Friday, September 25, 2009

A Psychoanalytical Interpretation of The Catcher in the Rye

Editor's Note: The following treatise presents an Adlerian psychoanalytical interpretation of the J.D. Salinger’s play 'The Catcher in the Rye'. It attempts to demonstrate the neurotic behavior of Holden Caulfield along with his aim for social superiority. It also takes into account the factors influencing the feelings of inferiority in him.

"The great authors succeed in creating their characters in similar fashion as characters in real life 'create' themselves" (Ansbacher). This paper will be a psychoanalytical interpretation of Holden Caulfield, the 17-year-old tragic hero of The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger from an Adlerian angle. This will examine how Holden's mistaken life style results in his re­sorting to neurosis in order to deal with the particular life problems he faces. Holden's extremely high goal of superiority, his excessive feelings of inferiority, and his diminished social interest lead him to attempt to solve problems on the useless side of life. We will also consider some of the factors which contributed to Holden's original mistaken attitudes, such as his family constellation and childhood pampering.

Holden tells his own story in the play. He selects incidents that seem impor­tant to him and interlaces these incidents with his opinions about life. This information is similar to the kind the therapist gets from his client. Unlike the therapist however, the reader cannot use questions to clarify his understanding and provoke new information. The reader-therapist must accept what is provided and infer what he can.

At the beginning of the novel, we assume that Holden has had some neurotic symptoms which resulted in his being sent to some place to recover. He tells his story from the perspective of having been there a while, but what progress he has made is unclear. "I'll just tell you about this madman stuff that happened to me around Christmas just before I got pretty run-down and had to come here and take it easy" (Catcher).

Holden does not present events chronologically; he tells a story and when he is reminded of a past event he digresses to tell about that. While we recognize that it is usually significant to note what particular event evokes a particular memory or comment on life, for the sake of clarity and brevity, we will examine the overall themes in his life and not necessarily the events one by one as he presents them.

In Adlerian psychology, the individual is conceived as a unit­ary, goal-oriented, creative self. This means that a person is uniquely consistent and is aiming in a specific direction. He aims toward his own personally defined goal of success. All this is called the style of life, formerly the life plan.

Family Constellation

An individual's style of life is formed at an early age and remains his way of dealing with the world. Holden is the second born of four children. While birth order is not destiny, it is important to realize that a child's psychological place in the family influences the attitudes he has and thus his life style. The family is the child's first social environment.

We do not know anything about Holden's relationship with his older brother when they were young, but Holden now seems to re­spect and admire D.B. He quotes him as an authority on good res­taurants and good books and says "My favorite author is my brother" (Catcher). But Holden also resents his brother because he has a successful career writing movies. "He's out in Hol­lywood being a prostitute. If there's one thing I hate, it's the movies" (Catcher). Holden may be disappointed that his brother chose a commercial career, or perhaps Holden is really envious of this older brother who has "lots of dough" and drives a sporty car. Holden repeats so often that he hates the movies that we suspect it's an accusation against others for liking them.

As the younger brother of D.B., Holden is in quite a race. His pace-setter for achievement has achieved much success in society. Holden's striving for superiority is going to be under pressure, as he competes with his older brother. The result of this competition de­pends on Holden's courage and self-confidence. We can see that Holden feels discouraged when he says such things, as, "As a matter of fact, I'm the only dumb one in the family" (Catcher). "Dumb" seems to include more than simply lack of intelligence; it seems to indicate that he is the worst at everything.

In Problems of Neurosis, Adler notes, "If the second child loses hope of equality, he will... tend to escape to the useless side of life, and ... laziness or lying will pave the way to neurosis and self de­struction" (Ansbacher). Holden tells us:

I'm the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life.... If I'm on my way to the store to buy a magazine, even, and somebody asks me where I'm going, I'm liable to say I'm going to the opera (Catcher, 1965, p. 16).

He lies to the woman he meets on the train just so he can have something to talk about, and he lies when he's in a situation that he can't handle by saying that he's just had a serious operation. This clearly is a way Holden strives for superiority on the useless side of life. He brags that he is the best liar. Lying seems to be a way that Holden can feel superior because he controls the situation. Only he knows the truth so he can dominate and manipulate others. He can save face, cover any feelings of inferiority by lying.

The second child is also "rarely able to endure the strict leadership of others or to accept the idea of 'eternal laws' " (Ansbacher). He is a rebel who will oppose things because they are cus­tomary. For example, Holden's first words to us are:

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like . .. and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it. In the first place, the stuff bores me ... (Catcher).

He anticipates what would ordinarily be asked of him and refuses to give it. He uses "crap" in connection with a classical novel indicating that he is well educated on the useless side of life. He describes what we are interested in as boring. Holden begins rebelling before any­one is able to request anything. The exaggerated nature of this sec­ond child's rebellion tells us that he is indeed discouraged and lack­ing social interest.

Holden is not only a second born child however, he is also a mid­dle child. Allie and Phoebe were both younger than him. Allie died of leukemia four years ago when he was eleven and Holden was thirteen. Phoebe is only ten, seven years younger than Holden. The distance between them now would suggest that he is not in competi­tion with them. Holden describes them both as "sweet," and "intelli­gent" and says that "everyone" agrees.

When Holden is feeling what he describes as "lonesome and de­pressed" and what we would say is particularly inferior, he thinks of Allie and Phoebe. He has two early recollections of Allie that sup­port the idea that Holden's younger siblings are "sweet" because they admire and like him, that is, they make him feel superior. The first recollection is a very short scene of Allie sitting on a fence watching Holden tee off his golf game. Holden says he knew that

Allie would be there when he looked behind him. The little brother is looking up to the big brother in admiration of his abilities, while big brother looks back at him. In the second scene, Holden remem­bers the time when he wouldn't let Allie come with him on a fishing trip. He told Allie that he was just a child, too little to ride that far on his bike. When Holden is depressed he starts talking to Allie and says, "Okay. Go home and get your bike and meet me in front of Bobby's house." (Catcher). Holden remembers when Allie wanted to be like him, to do things with him, and looked up to him. Holden feels superior in both scenes. He tells Allie to get his bike now because he misses the appreciator he had in Allie. When Allie died, Holden spent the night in the garage and broke all the windows with his bare hands. This is a rather exaggerated response to even the loss of a much cared for brother. It can be assumed that in addition to losing a beloved brother, Holden also lost a source of superior feelings when Allie died.

Holden's relationship with Phoebe appears to be similar to that which he had with Allie. Phoebe too admires and emulates him. She skates where he skated and "If you tell Phoebe something, she knows exactly what the hell you're talking about" (Catcher). In other words, Phoebe agrees with him.

In contrast to adults whom he almost always calls "phonies," Hol­den says, "God, I love it when a kid's nice and polite when you tighten their skate for them or something. Most kids are. They really are" (Catcher). Holden's feelings of inferiority are so great that he only feels fond of Phoebe and Allie because they are younger than him. He feels affectionate because he can be superior to them, benevolent, but nonetheless, superior. According to Adler, "Children who have a great feeling of inferiority want to exclude stronger children and play with weaker children" (Ansbacher). Holden is 17 years old, but he seems to be just such a child.

Pampering Mother

Though we know litde about Holden's mother, he offers some information that indicates indirectly that he was a pampered child. For example, his mother was apparently over attentive to his needs as he says, " .. .my mother, all you have to do to my mother is cough somewhere in Siberia and she'll hear you. She's nervous as hell.". He also tells us that mothers only see good in their sons and describes his mother and grandmother buying him presents and giving him lots of money. When Phoebe disobeys Mrs. Caulfield, she simply says "I don't like it" and changes the subject. Pampering leads to a self-centeredness and impaired social interest and leaves the child feeling uncertain because he is excused from responsibility. The child feels special, that he deserves the best and thus sets his goal of superiority accordingly high. Holden tells us:

I still act sometimes like i was only twelve. Everybody says that.... Sometimes I act a lot older than i am—i really do—for people never notice it. People never notice anything (Catcher).

These are the words of the pampered child who wants to be praised for all his accomplishments and who is angry and accusatory when he feels he is not getting adequate recognition.

The Adlerian perspective emphasizes the "key role the mother must play in preparing her child for a life of cooperation and con­tribution" (Ansbacher). By her example, Mrs. Caulfield teaches Holden how to deal with life crises. Holden describes how at first his "mother gets very hysterical", and in general "she's very nervous". In this first relationship where he should be learning cooperation and trust, Holden learns that one can use nervousness, the weapon of weakness, in difficult situations. Holden applies this lesson using de­pression as his way of coping.

Holden used his own creative abilities to interpret his mother's attentions as pampering. He has selected from her behavior the les­son that being nervous or hysterical is a way of dealing with prob­lems. Thus, when faced with a situation that he feels inadequately prepared for, Holden lacks cooperation and uses symptomatology.

Inferiority-Superiority Dynamics

Holden's oversized inferiority feelings are in contrast to his ex­tremely high goals of superiority. Thus he is sure to feel small and inferior. Adler comments that an inferiority complex "burdens the character with oversensitivity, leads to egotistical self considerations and self-reflections, (and) lays the foundation for neurosis" (Ansbacher). We can certainly see that Holden does have this foundation. His oversensitivity to the social amenities which he considers hypocritical leads him to say, "I can't stand that stuff. It drives me crazy" (Catcher). He has a similar reaction to people saying "Good luck" or "grand" to him. That he is overly involved in self consideration is illustrated time and time again as he describes his acute awareness of what he looks like, what he does in any situation. His marked inferiority complex is ob­vious when he comments that if life is a game then he's on the wrong side. This surely is what Adler refers to when he says that the person with great inferiority feelings "lives, as it were, in an enemy country" (Ansbacher). Holden's strong temper and passion, illus­trated by the fist fight he gets into with his roommate because he dates a friend of Holden's; and his constant motion, wandering through New York City and from school to school, also indicate his deep sense of inferiority.

In contrast to these profound feelings of inferiority are Holden's extremely high goals of superiority. This goal shows itself frequently during his story. Appropriately, the first scene he describes shows his desire to be superior, and also his methods. He depicts himself standing on top of a hill watching the last important football game of the year. It was "supposed to be a very big deal" and so "practically the whole school except me was there" (Catcher). Hol­den literally and figuratively looks down on other people. Literally, he is on top of a hill so he looks down on them. They appear very little compared to him. He also "looks down" on them by defining what they think is important as trivial. It was supposed to be a big deal, but to him it's not. Another example of Holden's goal of superiority is his fantasy about having been shot and walking around with "a bullet in the gut" without anyone knowing. Finally he would avenge his honor, that is, get back at someone who made him feel inferior and he would be a hero.

Perhaps the best example of how lofty Holden's goals are is the scene he describes to Phoebe when she challenges him to name one thing he'd like to be. He replies:

Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody's around—nobody big, I mean—except me. And I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff.... 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. .. (Catcher).

Consistent with Holden's expression of love for his younger brother and sister and children in general, is his desire to be the only big person around. Holden's goal of superiority, to be the big hero and to have everyone's destiny in his control is obvious. Clearly it is re­moved from possibility, removed from common sense, and hence, he can only attempt to realize it on the useless side of life.

Lack Of Social Interest

Holden's lack of social interest, that is, lack of feeling of fellowship and empathy with others, has been implied in most of his story. It is further illustrated by the fact that all of his contacts with people are disappointing. For example, he says, "Almost every time somebody gives me a present, it ends up making me sad" (Catcher). He feels lonely: "I felt so lonesome, all of a sudden. I almost wished I was dead" (Catcher). These experiences are the result of his rejection of society. " . . . if I were a piano player . . . and all these dopes thought I was terrific, I'd hate it" (Catcher). At no time does Holden express any concern for any­body but himself. Only once does he do anything nice for another person. That was when he bought a record for Phoebe, but he breaks it by accident before he gets it home. Typical of the neurotic, Hol­den expresses his lack of social interest in overgeneralizations about the way people are. Throughout his story, Holden says such things as:

People always ruin things.

People never think anything is anything really.

People are always hot to have a discussion when you're not.

People never believe you. (Catcher)

Clearly, Holden lacks the courage to cooperate in an adult world.

We have referred to a difficult situation that has precipitated Hol­den's developing symptoms. In this case, the exogenous factors do not seem to be so much related to a particular incident as they do to Holden's age. His first symptoms appeared at age thirteen, the onset of puberty and when he was first sent to prep school. Two of the three major life tasks come into focus at this time in life and Holden seems ill prepared to meet them.

The task of occupation is presented because Holden is enrolled in a school which is designed to help him prepare for college and hence, an occupation. He must stop being a little boy and begin mak­ing specific plans about what he wants for an occupation. He must succeed in prep school in order to live up to the expectations of an upper-middle class male. Holden has been expelled from four such schools. The experiences he describes occur just after he has flunked out of the fourth school and must go home and face his parents. We know that he excels in English and that he places a high value on being intelligent, but his fear of not being superior causes him to act lazy so he will have an excuse if he fails. Holden describes all the schools as being full of "phonies", criticizes their procedures, and generally expresses anger towards everything they represent. He par­ticipates in only the less admirable adult behavior such as smoking, swearing, and drinking. In this way he can justify not accepting the responsibility that prep school requires. He strives to be superior on the useless side of life.

The other task that Holden must actively deal with is sex and love. Not only has he reached the age of sexual maturity, but he is also in a situation where he has the opportunity to get involved in intimate relationships with the opposite sex. Sex, women, and love are the most common topics of conversation at this all-male school. Holden's peers all express their opinions about this issue and thus he is chal­lenged to make some decisions about how he will approach this problem of life. In this task, too, Holden must give up being a little boy and assume some adult responsibility.

Over and over Holden expresses the importance he places in lov­ing the woman he has sex with. He tells us that a girl has to be intelligent and genuine, and that physical and spiritual love must be combined. In sum, he says, "I have to like a girl" (Catcher). But Holden lacks the courage and cooperation necessary to meet this task. He would really like to run away, avoid the issue, and continue being a pampered child. He frequently says that he wants to get in contact with Jane, the girl he likes and respects, but is never "in the mood." Instead, Holden dates girls like Sally whom he de­scribes as the "queen of the phonies" (Catcher), calls on prostitutes, or tries to pick up older women in bars. In this way, he can justify rejecting growing up.

Antithetical Thinking

Adler has noted that neurotic patients only know contradiction and antithesis (Ansbacher). Because Holden finds maturing and facing adult responsibilities too difficult, he describes all of adulthood as phony while being childlike is genuine. We see that Holden does not want to grow up when he describes why he likes the museum: because "everything always stayed right where it was" (Catcher). The carrousel, too, is nice because it always plays the same song, "Certain things they should stay just as they are" (Catcher), he says.

Holden's great feelings of inferiority and his high goals of superiority combined with his lack of social interest result in his ina­bility to deal with the life tasks of sex and occupation in a useful way. He hesitates to grow up; however he must develop excuses in order to save face. He must reject adulthood by defining it as less desirable than childhood.

Holden attempts to save face by shining more rather than being more. His principal excuse is that incidents are unimportant. He de­lays telling that he's been expelled and then says, "I forgot to tell you about that. They kicked me out." (Catcher). He is always saying that things he doesn't like are boring and uses being bored as an excuse for doing as he pleases. (Note earlier reason for not telling about his childhood.) "I call people 'prince' quite often when I'm horsing around. It keeps me from getting bored or something" (Catcher). When the pampered child wants attention, he says he gets bored and, for example, starts tap dancing in the men's bathroom. "All I need's an audience" (Catcher), he says, and reveals his real feelings. Similar to the use of boredom as a way of trying to appear superior, is his saying that he doesn't care when faced with a difficult situation. "I'm partly yellow, but mostly the type that just doesn't give a damn" (Catcher). By saying that he doesn't care, Holden tries to cover up his feelings of inferior­ity. These neurotic excuses are typical of the way he avoids dealing with the issues of school (occupation) and sex. Holden is "never in the mood" to have a genuine exchange with the girl he cares for and he doesn't want to bother with all those phonies at school. His ex­cuses reveal the hesitating attitude which Adler found characteristic of the neurotic.

With other maneuvers, Holden demonstrates his desire to run away from these issues. By being lazy, Holden flunks out of four prep schools. He escapes facing the problem of what he's going to do with himself, yet is able to maintain the posture that he could do something very superior if he wanted to. The distaste he expresses for all the schools he attends is just another way of avoiding the issue. "Disgust is a gesture of aversion.... This affect can easily be misused by being made an excuse for removing oneself from an un­pleasant situation" (Adler). Holden also physically runs away when he leaves school early, but does not go home. During the few days he spends in New York City he escapes through anonym­ity, alcohol, etc.

Holden's pampered life style has left him inadequately prepared to deal with life problems in society and so he has defined the society as phony. In this way he can continue to feel superior. However, this "exclusion tendency," is Adler called it, is not without its drawbacks. It begins to narrow his circle of activity to an uncomfortable extent. Holden is interested in literature and the fine arts, but he finds that he can't go to plays because "if an actor acts it out, I hardly listen. I keep worrying about whether he's going to do something phony every minute" (Catcher, 1965, p. 117). By defining the world as phony, Holden has a full job watching out for any phoniness and thus has an excuse not to cooperate and get on with the business of life. As with any symptomatology, this way of escaping is unpleasant—less unpleasant than facing life's tasks, but unpleasant nonetheless. Holden forewarns us that he is going to become more extreme in his measures of avoidance. He says to Sally, "I mean did you ever get scared that everything was going to go lousy unless you did something? ... I hate (school) . . . But it isn't just that. It's everything" (Catcher).

Absurd Plans

Holden now makes two rather senseless plans to run away from having to live a cooperative life in society. In them we see how des­perate he is feeling, how far from common sense he has moved, and how really neurotic he is. His first plan is to run away to Vermont, where he thinks he can avoid people. He fails to think about how he would support himself and abandons the idea when Sally refuses to accompany him. His second plan is to hitch hike out West and get a job. "I didn't care what kind of job it was, though. Just so people didn't know me and I didn't know anybody.... I'd pretend I was one of those deaf-mutes" (Catcher), so he wouldn't have to talk to anyone. He goes on to say that he would have a rule that "nobody could do anything phony" when they visited him. "If any­body tried to do anything phony, they couldn't stay" (Catcher). All the time he is making this plan, he is walking through the streets of New York talking to his dead brother, saying, "Allie, please don't let me disappear" (Catcher). Holden's use­less goal of superiority becomes clear. He is so ill prepared to face life's tasks that he feels he needs to control everyone around him. If he feels that they place any demands on him he will label them as phony and isolate himself from them. This is the only way he can continue to appear superior with such extraordinary feelings of in­feriority. He fears that otherwise he will disappear.

Holden's story ends when the one person, with whom he still feels good, the one person who makes him appear superior, challenges him. Phoebe shows him that he has rejected everything and yet she refuses to let him find excuses or run away. He cannot label her phony because she admires him too much. He cannot escape from his responsibilities because she insists on following him when he tries to run away. He has no choice but to relinquish his excuses and go home. "I felt so damn happy all of a sudden.... I was damn near bawling, I felt so damn happy, if you want to know the truth. I don't know why" (Catcher), the certain relief of having been discovered.

Holden completes the novel by saying that he went home, got sick, and came to "this Place." The exact nature of those symptoms we don't know, but they seem unimportant because we can be sure that they support the pattern we have seen.

Essence of the Matter

An Adlerian interpretation has been made of the life of Holden Caulfield as he presents it in Catcher in the Rye. As the second son in the family, Holden has lost confidence in himself. He feels discour­aged and thus adopts a life style based on a mistaken way of feeling superior. He resorts to lies and rebellion. He is able to feel fond of his younger brother and sister because they admire him and hence make him appear superior.

The pampering Holden received and/or interpreted in his child­hood contributed to his self-centeredness and impaired social inter­est. Holden wants to continue being the pampered baby and so is faced with quite a predicament when he is expected to assume some adult responsibilities at prep school. His experiences in childhood have helped prepare him to deal with such a quandary since he has a mother who handles problems by being nervous.

Holden demonstrates his feelings of extreme inferiority in a number of ways. His oversensitivity implies an accusation against others for being phony and driving him crazy. He has a strong temper and thus gets into arguments and fights wherever he goes. In short, Holden acts as if he were living in an enemy country where anyone could attack him. "Attack" in this sense means expose his inferiority.

Holden's lofty goals of superiority are illustrated by his fantasies. He imagines himself the tragic hero with a bullet in his guts and as the catcher in the rye. Holden presents himself as the only genuine and sensitive person in a world of phonies. By hating society, Hol­den is able to pretend that he is superior without having to be com­petent. He shines more rather than being more because he lacks adequate social interest to deal with adult problems in a productive way.

When Holden reaches adolescence and must face the life tasks of sex and occupation, he is unprepared. At this age, Holden must give up his childish ways and accept some adult independence. He is faced with the decision of how he is going to relate with the opposite sex and how he is going to prepare himself for a career. But Holden does not want to grow up. He is too self-centered, and too invested in appearing superior to risk competing in the adult world.

Confronted with this situation, Holden must create excuses in order to avoid these tasks. His feelings of inferiority are so great that he is afraid he will not succeed. Without social interest, Holden lacks the courage to grow up. Thus, Holden becomes a bitter, hateful young man. He defines the adult world as disgusting, boring, and most of all, phony. He runs away from school, from his family, from his friends, and finally, himself. This brings on the onset of his neurotic symptoms which he simply describes as being "sick." The Adlerian perspective shows that Holden does not get sick, but rather he suffers from profound discouragement about growing up.


Ansbacher, H. L. (Ed.) Alfred Adler: Problems of neurosis. New York: Harper & Row,1964.
Ansbacher, H. L. (Ed.)
Alfred Adler: The science of living. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1969.

Ansbacher, H. L. Adlerian psychology: The tradition of brief psychotherapy./Mir»«*/ of Individual Psychology, 1972,28, 137-265.

Ansbacher, H. L. & Ansbacher, R. r. Alfred Adler: Superiority and social interest. New York: Viking Press, 1964.

Ansbacher, H. L. Ansbacher, R. R., Shiverick, D., & Shiverick, K. Lee Harvey Os­wald: An Adlerian interpretation. Journal of Individual Psychology, 1967, 23, 24-34.

Credits: Joanne Irving University of Vermont

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