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Coming Of Age In First Person Narratives Looking For Alaska And Catcher In The Rye: Language And Symbolism

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First-Person Narration

After carefully studying both characters I believe that first-person narration is essential for Coming of Age novels. It creates a relationship between the reader and the protagonist like no other. By using first-person narration, readers get a wide ranged insight into these two characters’ traits and connect with these characters on an emotional level, by accessing their thoughts and emotions. By using a combination of dialogues with other characters and inner monologues, layers to the character are formed by observing them from different angles.

The Catcher in the Rye

Holden’s narration and language gives a far greater insight into his emotions than Miles does, especially his true feelings towards other characters. A good example of this is his interaction with Mr. Spencer. Holden calls his former teacher “Sir” , a form of respect, while simultaneously thinking crude things about Mr. Spencer, saying his appearance is “depressing” . This clearly shows the contrast between his thoughts and how he interacts with others. Important to note is that the use of first-person narration influences the reliability of the portrayal of characters. For example, merely the way he describes Ackley indicates that there may be some exaggeration in how he describes his physical appearance. “He started cutting his big horny-looking nails.”

Looking for Alaska

The narration is divided into two parts: “Before” and “After”. The reader is unaware of the meaning of these titles. Each chapter counts down the days to the pivotal moment of the book. This creates suspension for the readers and causes them to pay close attention to what is narrated. After the incident the reader does not lose this suspension, as the mystery behind Alaska’s death is only revealed at the very end. Especially in the second half of the novel, the focus is put on Mile’s development, as he narrates the struggles of dealing with an unexpected death. Additionally, first-person narration in Looking for Alaska is used to tell the story, in a more personal fashion. Often sentences start with “I” and the past tense of an action, moving the storyline along, rather than to convey emotions as prominently as in Holden’s case. Miles’ shy and insecure character is not only shown by his interaction with other characters but also through his narration of the plot. His first meeting with his future friends shows how self-conscious and insecure he is about himself. This reaction to others is very common in the real world, where it may be scary for some to interact with others in an environment they are not used to. By depicting this so realistically the reader understands the character and sees their transition. An example for this would be when he first meets Chip who criticizes his pants. An embarrassed Miles immediately pulls them up.


One important aspect to consider when analyzing the language of each novel, is that The Catcher in the Rye was written in the 1950s, whereas Looking for Alaska was published in the early 2000s. This difference in the time periods greatly affects the language used by the respective main characters. Terms that were commonly used by teens in earlier generations, i.e. in the 1950s, are not the same as the terminology commonly used by contemporary youth. The particulars of language are fundamental to first-person narration. The characters are shaped by the language they use, whether informal or formal. How their sentences are structured, and their repetitive usage of specific terms may reveal specifics of their characters. Holden and Miles share some similarities in this field but still have many linguistical differences.

Repetition of phrases

In both novels phrases and terms are continuously repeated, the effect stylistic however differs. While in Miles’ narration, the repetition of phrases conveys his emotions, the repetition of certain terms in Holden’s narration, highlight some of his character traits.

Miles’ repetition

The phrase “I thought” is repeatedly used by Miles in times of distress. The use of anaphora may be to connect with the reader and share the struggles he is faced with. By sharing his deepest thoughts, he seems transparent to the reader, showing his authentic, raw emotion-his humanity. A good example for this would be the narration he gives after finding out Alaska died: “I thought: it’s all my fault. I thought: I don’t feel very good. I thought. I’m going to throw up.” This anaphora shows every single thought he had, every emotion he felt when he found out about her death. Readers feel sympathy towards Miles as he starts to become aware of reality. This rhetorical device appears multiple times in the novel, always when Miles seems to be in distress . By using this rhetorical device, the reader focuses less on the scene that is unfolding and more on how Miles is reacting to the situation he is faced with. Such rhetorical devices indicate milestones in the transition of his character. The novel starts out with Miles caring little about finding friends and having no desire to have an emotional connection with anyone but develops into him caring immensely about others. Through his narration of the story the reader gains an insight into Miles’ maturing character.


In comparison to Miles, Holden continuously uses the term “phony” to describe anyone who seems to have a fake persona. The repetitive use of this term indicates the distaste Holden has towards dishonest individuals. In reality he is the one who often isn’t true to himself: he hides his romantic feelings, ignores the effect of his brother’s death and is afraid to grow up. While he tries to appear truthful to the reader is comes off as naïve. This immaturity is further supported by his repetitive use of the phrase “I really do” . It shows that Holden wants to ensure the reader that he himself is telling the truth and isn’t behaving in a phony way. Rather than appearing truthful he seems insecure, as he yearns for the readers approval. Another example for this would be when he continuously tries to ensure that reader that we would like his sister. “You’d like her” . In contrast to Miles, Holden seems to uphold a false imagine of him, in order to appear as someone, he is not. He shows an idealistic facade that the reader can immediately look straight though, while in Miles use of anaphora show his raw emotions.

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Miles’ use of final words

Miles often conveys his deepest emotions by referring to and quoting others’ final words. Right at the beginning of the novel he says he’s “looking for the great perhaps” , in other words, wants to find himself, although he struggles with this throughout the whole novel. From the story’s outset, the theme of Coming of Age novels is mentioned. Immediately after Alaska’s death, he mentions Henry Ward Beecher’s last words: “Now comes the misery” , making it clear that grief and heartache are awaiting him. In the end, he shares the last words of Thomas Edison: “It’s very beautiful over there.” making it clear that he has found acceptance and that the future is bright.

The use of Italics

In both novels, italics are used to put emphasis on selective words, sometimes even phrases. By using this print, the author intends the reader to put emphasis on these select words, making them stand out more. With syntax such as “Then he said it three times” and “I didn’t care.” , Holden puts emphasis on the terms “three” and “care”, expressing his annoyance almost to a childish extent. The frequent use of this cursive writing shows how he is often annoyed and lashes out which in return reflects on his child-like behavior. In Looking for Alaska the usage of italics merely shows that the protagonist is affected by a certain situation. The fact that Miles says the phrase “Oh, he’s funny. That guy Miles is a riot.’’ to himself when thinking about meeting his roommate shows that his self-conscious character traits are apparent. With this statement he belittles himself, by making a sneer comment about himself, indicating that he is very critical of himself. By not only writing selective terms in italic form, it doesn’t express annoyance as it does in The Catcher in the Rye.


The Catcher in the Rye

Holden’s Red Hunting Hat

The most significant symbol in J.D. Salinger’s work is Holden’s red hunting cap. The significance is not made clear initially, as it seems only be an accessory of his clothing. However, when he sheds all his formal wear, for example his tie, he continues wearing the hat that is not usually worn inside. The reader becomes aware of how comfortable the main character is when wearing it. Furthermore, when Ackley comments on how the hat was money not well spent, Holden seems to show no offence, which contrasts to his otherwise constant negative reaction to everything Ackley says or does. This further underscores Holden’s sense of comfort with his hat. The very conspicuous red color makes him stand out in the crowd showing off his unique personality even more. During the course of the story, the hat is continuously referenced, from him fixing it to look right to someone commenting on it. These situations seem to correspond to moments of his vulnerability where he shows raw emotion. One example of this is the scene where he talks about Jane. In this scene he continuously asks himself why he acts in a certain way, never acknowledging the fact that he clearly feels jealous of Stradlater who goes on a date with her. During Holden’s recollection of this scene, he continuously references his hunting cap. By not acknowledging his true feelings he shows his immature side. Therefore, in the last part of the novel, when he gives his sister the hunting hat, he shows maturity in two ways. By giving her his beloved hunting cap, one of the few things he truly loves, he is showing maturity and compassion as he wants her not to let go of being herself. Giving away his hat to his younger sibling also symbolizes him letting go of his childish behavior.

Allie’s Baseball Mitt

Another character defining symbol in “The Catcher in the Rye” is Allie’s baseball mitt, which represents Holden’s memories of his deceased younger brother. When describing Allie’s appearance and character he only speaks highly of him, using terms such as “terrifyingly intelligent” or “the nicest” . In contrast to the other negative remarks Holden makes about other characters, he seems to show nothing but love for his brother. Therefore, the mitt paints him in a more pure and vulnerable light. When criticized by his roommate for writing an assignment about a mitt, Holden reacts angrily and protectively, in an older brother manner. “’So what?’ I said. Cold as hell” . Even though the mitt only appears once in the novel it clearly has a great emotional value to Holden. Both his description of Allie and his reaction to Stradlater’s criticism about the baseball mitt, don’t sit well with the protagonist, which shows that he is deeply affected by his brother’s untimely death. The mitt helps us as a reader understand Holden better as a character and the circumstances that have shaped him. Another notable point is that he mitt was covered with poems that Allie wrote. Holden has however stated that he hates poems and movies. The reason for this perhaps may be, because the remind him of his brother, a further indication that the mitt represent the reality of Holden’s emotional state. When he describes the mitt his curtain of idealism falls, and he lovingly tell the story of the mitt. After he stops however, he returns to his critical behavior.

Looking for Alaska

The Labyrinth

The symbols in Looing for Alaska, however, do play a significant role in the novel. The symbolic meaning of the labyrinth comes into question early on in the novel. Miles’ love for famous last words causes Alaska to disclose her favorite ast words from the fictional characters of the book “The General in his Labyrinth”. In this a character exclaims “How will I ever get out of this labyrinth!”. This sparks a recurring question about the labyrinth’s meaning and how one can overcome the labyrinth. The readers are left to interpret its symbolic meaning. The main character deals with the death of Alaska, trying to determine his own way of coping with the labyrinth of suffering and figuring out what Alaska’s view on the matter was. Ultimately the main character comes to the conclusion that his way of dealing with the labyrinth was wrong. “Before I got here, I thought for a long time that the way out of the labyrinth was to pretend that it did not exist, to build a small, self-sufficient world in a back corner.” Miles statement shows that he grows from an introvert that was not living life to its full potential into a mature adult who understands the hardships of life and knows that you have to get through them, rather than hide from them. The labyrinth embodies every human’s path of suffering throughout life and it is up to us as individuals to determine how we overcome this path of suffering. Miles concludes that the solution to survive the labyrinth is forgiveness .

White Tulips

The white tulips, introduced midway into the novel, play a significant role in the storyline have a deep symbolic meaning. While doodling flowers, Alaska realizes that she has forgotten to put flowers on her mother’s grave on the anniversary of her passing. Tragically, this causes her to drive in an intoxicated state, with little hope of redeeming her mistake, deliberately driving into the truck, thereby committing suicide. For the remaining main characters, especially Miles, the white flowers represent the clue that leads the group of friends to the truth behind Alaska’s death and therefore to peace. Both the white color and the tulip carry a deeper meaning: Even though Alaska is portrayed as a troubled teen the white flower represents her innocent love for her mother. However, in Asian culture the color white stands for death. The white tulip therefore symbolizes her innocent love for her mother and her tragic demise because of it. White tulips, according to an online source , stand for eternal rest. While there is no information given on her ethnicity the meaning accurately represents the tragedy. When Miles first comes across the white tulips, he questions their significance, but when he finally discovers that they are the final piece to the puzzle, he is at ease and can finally move on. In both cases the flowers do however remind Miles and Alaska of deceased loved ones. While Alaska is reminded of her mother, Miles is reminded of his love interest, Alaska. These two key symbols, the flowers and the labyrinth, both seem to signal the demise of Alaska, but the personal growth of Miles.

Significance of the Symbols

Both novels have symbols that signify a connection between the protagonists and their deceased family members, giving their respective characters depth. In both The Catcher in the Rye and Looking for Alaska the main characters have an emotional connection to a symbol that represents the person, who has changed their life significantly. Both have been through the trauma of losing a loved one and have had to deal with their grief throughout the respective novels. The symbols, unbeknownst to the main characters, depict their emotional state. Holden subconsciously shows his strife for individuality through the hunting hat and sadness through the baseball mitt. Miles shows his desire for answers and heartbreak through the white tulips and the final words of others. Both characters show a side of them that they don’t actively narrate to the readers.


Here this exploration of the Coming of Age novels The Catcher in the Rye and Looking for Alaska comes to an end. As discussed in the Introduction many questions arise when one read literary pieces such as these novels. It can be state with absolute certainty however that the significance of the rhetorical devices, analyze in this paper have a vast importance in the depiction of the character development of both books. An overview of the findings made throughout this exploration, specifically that of the first-person narration, language and symbols, will be given in the following. Holden’s narration gives readers a better insight into his emotion and shows how he truly feels about others. In contrast Miles narration highlight his insecurities and generally create a more personal narration with the repetitive use of the term “I”. Additionally, both protagonists use linguistic devices that show their character traits. Miles’s repetition of phrases emphasizes the distress he feels, leading to sympathy from the reader. Holden’s repetitive us of phrases such as “phony” and “I really do” depicts his oblivion to his own immaturity. The symbols used in the respective novels show the subtlest yet important development of the protagonists. The emotional dysphoria is reflected, unbeknownst to the main characters, through the baseball mitt and the labyrinth. We see a side of the narrators that they don’t discuss upfront in their narration. Rather through their interaction or description of the symbol do we see the importance of symbolism to the development of the protagonist. Therefore, the more one takes the time and analyses the significance of the aforementioned aspects, the more one understands the protagonist and why they behave the way they do. On multiple levels these two characters evolve from idealistic, immature naive adolescents to self-reflecting, rational adults. In order to fully understand a character, one has to make a broad analysis of them, as this is the only way to truly understand the essence of Coming of Age novels. By working closely with these books, one learnes that there is more to a novel than its plot. Literature is an expression of humanity, but one must listen to fully grasp it.

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Coming Of Age In First Person Narratives Looking For Alaska And Catcher In The Rye: Language And Symbolism. (2021, September 30). Edubirdie. Retrieved September 27, 2023, from
“Coming Of Age In First Person Narratives Looking For Alaska And Catcher In The Rye: Language And Symbolism.” Edubirdie, 30 Sept. 2021,
Coming Of Age In First Person Narratives Looking For Alaska And Catcher In The Rye: Language And Symbolism. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 27 Sept. 2023].
Coming Of Age In First Person Narratives Looking For Alaska And Catcher In The Rye: Language And Symbolism [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2021 Sept 30 [cited 2023 Sept 27]. Available from:
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