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The Challenges and Failures in The Catcher in the Rye and in the Bell Jar

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Challenges they often come and go, facing those challenges is what defines you as a person, it’s what builds your character. In the Catcher in The Rye and in The Bell Jar, both main characters had to face mentally, physically and emotionally tough challenges, in Holden’s case it was from getting kicked out of school, getting robbed and beaten up to sleeping on bench outside, in Esther’s case it was all the way from food poisoning to getting rapped, although they both had different challenges they both had 3 similar very big problems, both main characters felt that the world was against them, Esther and Holden went through loss and the center of each novel’s also both suffered academic failure.

Now both protagonists reacted in a different way, in M.Caulfields case he reacts to his challenges by either fighting back and voicing his opinion to running away and or by closing himself in, but in Esther’s case, she tries to kill herself. Now, I have never lived in either of the protagonist’s shoes but because Holden’s found a good side in each of these major problems that he had to overcome I would say he had the better reactions. Firstly, the antagonist in each novel feel isolated by their society and rebelling against them. In The Catcher in The Rye, Holden isolates himself from the society he finds himself superior to others to make him feel better about himself and to help him forget about his own problems, he distances himself from others. Holden seems to feel like he is a victim of the society throughout the book and says that he feels like he is with all the hot-shot. He says to Mr.Spencer: “Game, my ass. Some game. If you get on the side where all the hot-shots are, then it’s a game, all right–I’ll admits that. But if you get on the other side, where there aren’t any hot-shots, then what’s a game about it? Nothing. No game,” (Salinger, 8)

Holden also finds that a good majority of the people he meets are what he calls “phonies” but it is because he is scared to communicate with others, I think he is scared of rejection more than anything and he is only giving himself a reason not to be with others. Holden’s distance is what brings problems to him but then again he still finds a way to find a good side in a bad situation and draw “power” from it. In The Bell Jar, Esther is a model student her intelligence helped her gain many great things. Although her academics skills helped her gain many good experiences some of her classmates bullied her for it and only started to show her respect when she started dating Buddy. Everyone, expected her to marry him, she felt very pressured and started questioning what she really wanted, she wanted to write but this was against her society’s beliefs which led to, just like Holden, feeling isolated from her society. She said : I also remembered Buddy Willard saying in a sinister, knowing way that after I had children I would feel differently, I wouldn’t want to write poems any more.

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So I began to think maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed. (Plath, 81) Also, Esther is nervous about her future the way life is around her she doesn’t have many choices, staying a virgin and feeling accepted by society or losing her virginity and getting rejected. Being a stay at home mother or following what she loves and becoming a successful writer. The bell jar that Esther mentions many times in the book is a form of isolation from society. In Esther’s, case her distancing herself leads to her going crazy rather than like Holden finding a good side in it. Secondly, the principal figure of each book suffers loss. Losing someone is never easy to mourn and affected both characters in a terrible way how could it not right? Esther lost her father and Holden lost his sister. Esther lost her father when she was young, and it showed that she would have needed that father figure to give her everything a father would have given her, the fact that she did not lead to her being depressed, Esther stated, “ I felt happier than I had been since I was about nine and running along the hot white beaches with my father the summer before he died”. (Plath, p.70) .Her mother other than helping Esther mourn her father’s death she tried to make her forget everything about her father, she didn’t even let her cry about her father’s death. The day after she went to visit her old man’s grave she tried to commit suicide because of something her mother once said.

The loss of her father led to Esther losing her self esteem so much so that she thinks can’t do anything, depression and suicide attempts. The protagonist of The Catcher in The Rye, lost his younger brother Allie, this affected him very much, in fact, it almost felt as if a part of Holden died with Allie, he also went crazy when he learned about the passing of his brother and broke all the windows in his garage. Throughout the book, Holden admits that Allie’s death is the reason he finds it difficult to become close with anyone he is scared that if he becomes close with anyone they will die just like his younger brother did, this is actually very common when people lose someone they were close too this is an understandable reaction. The loss of Allie made Holden look at everything in a negative way compared to a positive way when his sibling was alive, he found a mission into that which was to not let anyone do what he did and this where the title of the novel comes from. When his sister Phoebe asked him what he wanted to do in his future, he said, “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. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye4”. (Salinger, 173) Both losses from both protagonists ended up with a reaction Holden found a mission in his loss and Esther found depression and well suicide attempts so once again Holden found a good side in things rather than quitting and trying to commit suicide like Esther.

Thirdly, both main characters suffered academic failure. When Esther came home from New York, she learns of her first academic failure in her life, she had been denied from some fancy writing course “I think I should tell you right away, she said, and I could see bad news in the set of her neck, ‘you didn’t make that writing course. The air punched out of my stomach”(Plath, 110). Now what builds character is exactly that how do you face failure and overcome it? Esther wasn’t used to it so once again she fell into depressions, she couldn’t write, read, eat or sleep for twenty-one days, if you want my opinion I think it’s a bit exaggerated, I would have looked at it in a way that it gives me a chance to improve but Esther saw it in a way that she failed and that she wasn’t good enough. In Holden’s case failure in school was usual he had already been kicked out of 4 schools for failing classes or lack of discipline. Holden said, “I forgot to tell you about that. They kicked me out. I wasn’t supposed to come back after Christmas vacation on account of I was flunking four subjects and not applying myself and all ”(Salinger, 6). He says it as if it’s nothing. Holden makes it seem like nothing happened, what is sad is that he is failing those classes not because he can’t pass them but because he doesn’t want too he has all the skills and definitely the potential to pass those classes with ease but he just doesn’t want to.

The Catcher in the Rye and The Bell Jar have somewhat of the same challenges such as academic failure, the death of a family member and isolation from society. Holden and Esther react in different ways but I think Holden found some positive in the negative even if he didn’t want to, example Allie’s death gave him a life goal and isolation from society helped him with his self-esteem, it also broke him but in a way it saved him. In Esther’s case, she finds mental breakdown and depression in all of her life problems. I would say Holden reaction is the better ones.

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The Challenges and Failures in The Catcher in the Rye and in the Bell Jar. (2022, Jun 29). Edubirdie. Retrieved September 22, 2023, from
“The Challenges and Failures in The Catcher in the Rye and in the Bell Jar.” Edubirdie, 29 Jun. 2022,
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