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A Psychoanalysis of Holden Caulfield in The Catcher and the Rye


The teenage years often prompt rebelliousness and confusion; however, for Holden Caulfield, change provokes his intolerance of the adult world and an earnest desire to protect children. According to psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, three concepts, the id, ego, and superego, shape human behavior and personality. In the novel The Catcher In The Rye by J.D Salinger, Holden struggles with psychological challenges that lead to his antisocial behavior and pessimistic outlook regarding life. From such an early age, Holden copes with severe trauma resulting from the death of his younger brother, Allie, and a dysfunctional familial upbringing. He shuts out nearly everyone, labeling people as “phony,” as he utilizes harmful substances, such as cigarettes and alcohol, to escape his insecurities and truth. Sigmund Freud’s diagnosis of Holden as someone incapable of controlling the superego and unable to confront his emotions reveals his internal pain and failure to understand social norms. The traumatic loss of Holden’s brother, Allie, directly contributes to his cynical view of society, causing him to create delusions, lack control of his impulsivity, and engage in self-isolation as a coping mechanism.


Throughout the novel, Holden invents fictional scenarios in his mind, tuning out the “phony” and materialistic characteristics of the adult world. These delusions stem from the death of Allie, his brother, who died of leukemia at the young age of eleven. Holden idealizes the memory of Allie, frequently pretending to talk with him when he needs a source of comfort. While walking across the street, for example, Holden imagined Allie there to rescue him from sinking into the ground. In particular, he explains, “Every time I’d get to the end of the block, I’d make believe I was talking to my brother Allie. I’d say to him ‘Allie, don’t let me disappear. Allie, don’t let me disappear. Please, Allie’” (Salinger 257). Ironically, Holden envisions himself as the catcher in the rye, a figure responsible for rescuing children from falling off a precipice into the trap of adulthood yet fails to save himself from his subconscious. From Holden’s perspective, the guilt surrounding Holden’s inability to save Allie from an inevitable death sparks his desire to remain in a state of innocence and create unrealistic fantasies as a coping mechanism. Specifically, Holden appreciates the simplicity of the American Museum of Natural History, a nostalgic place his elementary school frequently visited with his classmates. Holden describes the museum as, “The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move” (Salinger 157). Fostering a sense of security within Holden, the museum deters him from adapting to change, similar to the death of his brother. Additionally, while watching his younger sister Phoebe ride a carousel, Holden expresses a glimmer of happiness and vulnerability as he reflects upon the simplicity of childhood. The repetitive and consistent motion of the horses represents his longing to stay a child and remain pure. By criticizing the “phoniness” and fear of the adult world, he shields his insecurities by rejecting growing up and focusing on self-preservation. Ultimately, delusions distract and suppress Holden’s emotional pain, serving as an escape from reality.


Following Allie’s death, Holden acquires serious attachment issues and faces insecurities regarding intimate relationships, specifically with women. Holden’s difficulty in controlling and failure to understand the difference between friendship and sexual relationships reveals his impulsive nature. Moreover, his lack of self-control empowers him to form superficial and temporary relationships with women. For instance, he often calls his friends Jane and Sally late at night to combat his loneliness yet avoids maintaining any sort of commitment. At the conclusion of his date, Holden remarks, “I probably wouldn’t’ve taken her even if she’d wanted to go with me…The terrible part, though, is that I meant it when I asked her” (Salinger 174). His subconscious urges him to form connections to combat his loneliness; however, he confuses friendship with physical relationships. Desperation pushes Holden to hire a prostitute for companionship, not recognizing the consequences of his decision. He projects his uncertainty by saying, “Sexy was about the last thing I was feeling. I felt much more depressed than sexy” (Salinger 123). As a result of the loss of Allie, Holden attempts to fill a missing void in his heart by focusing on intimacy to solve his depression. The commitment required in a partnership frightens Holden and suggests an end to innocence and the start of adulthood. Although Holden recognizes his wrongdoings, he buries his feelings behind a fake persona. Allie acted as a safety net for Holden, and his passing fundamentally damaged him, enabling unhealthy habits to take control of his subconscious.


The loss of Allie exacerbates Holden’s use of self-isolation and poses a critical threat to his mental health. He hides behind an internal barrier within his subconscious to avoid feelings of alienation and rejection from himself and others. Upon his expulsion from Pencey, he exclaimed, “I was sort of crying. I don’t know why. I put red hunting hat on, … and then yelled at the top of my goddamn voice, ‘Sleep tight, you morons!’” (Salinger 68). The red hunting hat symbolizes Holden’s unwillingness to confront the realities of life and form meaningful relationships with his peers. Instinctively, he wears the hunting hat in situations in which he wants to remain unnoticed. Extreme cynicism fuels his urge to shut out other people before they have an opportunity to cause him any pain. Holden fails to recognize the significance of human connection and instead continues a vicious cycle of meeting people and then quickly pointing out their flaws. Out of desperation and a need for companionship, he seeks to form temporary connections with strangers and distant friends but cannot develop authentic relationships. For example, he constantly calls his old friends Jane and Sally to try to get together to experience a closeness that he cannot attain by himself. As Holden walks alone in New York City during the cold winter, he acquaints his state of well-being to the ducks found in Central Park, questioning “where the ducks went when the lagoon got all icy and frozen over” (Salinger 18). Similar to the ducks who adapt to seasonal changes, Holden must accept the inevitable transition to adulthood and find ways to connect with others.


Holden uses abstract ideas, instinctual decision-making, and self-isolation to cope with the passing of his brother. Holden appreciates the pure and innocent nature of Allie; therefore, watching him fall victim to cancer obscures his perception of reality. His extremely pessimistic outlook on the “phoniness” of adulthood, combined with his desire to protect children from growing up, led him to assume the role of the catcher and the rye. Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud’s diagnosis of Holden holds much value as a traumatic childhood severely affected his ability to understand social norms and implement the superego to make rational decisions. Instead, he applies feelings of doubt and suspicion to the people around him, fabricating elaborate schemes to distract from his depressive mood swings. Without the moral support of Allie, Holden can neither function nor properly confront his emotions, digging him deeper into an endless hole of melancholy.

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