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Finding Mental Healing through or in Spite of Stories in our Animal Hearts and the Catcher in the Rye

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While published more than half a century apart and set in locations thousands of kilometers away, the novels Our Animal Hearts by Dania Tomlinson and The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger both tackle the stories of the unpleasant and difficult coming of age of a conflicted youth. Our Animal Hearts is the story of Iris Sparks, who suffers the difficulties of having to care for her cold and unloving mother, Llewelyna. Llewelyna supplies Iris’ imagination with a collection of dark and gruesome fairy tales about monstrous creatures that consequently begin to take shape in Iris’ daily life. Throughout the novel, Iris attempts to navigate and understand her world of family, friends, lovers and spiritual beings, despite her compass of morality and truth seldom pointing her in the right direction. In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield, relates the days leading up to his mental deterioration and ultimate downfall. Holden takes the reader on a journey, beginning with his dismissal from prep school and the subsequent depression-filled days he spends in New York, meeting people and seeking happiness, truth, and meaning to life. Through the analysis of Iris’ and Holden’s characterization, it is possible to detect recurring patterns. These patterns are called archetypes, and are found all throughout literature. According to the editors of LiteraryDevices.net, “In literature, [a character] archetype is a typical character […] that seems to represent universal patterns of human nature” (LiteraryDevices Editors). Therefore, this archetype can be understood as a mold or a category that a character is best represented by. Both Our Animal Hearts and The Catcher in the Rye utilize the character archetypes of the unbalanced hero and of the storyteller. The unbalanced hero is usually the protagonist, who has “mental or emotional deficiencies” (Notes on Archetypes). Examples of these deficiencies are depression or the misunderstanding of society. On the other hand, the storyteller, as described by Ken Miyamoto of the Screencraft blog, is “A character that is noted for his or her ability to tell tales […]” (Miyamoto); it is a character that is found narrating stories throughout the novel. In both Our Animal Hearts and The Catcher in the Rye, the archetypes of the unbalanced hero and the storyteller portray the characters’ mental instability which causes them to interpret their lives through a tainted lens and attempt to defeat their respective monsters through or in spite of storytelling.

In Our Animal Hearts, the archetype of the unbalanced hero is presented through the protagonist, Iris Sparks, whose mental imbalances lead her to suffer from deceitful and unsettling visions that play a leading role in the unreliable interpretation of her life. To start, the cause of Iris’ inner conflict takes root in her childhood, which is unquestionably a traumatic one; her dysfunctional, uncaring mother regularly tells Iris and her brother harrowing stories. Reflecting on the tales, Iris recalls that “Llewelyna’s stories often turned dark [and] they not only fed our imaginations and filled our nightmares, but the creatures in her stories emerged into our day-to-day world” (Tomlinson 22). Thence, it is apparent that these stories are the origin of Iris’ subsequent hallucinations, which deeply affect her by clouding her ability to distinguish between reality and imagination. Furthermore, Iris’ intense and disturbing visions can be manifestations of her mental instability. In fact, Iris not only experiences visual hallucinations, but also gustatory ones—like when she unexpectedly tastes lemon—which are both symptoms that are linked to a psychotic disorder (Teeple et al.). This explains her difficulty in interpreting her life correctly because Iris experiences hallucinations containing all of the following: “vivid scenes with family members, religious figures, and animals,” which are symptoms of schizophrenia (Teeple et al.). For example, one day during mass, Iris observes the statue of Jesus pinned to the cross and notices “a bead of blood [collect] on the tip of his big toe [and drip] off and [stain] the white mantel below” (Tomlinson 136). This passage leads the reader to doubt the legitimacy of Iris’ narration. As a result, the archetype of the unbalanced hero is very effectively conveyed through Iris. This is because, through Iris’ increasingly unreliable narration, the reader understands that she sees the world through the tainted lens of her imagination and haunting visions, which are cultivated by her mother’s stories. In the end, Iris comes to realize and acknowledge the possibility of having envisioned fictitious events and beings. In the second-last chapter, she remarks, “And if these creatures are not kami or ghosts, perhaps they are manifestations of my own mind. What if I have created these animals somehow?” (Tomlinson 335). Though Iris never truly finds out if her visions are real, they certainly are contributive to the faulty interpretation of her life. Ultimately, Iris is the quintessential example of the unbalanced hero archetype as her mental instability causes her to lose touch with truth and with reality.

Just as in Our Animal Hearts, the archetype of the unbalanced hero is conveyed through Iris, whose visions immerse her in a disconcerting world she is incessantly troubled by, in The Catcher in the Rye, this archetype becomes apparent when Holden’s mental troubles lead him to construct a false view of the world around him and interpret his life through this depression-tainted lens. Unlike Iris, who never explicitly talks about her mental state, throughout the novel, Holden regularly acknowledges his depression. He often talks about his inner conflict, saying phrases like, “It makes me so depressed I go crazy” (Salinger 14) and “I was too depressed to care whether I had a good view or not” (Salinger 61). In fact, Holden uses the words “depressed” or “depressing” almost fifty times in the novel (Shmoop Editorial Team), usually referring to himself or to his situation. On the other hand, similarly to Iris, Holden’s depression leads him to experience untrue events. For instance, during a specific state of depression, he gets drunk and pretends that he has been shot by a bullet in the stomach. Holden says, “I was the only guy at the bar with a bullet in their guts. I kept putting my hand under my jacket, on my stomach and all, to keep the blood from dripping all over the place” (Salinger 150). Here, the reader understands that Holden is imagining something that is not true. Perhaps Holden uses this form of dissociation as a coping mechanism for his depression. In addition, while Tomlinson employs the archetype of the unbalanced hero to deliver an unreliable narration of the plot, Salinger goes one step further and uses it to cloud Holden’s views on society. Through the shattered lens of his depression, Holden makes generic and negative associations about society and calls the adults he sees around him “phonies” (Salinger 13). For example, during the intermission of a show, he comments on the audience members that surround him: “You never saw so many phonies in all your life […]” (Salinger 126). This goes to show that Holden’s interpretation of society is directly related to his depression. In conclusion, in The Catcher in the Rye, the archetypal unbalanced hero is conveyed through Holden, who’s depression casts a dark shadow on the world around him; thus, his interpretation of his life and of society is a distorted and bleak one.

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While the archetype of the unbalanced hero is used in The Catcher in the Rye to tell the story of how Holden’s depression impacts his life, in Our Animal Hearts, the archetype of the storyteller is prominently portrayed through Llewelyna, whose macabre stories play a lead part in the creation and manifestation of Iris’ personal monsters. Llewelyna’s role as the storyteller becomes apparent through her obsession with telling stories, especially with telling them right. For instance, she becomes engrossed in the Mabinogion, a book of Welsh fairy tales that have been incorrectly translated to English. As Llewelyna becomes increasingly ill, she spends all of her time and energy rewriting the book. Iris notes, “Llewelyna had bent over this book for years, scribbling furiously” and “[…] she was attempting to rewrite the stories, revise and fix them […]” (Tomlinson 270). This proves Llewelyna’s character is driven by the need to tell stories and to relate them with accuracy. Additionally, Llewelyna’s predominant purpose in the novel is to expose Iris to a frightening world of myth and tales through her storytelling. She is the one who sows the seeds of shadow into Iris’ fertile imagination, which grow into veils of confusion, hindering Iris’ ability to tell fact from fiction. For example, the first story Llewelyna tells Iris is about a woman who cheats on her husband with a water spirit of the lake and becomes pregnant with his baby. The girl is ashamed and prays to get rid of her unborn child. Finally, the queen nymph answers her wishes and the girl gives birth to an underdeveloped baby in the lake, leaving it to die (Tomlinson 19-21). The baby ends up turning into a creature with “the head of a horse and the body of a snake” and “deformed by jealousy and betrayal” (Tomlinson 21) that haunts the lake. Following this gory and frightening story, Iris’ reality is forever changed when she starts seeing the monster appear in the lake near her village. Iris says that “with Llewelyna’s words, the lake monster was born” (Tomlinson 23). Thenceforth in the novel, Iris is constantly haunted by this lake monster, claims to see it, and consequently develops a phobia of swimming in the lake. Therefore, this, and Llewelyna’s other stories are the source of Iris’ personal monsters, which, despite not being visible to all, become very substantial to Iris. The author’s use of the storyteller archetype is powerful because Llewelyna’s stories constitute the underlying fabric of the novel, are a source of conflict for the protagonist and create a context through which the plot develops. To conclude, Llewelyna, the archetypal storyteller’s tales are an integral part of the development of Iris’ personal monsters throughout the novel.

If in Our Animal Hearts, the storyteller archetype is used to negatively impact the protagonist, in The Catcher in the Rye, the protagonist is the storyteller; Holden employs the medium of narration in an attempt to obtain healing and defeat his personal monster, depression. In fact, through the first and last chapters of the novel, it is inferred that Holden writes his story from a mental institution (Where is Holden Caulfield?). Perhaps he is doing so because he has been advised by a psychoanalyst who thinks, as a form of journaling, it could help Holden cope with his depression. An article from the Health Encyclopedia of the University of Rochester Medical Center explains the motive of this suggestion. It states that journaling can help one cope with depression because “writing down [one’s] thoughts and feelings [can help one] understand them more clearly” (Journaling for Mental Health). Therefore, it is possible that through the retelling of the days before he “got pretty run-down” (depressed) and “had to come out [to the institution] and take it easy” (Salinger 1), Holden seeks to better understand his feelings of inner conflict and to gain healing. Since the story does not continue after Holden finishes his relating, it is unknown if the act of writing it helps Holden with his mental instability. However, the author demonstrates the potential of this method when, throughout the story, he shows Holden reflect on and highlight moments during which he experiences happiness. For instance, Holden buys a record for his sister and reveals his excitement about giving it to her: “Boy, it made me so happy all of a sudden. I could hardly wait to get to the park to see if old Phoebe was around so that I could give it to her” (Salinger 116). This proves that by retelling his story, Holden begins to grasp and appreciate the small moments and situations that bring him happiness. Each of these moments, consisting of a child or of childhood memories, serves as a lens through which the reader can see Holden’s deep desire to preserve the innocence of childhood. In the end, during one particular moment of happiness when Holden watches his sister on a merry-go-round, Holden does come to terms with one of his mental struggles. As Gretchen Mussey of eNotes puts it, just as he recognizes that he cannot prevent the kids on the merry-go-round from grabbing for the gold ring, Holden also “accepts the fact that he cannot prevent any child from becoming an adult” (Mussey). Therefore, through his storytelling, Holden ultimately does find peace regarding one of his inner troubles. All in all, though it is not evident if Holden ends up mending his mental wounds through the medium of storytelling, it is safe to say that telling his story is a tool toward defeating his depression.

In summary, Dania Tomlinson and J. D. Salinger both employ the archetypes of the unbalanced hero and the storyteller with a high degree of effectiveness in their respective novels. In Our Animal Hearts, the protagonist Iris Sparks represents the archetype of the unbalanced hero as she suffers from misleading visions caused by her mental instability and narrates them in an unreliable way. Similarly, The Catcher in the Rye uses Holden to convey this archetype; he experiences delusions in consequence of his depression and also proceeds to externalize his flawed interpretation by applying it to the way he perceives society. Furthermore, in Our Animal Hearts, Tomlinson conveys the archetype of the storyteller through Llewelyna, whose obsession with telling dark stories leads her to cloud her daughter’s perception of reality, bringing to life the monsters from these stories. On the other hand, Salinger uses the archetype of the storyteller in his novel to reveal Holden’s search for healing and his conquering of depression, both of which he attempts to achieve through the account of his story. In conclusion, the archetypes of the unbalanced hero and the storyteller in both Our Animal Hearts and The Catcher in the Rye display the twisted effects that mental instability can have when it comes to interpreting one’s life and the numerous ways in which storytelling can create or help defeat personal monsters. In these two novels, and throughout literature, archetypes are critical because they allow the reader to better understand the characters’ conflicts and to be able to relate to them. As Kimaya Dixit and Eliana Reyes of Hattaway Communications put it, “they recur in stories because people recognize something that speaks to them about their own lives” (Dixit and Reyes). It is safe to say that Dania Tomlinson and J. D. Salinger exploit the literary device of the archetype very adequately in their respective novels Our Animal Hearts and The Catcher in the Rye, which is proven by their high praise and popularity.

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Finding Mental Healing through or in Spite of Stories in our Animal Hearts and the Catcher in the Rye. (2022, Jun 16). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 8, 2023, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/finding-mental-healing-through-or-in-spite-of-stories-in-our-animal-hearts-and-the-catcher-in-the-rye/
“Finding Mental Healing through or in Spite of Stories in our Animal Hearts and the Catcher in the Rye.” Edubirdie, 16 Jun. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/finding-mental-healing-through-or-in-spite-of-stories-in-our-animal-hearts-and-the-catcher-in-the-rye/
Finding Mental Healing through or in Spite of Stories in our Animal Hearts and the Catcher in the Rye. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/finding-mental-healing-through-or-in-spite-of-stories-in-our-animal-hearts-and-the-catcher-in-the-rye/> [Accessed 8 Feb. 2023].
Finding Mental Healing through or in Spite of Stories in our Animal Hearts and the Catcher in the Rye [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Jun 16 [cited 2023 Feb 8]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/finding-mental-healing-through-or-in-spite-of-stories-in-our-animal-hearts-and-the-catcher-in-the-rye/
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