A 1951 novel, The Catcher in the Rye, written by J.D. Salinger focuses on Holden Caulfield, an adolescent. He is the protagonist and narrator(first person omniscient). Throughout the book, we get to see how Caulfield develops and emerges into adulthood and his feelings towards it. He’s a 17-year-old narrating a story from when he was a 16-year-old that took us from his school, Pencey Prep, to New York City. Adolescence can be defined as the time period after puberty from which a child develops into an adult. Based on Salinger’s characterization of Caulfield, the reader can view how by psychological standards Holden indeed is a typical adolescent as his cognitive and behavioral development can be defined with normalcy.
First, Holden Caulfield can be described as a typical teen based on his higher level thinking and introspection. According to the American Psychological Association, normal teens’ “newfound ability to think critically encourages them to look for discrepancies, contradictions, or exceptions in what adults (in particular) say.”(11) Holden showed this type of critical thinking throughout most of the book. He was always analyzing what adults would say, and called them “phonies” as he believed everything that came out of most adults’ mouths was artificial. For example, on page 4 of the book it states, “ “Since 1988 we have been molding boys into splendid, clear-thinking young men.” Strictly for the birds…..And I didn’t know anybody there that was splendid and clear thinking and all.” Holden is discussing how hypocritical and fake Pencey Prep school motto is. He’s insinuating to the reader that Pencey Prep is full of lies, and he discusses the rest of the prep schools he attended in the same way. He’s very critical of all institutions ran by adults. In addition, APA also states that a normal adolescent jumps to startling conclusions “even with their newfound capacities for logical thinking”.(11) Caulfield repeatedly does this. For example, he’s always jumping to the conclusion that everyone he converses with is a phony besides Jane and Phoebe. In Chapter 6, he also automatically assumes that Stradlater gave Jane the time in Ed Banky’s car, which leads him to completely flip out on Stradlater. He jumps to conclusions like any other teenager. For example, when teenagers jump to the conclusion that a girl and boy are dating because they’re seen together a lot. Caulfield’s ability to think abstractly, reflect, analyze, and entertain hypothetical situations illustrate his normalcy.
Next, Holden Caulfield’s exploratory behaviors are also part of a normal adolescent. Holden consumes alcohol and smokes cigarettes many times throughout the book. For example, on page 142 he consumes a couple of Scotch and sodas. On page 161, he states that he’s also smoked about 3 cartons of cigarettes. According to the American Psychological Association, 70% of high school students have tried cigarette smoking and 81% of high school students have also tried alcohol.(29) This normalizes Holden’s behavior because experimentation is part of being a normal adolescent. He’s doing it along with many other adolescents, which means he’s not abnormal. The trauma that Holden went through when he lost his brother, Allie, also has to be kept in mind. According to the Foundations of Recovery Networks, “many people who have experienced psychological trauma turn to substance abuse as a coping mechanism.” About 25 percent of young people have experienced something traumatic. These substances make the person feel numbed or calm, which could also explain Holden’s substance use. He may be trying to numb the pain he feels as a result of Allie’s death, and also because of his parents’ neglect. What needs to be addressed is that he does not excessively consume alcohol. He does not engage in any reckless behavior either, as a result of substance usage. He’s not an alcoholic who needs alcohol to live, so his behavior is normal as he hasn’t gotten to the point of abusing substances and many other teens experiment with substances.
There are those who say that Holden Caulfield isn’t a typical teen as a result of his emotional development. He’s always speaking about being depressed. Others also say that the way he reacted to Allie’s death proves how his instability is growing to a point of psychological abnormality. However, according to APA “self-esteem, whether high or low, may remain relatively stable during adolescence..”(15) This means Holden’s low self-esteem is normal as it remains consistent throughout the story. In addition, low self-esteem is mostly experienced throughout the stage of adolescence as this is where a sense of identity is being developed and sometimes it can be hard to decide who you truly are. This means low self-esteem is part of a typical adolescent too. The way he reacted to Allie’s death is also justified because according to APA adolescent males may need to be “helped to understand that it’s okay to feel and express emotions other than anger.”(18) Holden is able to identify and familiarize himself with his emotions, but he can’t control them. It’s even harder for him when boys are conditioned by society to only express anger/aggressiveness, which can explain why he reacted with anger to the news of his brother’s death. As a result, Holden Caulfield’s emotional development can also be described as normal.
To conclude, Holden Caulfield might’ve expressed instability throughout the book, but it’s all part of being a typical adolescent. He went through a lot of hardships that most adolescents don’t go through like losing a younger sibling to cancer. His parents were also never there to fully support him. As a result, the instability he expressed was because of the difficulty of his life, not because of psychological abnormality. Everything from his introspection to his substance use to his low self-esteem shows his normalcy. Holden Caulfield was a typical teen by psychological standards. He was a very interesting character, and his feelings were shared by many who have already been his age, which is why his character continues to be loved by many even after over 60 years.