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Self-destructive Behaviour, Gender And Grief In The Catcher In The Rye and The Bell Jar

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Breakdown and madness is one of the most noteworthy themes explored by J.D Salinger and Sylvia Plath in their confessional, bildungsroman novels “The Catcher in the Rye” (1951) and “The Bell Jar” (1963.) As “The Bell Jar” was heavily influenced by “The Catcher in the Rye” many similarities can be drawn between them, as Robyn Marsack says; “Esther is the female version of Holden”. I am tempted to agree with this sentiment – as there are many key similarities between them. Looking at the protagonists Holden and Esther from a biographical, feminist and psychoanalytical perspective, factors such as self-destructive behaviour, gender and grief will be analysed in an attempt to understand and assess the methods used in the authors’ representation of breakdown and madness.

In the beginning of ‘The Bell Jar’ by Sylvia Plath, the theme of breakdown and madness is explored from the opening chapters. Plath uses the character of Esther to describe her own experiences with intense isolation. Esther Greenwood admits to the reader that although “[she] was supposed to be having the time of [her] life,” and she was “supposed to be the envy of thousands of other college girls” she was in fact “not steering anything, not even [herself].” Plath’s use of anaphora and metaphor first introduces us to the idea that Esther feels as if she is no longer in control of her life, foregrounding her fragile mental state and subsequent spiralling depression. The stative verb “supposed” is significant as it juxtaposes how everyone else around Esther is, by contrast, enjoying themselves and the trip they are on. Esther, by contrast, doesn’t experience this, becoming vastly alienated by her fellow students.

Contextually, ‘The Bell Jar’ is a semi-biographical account of Sylvia Plath’s life, and can be categorised as ‘Roman à clef’, a novel portraying real situations and people but thinly veiled as fiction. This means that almost all of the experiences within the novel are based on Plath’s experiences with mental illness. Readers aware of Plath’s history (her multiple suicide attempts, as well as how she ended her life) will understand just how significant ‘The Bell Jar’ is, as it serves the purpose of illustrating Plath’s own internal struggles. From a psychological perspective, it is clear that Esther Greenwood is an unreliable narrator; she is suffering from mental health issues and so cannot be trusted to be completely truthful.

We see similar ambiguity in ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ by J.D. Salinger. We get a glimpse of Holden’s instability as a narrator via the opening paragraph: Salinger writes, as Holden, “I’ll tell you about this madman stuff…” and continues on in the same vein, “…just before I got pretty run down and had to come here and take it easy.” Holden speaks in an informal, colloquial manner about his mental health, and the noun phrase, “madman stuff” foregrounds his dismissive attitude towards the opinion that he may need help. It is obvious that Holden is putting up a front, pretending to be more secure than he actually is. Unlike ‘The Bell Jar,’ in which the protagonist seems unsure of herself from the beginning, Holden is portrayed as a nonchalant character who gets “kicked out” of school for “not applying himself” – making him seem more like a schoolboy rebel than a child suffering from various mental health issues, no doubt including depression. Unlike Esther, he is not an A-grade student or a high achiever – and yet both of them are forced to deal with depression and low self-esteem nonetheless. Like ‘The Bell Jar’ Salinger’s only novel is also semi-autobiographical, as it parallels with JD Salinger’s life as he dropped out of school in 1934, and NYU in 1937. Salinger’s novel was controversial in many ways, particularly because of the taboo language used within and its frank discussion of mental health. Holden’s denial of his own mental health issues, from a psychological perspective, can easily be seen as front to protect himself from what he perceives as further harm. He has already been betrayed by so many adults in his life that he no longer trusts anyone to actually help him, and is cautious of adults and their “phoniness”.

Both novels are written in the first person, so the reader is given an intimate portrayal of the character’s thoughts, and also makes the novels more personal to the authors Plath and Salinger, as they can use the characters as a foil for their own personal thoughts. However, writing in the first person is often unreliable, as both narratives are self-indulgent, resulting in a bias and narrow portrayal.

In both The Catcher in the Rye and The Bell Jar, pressure to conform to gender roles constantly affects the protagonists. Salinger shows us Holden’s inability to conform through his sexual encounter with sunny; a prostitute. he plans to “get in some practice on her”, because “I worry about that stuff sometimes. […] I wouldn’t mind being pretty good at that stuff”. By referring to sex as “that stuff”, Holden seems vulnerable and childlike, but feels like he has to practice in case he ever gets married. “It took me about an hour to just get her goddam brassiere off.” Shows his inadequacy and the adjective ‘goddamn’ illustrates Holden’s frustration with being inexperienced. He decides he doesn’t want to go through with it and when he makes up the excuse of recently having an operation on his ‘clavichord’, Sunny leaves. Sex to Holden seems to be a rite of passage, and wants to lose his virginity, but “…most of the time when you’re coming pretty close to doing it with a girl …. she keeps telling you to stop. The trouble with me is, I stop. Most guys don’t. I can’t help it. You never know whether they really want you to stop, or whether they’re just scared as hell, or whether they’re just telling you to stop so that if you do go through with it, the blame will be on you, not them. Anyway, I keep stopping.” Holden is questioning consent, and respects the women’s decision to stop, however, the way he says that “the trouble is” that he stops, illustrates the way society was in the 50’s. Men were supposed to be the provider and ruler of the family, and women were second-class citizens, as Holden says, “most guys” don’t ask for consent.

Whereas in The Bell Jar, Plath’s representation of conformity is shown through constraints that society places upon women. By reading the bell jar from a feminist perspective, it is easy to see how the female oppression Esther faces can be yet another reason for her breakdown. When she was younger, her mother wanted to teach her shorthand, but “The trouble was, I hated the idea of serving men in any way. I wanted to dictate my own thrilling letters”. Esther wanted to be an author, but is restricted from the beginning as she is places in fashion journalism, which is ‘women’s work’. Buddy shares his mother’s opinions on men and women; ‘What a man wants is a mate and what a woman wants is infinity security,’ and ‘What a man is, is an arrow into the future and what a woman is the place the arrow shoots off from’ which is rejected by Esther as “the last thing [she] wanted was infinite security and to be the place an arrow shoots off from”. Mrs Willard is a key aspect of the feminist reading as she is not a feminist, and this female oppression is engrained in her. She belittles women and their role despite being a woman herself, and this is important as she is of the older generation, and is responsible for teaching the next generation her values.

If a woman were to get pregnant in the 50’s, she’d have to stop working. In a letter to Ann Davidow – Goodman in 1952, Plath says, “I am envious of males. I resent their ability to have sex both morally and immorally and a career.” She states how society “encourages boys to prove their virility” and condemns women for doing so. She was aware of the inequality between men and women, and wanted to have the same experiences as them without the consequences only affecting her. In both cases, this expectation to conform to society’s ideology contributes to the protagonist’s mental breakdown and is used by Salinger and Plath to express their thoughts on their society at the time, and highlight the pressures and stresses that adolescents face in order to fit in, and what can happen to those who are unable to.

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In both “The Catcher in the Rye” and “The Bell Jar”, a close family member’s death, the resulting grief can be argued to be a catalyst for the protagonists’ breakdown. In “The Catcher in the Rye”, we learn of Holden’s brother Allie, who died of leukaemia when they were both very young. “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.” Holden is clearly deeply affected by Allie’s death, and isn’t capable of expressing his feelings properly, leaving him feeling confused, depressed and on the verge of breakdown. From this, Holden begins to idolise Allie, and seems to portray a black and white thinking pattern, in which everything but Allie is held in contempt, as shown in in this outburst: ‘I know he’s dead! Don’t you think I know that? I can still like him though, can’t I? Just because somebody’s dead, you don’t just stop liking them, for God’s sake – especially if they were about a thousand times nicer than the people you know that’re alive and all’. This leaves Holden vulnerable and psychologically detached, and as he couldn’t go to his funeral, never got the closure needed to deal with the loss and is therefore still at the front of his mind.

Holden also witnessed the death of his classmate, James castle, who committed suicide after being bullied. Though the memory is just one of Holden’s ramblings, it is significant as it clearly affects him. Holden could “hear him land outside”, ran downstairs and saw “his teeth, and blood, were all over the place” he says that the “funny part is, I hardly even knew James castle”, but he was wearing Holden’s turtle neck jumper when he jumped, and their names were next to each other during roll call. Unlike Allie, castle’s death was unexpected and fast, whereas leukaemia is a long process. This can be interpreted from a biographical viewpoint, as J.D Salinger experienced loss first hand in ww2 and liberated a concentration camp, resulting in him being diagnosed with PTSD and hospitalized after suffering a nervous breakdown. In a letter to Ernest Hemingway, Salinger wrote “I’ve been in an almost constant state of despondency and I thought it would be good to talk to somebody sane.”, therefore elucidating the impression that experiencing long and short term deaths of both friends and strangers can result in trauma and depression.

Unlike Holden, the death of Esther’s father when she was 9 is not the main reason for Esther’s breakdown, though it does significantly contribute to her depression. The grieving process is a necessary part of coping with a loss and as she doesn’t remember grieving her father’s death as a child, she, like Holden, doesn’t get any closure. This can also be read biographically, as Plath was 8 when her father died, and the loss is commonly thought to be the sole reason for her depression. This can be seen in her other works; “Daddy’ was a poem written shortly before Plath’s suicide in 1963. “At twenty I tried to die / and get back, back, back to you.” This is significant as her father’s death deeply impacted her, and influenced many aspects of her work; In The Bell Jar, Esther visits her father’s grave and reflects on his death; “I was only purely happy until I was 9 years old”. The fact from the age of nine onwards, Esther wasn’t ‘purely happy’ shows how the death of her father shut her off emotionally, and life would never be the same for her again, thus acting as further cause of her mental ill health. “Howling [her] loss into the cold salt rain”, her father’s death seems to have affected her harder now she is an adult and can truly grasp the extent of her loss.

Self-destructive behaviour easily follows on from the ambiguity imposed by both authors. We see both protagonists engaging in this behaviour in a number of ways, the most notable one of which is not seeing things through. In ‘The Bell Jar’ we learn that Esther had “always wanted to learn German”, which she had been telling people “for about five years” however she never seemed to have the energy to commit to learning it. Plath uses the metaphor of a fig tree to represent Esther’s mental state: “I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story … I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose.” Esther seems to believe that if she chooses to do one thing, all other possible opportunities will be closed to her – and takes so long to choose what to do with her life, she watches as the different opportunities rot away into nothing. “As I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”, which captures the crux of her decent into a deep depression as her future is metaphorically crumbling around her. She is unable to reap the fruits of her labour as they have all expired; meaning Esther believes all of her hard work is wasted, as she is unable to concentrate her efforts on a specific life goal.

The same idea was illustrated in the 14th century the paradox of “Buridan’s ass”, in which a donkey, both equally hungry and thirsty is equidistant to a pale of water and a bale of hay, and unable to decide which it needs the most, dies. Plath deliberately uses the metaphor of the fig tree in order subtly bring into play ideals of life and death; by comparing Esther’s depression to something that is slowly corroding away her every opportunity, she suggests that mental health is not a situation to overcome but some kind of disease – one which Esther appears to be struggling to fight. However, the metaphor also invokes deep images of decay and despair, indicating that Esther cannot escape – whatever she chooses, she misses other opportunities, but if she refuses to choose, all those potential opportunities will disappear. This is echoed in chapter 9, when everyone is given a prop to symbolise what they want to be. Esther is unsure, and “she wants,” said Jay Cee wittily “to be everything”. Esther from the beginning is open to many experiences, but is unable to choose just one to build on, thus starting a snowballing decent into further detrimental behaviour.

Holden engages in many self-destructive behaviours, and as Joel Salzberg states in “Critical Essays on Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye”, the text is a “valuable psychological study might still be made in the progression of Holden’s breakdown – how he provokes fights in which he will be beaten, makes sexual advances he cannot carry through, and unconsciously alienates himself from many of the people he encounters.” I agree strongly with these views and feel that Holden’s problems are sometimes self-inflicted. His alienation can be seen from the beginning, as he isolates himself from the football match. Salinger uses the passive sentence “I was standing way up on Thomson hill…” as a way to portray Holden’s removal from everyone else, and distance himself from humiliation and emotion. Like Esther in “the bell jar”, Holden in indecisive. The informal phrase “sort of” is constantly used throughout the novel and can be argued to be another way of removing himself from things around him. “I can’t explain what I mean. And even if I could, I’m not sure I’d feel like it”. By removing himself from the situation and not facing his problems or even wanting to explain them, Holden is avoiding facing reality and living in denial, which as a result stunts emotional maturity.

This portrayal of immaturity can be seen when Holden is in the phone box, as every time he thinks of someone to call, he ends up talking himself out of it just in case it results in him having to talk to an adult. He constantly decides against actions that may help him, such as reaching out to people. This idea is supported by Charles Kegel, who states, “his problem is one of communication”, and “can’t get through to others his own age”. This lack of communication is also seen through his attitude, as he “doesn’t feel like going into” his issues, portraying him as detaches and unfeeling, which we later learn is not the case, and is actually just a façade he puts up to avoid facing reality. This isolation is mirrored in the bell jar, as Laurence Lerner in “New Novels” says “we realise that Esther’s ruthless and innocent wit is not just the result of youth and intelligence. It is the sign of a detachment, a lack of involvement, so complete that it leads to neurosis” Holden’s self-destruction stems most from this refusal of reality, because he is afraid of becoming an adult. He says the best thing about the natural history museum is that “everything always stayed right where it was”, “nobody’d move”, “nobody’d be different” Holden hates the adult world and is afraid of the change in responsibility. He doesn’t want to venture into adulthood because he is uncertain of what it means for him, and suggests can’t trust the adults he knows, hinting to things like sexual abuse, and often calling out “phoniness”, despite being hypocritical. Instead of embracing the transition into adulthood, he resents it, which does him more harm than good. By “protecting” himself from it, his mental health begins to deteriorate, as he is unable to develop into an adult or express his emotions maturely. Ernest Jones further comments on this and his “resistance to official adulthood.” I feel that this resistance is shown through the symbolism of the ducks in Central Park. Holden, preoccupied regarding “where they go in Winter” exists in a liminal space and cannot move forward himself and many motifs in the novel link to Ernest Jones’s assessment. Esther is similar in her resistance of official adulthood and I feel this is effectively shown at the start – when instead of enjoying her new life she employs a nihilistic simile, explaining she feels “numb as a trolley bus.”

In summary, from the points of evaluation, critical perspectives and their analysis, break down and madness is a potent recurring tone in both novels. In both novels we have resistant protagonists who cannot move forward into legal adulthood and are stymied by mental ill health. Psychological breakdowns are common to both characters and arguably a modern reader is more empathetic of these problems than the original readership.


  1. Joel Salzberg “Critical Essays on Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye”, 1990
  2. Laurence Lerner, “New Novels” in “Listener”, 31 January

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