden Caulfield’s Emotional Journey In The Catcher In The Rye

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Without a doubt, growing up can be described as one of the most exhilarating yet terrifying experiences an individual may encounter in their lives. The idea that one must dive headfirst into unknown territory, all the while seeking mental and physical rediscovery can take its toll on those who find it difficult to accept that the world is constantly changing around them. The rollercoaster of emotions combatted with the constant pressures of society can dwindle the light waiting to ignite in an individual’s journey of self-discovery. Salinger demonstrates the fear of accepting change through the protagonist Holden Caufield, focusing especially on how this fear manifests itself into his depression, giving readers an insight into the thoughts of a teenager trying to find his place in the world.

Having to navigate your way through life after losing a loved one can be one of the most rattling experiences one must have to overcome. Much of the pent-up anger and distrust in the world Holden expresses resonates with the death of his younger brother, Allie. This is evident when he says, “I was only thirteen, and they were going to have me psychoanalyzed and all, because I broke all the windows in the garage. I don’t blame them. I really don’t. I slept in the garage the night he died, and I broke all the goddam windows with my fist, just for the hell of it…It was a very stupid thing to do, I’ll admit, but I hardly didn’t even know I was doing it, and you didn’t know Allie” (38). At such a young age, Holden is already exposed to trauma, a side of life that one would never wish upon their worst enemy. Confronting the idea that your loved one will slowly lose their spark and begin to die right before your eyes is heartbreaking, especially when deep down you know that you cannot do anything to alleviate their suffering. Holden’s emotions get the best of him and he begins to lash out, taking out his anger through pain he feels he deserves. It is in these agonizing moments that one will attempt to detach themselves from feeling any emotions, slowly losing who they are in the process of trying to fill the void left in their heart. Throughout the novel, Holden smokes cigarettes and partakes in drinking even though he is underage. It is demonstrated when he says, “I sat in the chair for a while and smoked a couple of cigarettes…boy, I felt miserable” (98) and “I can’t sit in a corny place like this cold sober” (70). Drinking takes away Holden’s misery, giving him a temporary high from the pain that tears at him inside. He finds comfort in being able to drink away his problems, often intoxicating himself to the point of not being aware of his surroundings. His excessive drinking further isolates him from the rest of society, and if anything, contributes to the lack of a stable support system in his life. It is quite ironic how something that slowly kills you from the inside out can be the one thing that provides you life in times of darkness.

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Holden’s isolation from the rest of the world is prevalent through his thoughts on how “phony” many of the people are in his life. His red hunting hat serves as his solace and protection, acting as a barrier from the adult world and his personal demons. This is made known when he says, “The hat I bought had earlaps in it, and I put them on—I didn’t give a damn how I looked. Nobody was around anyway” (53). Often times, he puts on his hat when he is alone, for he feels as though it would be too phony to be shown around many people. This ties in with the idea that Holden feels the need to subconsciously please those around him, even though he claims the opposite. The hunting hat gives him a surge of power, a chance to feel comfortable in his own skin even if it is only for a brief moment. At the same time, the hat is a constant reminder of Allie’s presence, the vibrancy of the red resembling a piece of him engraved in Holden’s memory. Even during this dark time in Holden’s life, many people look out for him, acting as the guardians he needed the most growing up. Mr. Antolini offers him a place to stay the night, offering food for thought when he says, “This fall I think you’re riding for—it’s a special kind of fall, a horrible kind. The man falling isn’t permitted to feel or hear himself hit bottom. He just keeps falling and falling. The whole arrangement’s designed for men who, at some time or other in their lives, were looking for something their own environment couldn’t supply them with. Or they thought their own environment couldn’t supply them with. So, they gave up looking” (187). Essentially, he is warning Holden that if he does not get his act together, he will fall into a never-ending spiral of disappointment and misery. He sees potential in Holden and does not want him to live a life full of regret for the missed opportunities he chose not to acknowledge. He understands that it is in human nature to seek more—to act selfishly in times of desperation, even going as far as to end it all when that hunger cannot be sufficed. His younger sister, often mature for her age, expresses her love and admiration for Holden when he visits her. She can see through the façade he is trying to put up and calls him out for his irrational decisions. It is evident when she says, “Because you don’t. You don’t like any schools. You don’t like a million things. You don’t’ (169). Like Mr. Antolini, she only wants what is best for her brother, and tries to make him understand that he needs to get his priorities straight. It is here where readers gain deeper insight into Holden’s depression, for he has a difficult time thinking of something, anything that is worth liking, and worse yet, worth living for.

Holden’s fear of change and growing out of childhood innocence is made known when he visits the Museum of Natural History. As he says, “The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move […] Nobody’d be different. The only thing that would be different would be you” (121). Holden likes the museum because he gets a sense of relief knowing that everything in there stays permanent, even if the world around it is constantly changing. He refuses to step food inside, afraid of tempering with the good memories he associates it with, scared that it will not be the same as when he first visited. Holden is not mentally capable of accepting that change must exist in order for one to grow and become the best versions of themselves. He admires the innocence of childhood, the idea that through a kid’s eyes, the world is just black and white, with all of the suffering, torment, and agony hidden from their line of sight. This ties in with the fact that Holden’s dream job is to be a “catcher in the rye”, and he describes it as, “And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if 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” (173). The cliff is symbolic to the real world—adulthood, and Holden makes it his personal mission to be waiting at the end of the cliff to catch kids who are about to enter into that stage of their life. He wants to preserve every last ounce of purity left in a child’s soul, for he sees how the world can begin to negatively impact their way of living and state of mind. Although not explicitly mentioned, it can be argued that Holden is aware of his depression and how it is affecting him, and it can be seen that these ideologies of his, his obsession with childhood, manifests from the fact that he never wants anyone, especially kids, to be exposed to the terrible truths of growing up. He has been through hell and back having to see people die right in front of him, each time being unable to do anything to stop it from happening. In his own twisted way, he aims to stop at nothing to make sure that these grievances will not burden the livelihood of a child who is excited to grow up, not knowing what the world has in store for them.

With all of this in consideration it is evident that Holden’s depression arises from his unwillingness to accept that change is never permanent and that the world will not stop for just anyone. As the novel progresses, he begins to see that childhood is not all it is made out to be, slowly starting to accept that growing up is inevitable. It is through Holden that readers are hit with a fresh breath of air, a perspective about moving past what you are used to and stepping foot into what the world has to offer. Growing up does not mean changing who you are, but instead, accepting that everything happens for a reason, and the situations one encounters will help shape them into who they are today.

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A Light At The End Of The Tunnel: Holden Caulfield’s Emotional Journey In The Catcher In The Rye. (2022, Jun 09). Edubirdie. Retrieved September 25, 2023, from
“A Light At The End Of The Tunnel: Holden Caulfield’s Emotional Journey In The Catcher In The Rye.” Edubirdie, 09 Jun. 2022,
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