Sigmund Freud's Psychoanalysis in the Novel the Catcher in the Rye

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Psychoanalysis, found by Sigmund Freud, incorporates a number of different ideas related to the mind, personality, and treatment. Freud believes that human behaviour is the result of childhood experiences and the interactions between the three parts of the mind: the id, ego, and superego. Freud's research altogether proves psychoanalysis to be defined as the belief that all people possess unconscious thoughts, feelings, desires, and memories. In the psychoanalytic lens, “... verbal and physical actions, as well as dreams and desires, are all significant in order to understand what is happening in a character's mind” (Hayward). This lens essentially uses Freud's theories of psychoanalysis to explore different characters in literary texts. Looking through the lens, the novel, The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D Salinger, the protagonist Holden Caulfield suffers significantly from the trauma of his little brother, Allie’s, death. As a result, he constantly demonstrates his unrealistic goal in life by protecting Jane Gallagher’s innocence in expressing that Stradlater is not a reliable person, preserving Phoebe’s innocence so she will not have to experience the cruelty of the adult world, and unveiling his desire to be a catcher in the rye in the sense that children will not encounter anything beyond what Holden wants them to experience. Holden’s aspiration to be the protector of innocence indicates his need for a sense of control as shown through his view of Jane Gallagher, Phoebe, and himself.

To begin, Holden expresses his desire to protect his childhood friend, Jane Gallagher's innocence, as seen through his thoughts, words, and actions. “I kept thinking about Jane, and about Stradlater having a date with her and all. It made me so nervous I nearly went crazy.” (Salinger, 39) Holden constantly thinks about Jane’s date with Stradlater and expresses his worry towards it since Holden knows Stradlater is not a innocent person. Holden states “I’d double-dated with [Stradlater] a couple of times, and I know what I’m talking about. He was unscrupulous.” (Salinger, 45) Holden also continuously asks Stradlater what he did with Jane in Ed Banky’s car, to which Holden assumes himself, “Give her the time in Ed Banky’s goddam car?” (Salinger, 49) This shows Holden's uneasiness for Jane in that she is losing her innocence with a “phony” like Stradlater, which then leads to Holden’s desire to protect Jane’s innocence. In addition, “[Holden] tried to sock [Stradlater], with all my might, right smack in the toothbrush, so it would split his goddam throat open. Only I missed.” (Salinger, 49) Holden tries to hit Stradlater because he assumed Stradlater had already taken away Jane’s innocence. For example, “Did you? That’s a professional secret, buddy.” (Salinger, 49) The fact that Stradlater did not clearly answer Holden’s question made Holden think that Stradlater must have done something inappropriate with Jane in the car. This then caused Holden to strike Stradlater since Holden wants to defend Jane’s innocence. Moreover, Holden describes Jane by saying “She was a funny girl, old Jane. I wouldn’t describe her as strictly beautiful. She knocked me out though.” (Salinger, 86) Holden wants to protect Jane’s innocence simply because he liked her starting from when they first met at the swimming pool, and felt that his duty was to guard her from thereon. Holden persistently talks about how much he knows about Jane, trying to show that he is her protector in some way. For instance, Holden informs Stradlater that “[Jane’s] a dancer ... Ballet and all. She used to practice about two hours every day, right in the middle of the hottest weather and all.” (Salinger, 36) Holden literally tries to make his comments sound like he is Jane’s protector. Altogether, Holden’s hope to guard Jane’s innocence shows his need for control over her life.

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Furthermore, Holden tries to preserve his little sister, Phoebe’s innocence, so she will not have to experience the cruelty of the adult world. Holden first acts as a protector when he expresses his anger towards the curse words written on the school wall. Holden says “Somebody’d written ‘Fuck you’ on the school wall. It drove me damn near crazy. I thought how Phoebe and all the other little kids would see it … I kept wanting to kill whoever’d written it.” (Salinger, 221) It is clear that Holden wants to shelter Phoebe and children in general from seeing inappropriate words like that so they will not grow up using them. In other words, Holden’s obsession with the foul language shows his disgust for anything that may destroy the innocence of children (Chen). Additionally, Holden gives Phoebe his red hunting hat as a symbol of protection and safety. “Then I took my hunting hat out of my coat pocket and gave it to her.” (Salinger, 198) Holden is literally trying to protect Phoebe as a red hunting hat can be pulled over her ears in order to block out the harshness of reality, the phonies, and the abuse people have for each other. Lastly, the record Holden buys for Phoebe, titled Little Shirley Beans, symbolizes the reoccurring theme of innocence. Holden mentions, “There was this record I wanted to get for Phoebe, called ‘Little Shirley Beans’ … It was about a little kid that wouldn’t go out of the house because two of her front teeth were out and she was ashamed to. (Salinger, 127-128) The fact that the CD plays the same song on repeat illustrates Holden wish to keep Phoebe’s innocence. In other ways, when the CD shatters into pieces, it symbolizes broken innocence. However, when Holden keeps the broken pieces and gives it to Phoebe, it demonstrates his desire to protect her innocence.

Finally, Holden unveils his desire to be the catcher in the rye, a metaphor for protecting the innocence in others. It is a “... desire that illustrates [Holden’s] own repressed need for a protector in his youth” (roguescholar21). This idea first appears when Holden hears a little boy singing the wrong lyrics to the song Comin’ Thro’ the Rye, by Robert Burns. Holden states, “He was singing that song, ‘If a body catch a body coming through the rye.’” (Salinger, 128) In connection to the misheard lyrics, Holden aspires to be the person who catches everyone if they are about to fall off the cliff. He mentions, “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.” (Salinger, 191) Holden wants children to stay as children so they will not have to enter the corrupted world of adulthood and struggle like him. Similarly, being the catcher in the rye is not only symbolic of his desire to save children but also himself. Even after Allie has been dead for about three years, Holden still has not found any sort of closure shown by his conversation with Phoebe, “I know he’s dead! … 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.” (Salinger, 189) Holden’s obsession to protect children’s innocence is his way of trying to find control again because of the trauma from Allie’s death. Therefore, Holden tries to regain control of his emotions and life through protecting others as well as himself.

Ultimately, Holden’s need for a sense of control was indicated through his ambition to be the protector of innocence. From attempting to protect his memories of Jane Gallagher, preserving Phoebe’s innocence, and expressing his longing goal of being the catcher in the rye, “Holden Caulfield is often both conflicted and confused throughout the story…” (roguescholar21) In the end, neglected trauma causes individuals to have a change of perspective in life so they can find a sense of control and comfort for themselves.

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Sigmund Freud’s Psychoanalysis in the Novel the Catcher in the Rye. (2022, Jun 29). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 19, 2024, from
“Sigmund Freud’s Psychoanalysis in the Novel the Catcher in the Rye.” Edubirdie, 29 Jun. 2022,
Sigmund Freud’s Psychoanalysis in the Novel the Catcher in the Rye. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 19 Apr. 2024].
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