Finding meaning in the Madness: Psychoanalytic and Marxist Criticisms of J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye

For this post I would like to take a moment to explore the concept of theory in literature. Also called critical theory or literary theory, it is simply the act of looking at a text (be it written word, film, television, music, art, or any other piece of media) through a specific lens that is outside of the norm. For example, it can be a feminist reading of a text that is not overtly feminist. Not all lenses work with all texts, but when done right, it can open up a new understanding of some of your favorite works. This requires (or at least is improved through) a basic understanding the work of a few philosophers, most notably Jacques Derrida’s concept of Deconstruction and Michel Foucault’s work on power and knowledge. So, I would certainly recommend a peek into the basic elements of their ideas. It can only improve your understanding of how you view literature and media. So, without further adieu, here is my essay on the American classic The Catcher in the Rye.



Through the lenses of Psychoanalytic and Marxist Criticisms, J. D. Salinger’s cult classic 1951 novel The Catcher in the Rye demonstrates many of the important struggles faced by young adults within contemporary American society. The main character, Holden Caulfield is often both conflicted and confused throughout the story, but the text of the novel alone does not always provide sufficient explanation as to why or how he became so distraught. By analyzing The Catcher in the Rye through the lenses of Psychoanalytic and Marxist Criticisms, Holden’s motivations and unique perspective on life become apparent and their implications are obvious beyond the scope of the book itself.

Psychoanalytic theory, as applied to the criticism of literature, was developed from the concepts and ideas of Dr. Sigmund Freud in the late 19th century. Freud’s take on repression, sexuality, and dreams are just a few of the concepts that have changed the way many readers view the actions and intentions of literary characters. His ideas have provided a deeper understanding of the themes present within literature. The Catcher in the Rye is a novel that is particularly well suited for this form of analysis due largely to the struggles and conflicting ideology of its main character, Holden Caulfield. Through Holden’s sexual struggles, his nostalgia and mourning for the loss of his brother, his dream of being a protector, and his never ending quest for authenticity, J. D. Salinger created a character that has strong connections to many of the primary facets of Psychoanalytic Criticism.

Psychoanalysis was nothing new at the time of The Catcher in the Rye’s publication in 1951. However, rarely is there a character so ripe for analysis under these Freudian concepts. Holden Caulfield is a character with both a troubled past and a conflicted present. He is repeatedly shown to be a smart young man, but struggles throughout the novel to apply himself. The novel begins as readers learn that he has just left the latest of several prep schools where he has failed to enter into the symbolic order. He proceeds to meander around New York City in a strange quest to finding meaning in his life.

Throughout the novel, Holden is highly confused and often disturbed by his own views on sexuality. This is one of the primary areas of analysis for Psychoanalytic Criticism, because it often carries so much weight throughout all aspects of human life. As explained by Dr. Lois Tyson, professor of English at Grand Valley State University, “Freud realized that our sexuality is part and parcel of our identity,” which means that it relates to humankind’s scope and ability to experience pleasure in ways that “are not generally considered sexual” (24). Through Holden’s views and experiences with intimacy and sexual arousal, his association between sex and death, his strange intimacy with his sister, and his interactions with adult figures, Psychoanalytic Criticism finds meaning in his many misadventures.

From early on in the book, Holden is confronted and confused by the sexual expression of others. In chapter three his womanizing friend Stradlater prepares to take a girl out on a date, and readers learn that he wishes it were him, but is also disgusted with the thought of Stradlater treating the girl, Jane Gallagher, poorly. He nervously discusses whether or not he should talk to Jane, not realizing that she is there for Stradlater, not to see him. He even turns his rebellious hat forward at this point, showing an unconscious effort to become more like the traditionally handsome Stradlater. Instead of meeting with Jane, Holden discusses with Stradlater her tactic in the game of checkers, where she saves all of her kings in the back, refusing to use them (Salinger 31). Holden understands the sexual implications of her date with Stradlater, and in what is his most jealous moment to this point in the book, he reminisces about the back and forth game they played together.  Her reserved checkers tactic represents her defense of her youthful innocence and saving herself sexually for the right person. While Holden bolsters Stradlater’s confidence with their conversation, saying that Jane would’ve planned to stay out all night if she had known the type of guy she was going out with, he also insinuates that she is not the type of girl to easily give herself up. Through conversation, which has obvious sexual connotations, Holden shows his own hesitation to commit intimately with a woman.

Another major moment of sexual behavior observed by Holden is found in his first night in New York. He looks out his hotel window, where he is able to see into the rooms of a nearby building. Among the people he sees are a man dressing in drag and a couple, who are taking turns spitting water into each other’s faces. This interaction initially excited Holden. While there was nothing about the incident that was openly sexual, Holden first mentions how the woman was very good looking and he then imagines himself as “the biggest sex maniac you ever saw” (Salinger 62). He finally comes to the conclusion that if a man likes a woman, then he likes her face, and he should treat her face with more respect than this man spitting the water. He also fails to recognize that his act of voyeurism is not as innocent as he imagines. This passage is one of many that begins to show that Holden is struggling to reconcile his sexual urges with his fear of maturing.

Throughout the novel, Holden also engages in a sort of sexual charade with his sister Phoebe. As the idealized version of youthful innocence and purity, Holden repeatedly and unconsciously acts out his sexual frustrations through his platonic relationship with his younger sister. For instance, he dances with Phoebe in her bedroom, despite his professed disgust of adults who dance with children, while he simultaneously experiences a growing realization of his own size and budding adulthood. He discusses how adults who dance with children are awkward, often accidentally lifting the child’s shirt and exposing them to what can be viewed as an inadvertent sexual situation. Yet, that is exactly what Holden did with Phoebe.

Furthermore, the entire situation of Holden sneaking through the bedroom window and secretly meeting Phoebe in the night is very reminiscent of a stereotypical teenage love scene. In reference to this relationship between Holden and his younger sister, literary critic James Bryan states, “The psychoanalytic axiom may here apply that a sister is often the first replacement of the mother of love object, and that normal maturation guides the boy from sister to other women” (1070). As Holden evolves into adulthood and struggles with his sexuality, his first step is a sort of intimacy with his sister. The manner in which Holden interacts with his sister reveals the complex way that he practices his romantic behavior in a safe, judgement free arena while still concealing his intentions to himself. Bryan also adds that “such double-entendres as “kidding the pants of a girl” reveal not only Holden’s sexual preoccupations but the elaborate coding his mind has set up against recognizing such preoccupations for what they are” (1067.) As his idealized version of what a woman should be, Phoebe takes the place of the mother in representing all of Holden’s criteria for a loving relationship. Phoebe becomes his first step to learning what an actual relationship with a woman outside of his family should be like.

Holden’s sexual frustration is coupled with a strong sense of nostalgia for his childhood. This is largely due to the early death of his brother, Allie. Allie’s death in many ways represents Holden’s inability or unwillingness to move into adulthood. He, like their little sister Phoebe, epitomizes the innocence of childhood, but unlike Phoebe, Allie will never have to progress into adulthood. Allie’s death appears to be the first life event that gave Holden a bizarre fascination with death, which he later begins to associate with sex through his interpretations of his own transition to adulthood.

Holden would prefer if all things in his life stopped advancing forward with time. This is evident through his trips to the natural history museum. He both loves and is angered by his trips to the museum because of this fact. He likes to view the exhibits, which are unchanging, forever frozen in time, but he is also bothered by them. The exhibits remind him of how he has changed with each and every trip to the museum. Holden states, “Nobody’d be different. The only thing that would be different would be you” (Salinger 121). This sort of evidence of his progression through life and his advancing puberty scares and angers Holden, and shows that his rebellion is against life itself. As critic E.H. Miller points out, it all comes back to his loss of Allie at a young age. Holden’s “rebelliousness is his only means of dealing with his inability to come to terms with the death of his brother” (qtd. in Shaw). He seems to wish that like his brother, he could stop the advances of time.

Allie is the boy who never grew up. He is stuck in time and is forever unchanging in Holden’s mind. With this idea, as critic Kermit Vanderbilt points out, “Holden can be interpreted as seeking, in an ultimate regression, the comfort of death itself. This will be the only successful release from the agonizing complexities of a mutable and deceitful world” (298). To Holden his brother’s death is sad, but at the same time can be viewed as the ultimate rebellion against adulthood. He reminisces about how Allie, in contrast to the several characters who feign strength and toughness through football, chose to write poetry in his baseball glove instead of pay attention to the game he was playing. Allie’s death has achieved what Holden’s life cannot. He is forever protected and comforted from the dangers of the deceitful world of adults.

One of the first examples of this association of sex with death is when Holden finds himself people watching in a bar. He comments on the sexual dynamic of a couple seated nearby. He watches as the male makes obvious public sexual advancements toward the female he is seated with, giving her “a feel under the table,” while simultaneously discussing the suicide of a boy in his dorm. This shows an indication that Holden has begun to associate sexual activity with death. Since sexual activity is the ultimate symbol of maturity in Holden’s eyes, and thus is corrupt or phony, and death is the only way he knows in which to prevent the change to adulthood, death becomes tied to any thoughts of his budding sexual desires. He is torn between the purity and simplicity of death and the desire and phoniness associated with his maturity.

Holden’s constant struggle with adulthood and authority is also both highlighted and contrasted by his strong desire to serve as a protector of children. This is a desire that illustrates his own repressed need for a protector in his youth. When Holden leave Percy Prep school in the beginning of the novel, he seeks out his favorite teacher, Mr. Spencer. Holden appears to be searching for some form of protection or reassurance during this moment of weakness where he is leaving the safety of the school, but he finds none in his meeting with Mr. Spencer. Mr. Spencer instead criticizes the way Holden has failed to apply himself in school or any other aspect of his life. To avoid confronting his problems, Holden quickly finds an excuse to leave the classroom, and all Mr. Spencer could do to help was wish him luck (15). Holden then embarks on a trip of self-discovery to the biggest city in the world without the assistance of his parents or any other authority figure.

The next adult authority figure that Holden seeks out is another former teacher, Mr. Antolini. Holden seeks reassurance from Mr. Antolini while in the middle of his tour through New York. Mr. Antolini shows a genuine care for Holden’s well-being in a way that few other adults do. Similar to his sister Phoebe, Mr. Antolini recognizes that Holden is acting in a self-destructive pattern and needs to look inward for a solution. However, the closer Holden comes to realizing his psychological problems, the more he acts out. He accuses Mr. Antolini of coming on to him sexually and calls him a pervert. However, this appears to be just another example of Holden doing whatever he can to run away from the truth of his problems as he did with Mr. Spencer. Instead of Holden facing the troubles of his own psyche, he blames an adult for trying to be immoral with him.

Holden further expresses his fears of losing childhood innocence through an image he develops throughout the book, the image of himself as the savior of children. Holden misinterprets a song he hears, and it becomes the basis for his goal in life. In chapter 22 Holden explains his dream to his sister saying, “I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. 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 rye and all” (Salinger 173). Holden wishes to act as a barrier between childhood and the danger of the exploration and experience of maturity. As Bryan states, “A central rhythm of the narrative has Holden confronting adult callousness and retreating reflexively into thoughts and fantasies about children.” (1065). However, Holden’s misinterpretation of the song is ironic. As Phoebe points out, the lyrics are not, “if a body catch a body comin’ through the rye” it is actually a poem that states, “if a body meet a body comin’ through the rye” (Salinger 173). This actually shows a romantic or sexual implication in the lyrics, not the savior presumption that Holden interprets. The truth of the lyrics place Holden in an overtly perverted fantasy about children that he fails to recognize on his own.

In the end, when Holden wishes that he could save every child from the danger associated with growing up, he is merely projecting his own need for a savior in his life. He wants to be the protector that he never had. No one was able to protect him when Allie died, and no one is able to protect him as he continues to struggle against his own conflicted nature. Holden only realizes this dream is a fallacy when his sister, whom he trusts and loves above all others, begins her own maturity. As his sister reaches for the ring on the carousel in the park, thus risking danger to reach something beautiful, Holden begins to realize that his goal of being her protector is a self-serving fantasy.

We learn throughout the novel that within each of these issues plaguing Holden’s perception of the world, he finds himself struggling to find authenticity. His quest to reject the “phonies” of the world demonstrates how he projects his own problems onto those around him. Each instance of phoniness corresponds with a secret or not so secret desire held by Holden. When he criticizes one of his peers for being a womanizer, he deep down wishes that he had the willpower to act in the same manner. He looks at the wealthy and privileged who only use their power and wealth for personal gain and calls them phony, yet he spends the entire novel meandering around New York using his considerable wealth and privilege to live comfortably. The truth of the matter is that Holden is now 16 years old and has already begun the march toward adulthood. He himself is representative of all the phoniness that he sees in the world. He resents his impending maturity and projects his ill feelings toward the experience of manhood on the world around him through his claims of phoniness in others.

Of course, the struggles surrounding Holden Caulfield are not psychological alone. By analyzing the novel using Marxist Criticism, the reader is faced with a different, and often conflicting view on Holden’s world. Marxist Criticism allows a deep look into the economic and social limitations imposed on Holden and all of contemporary America through its analysis of The Catcher in the Rye. As Tyson points out, Marxist critics would most likely say that “by focusing our attention on the individual psyche and its roots in the family complex, psychoanalysis distracts our attention from the real forces that create human experience” (51). Meanwhile, Marxist Criticism can focus attention on the “real” forces governing society. This literary theory has developed around the principles of the beliefs and teachings of philosopher and economist Karl Marx on the subjects of wealth and the economic structures that dominate society. The inability of the rich to relate with or protect the population, the in-authenticity of the rich, and commodity fetishism within higher education all display the ways in which Holden’s development has been determined by the boundaries of the capitalist society in which he lives.

Under this critical lens, Holden’s views on phoniness reflect the inability of the wealthy to relate with the rest of society. The financial security of adults in the novel keep them from being able to effectively relate with those around them. Holden’s parents are completely absent from the novel, beyond vague references to his father’s anger and his mother’s suspicion. His parents are wealthy enough to employ servants in their household and send their children off to boarding school. They have no actual control over their children and are unaware of Holden’s activities throughout the course of the novel.

However, what Holden fails to see is that he himself is a member of the upper crust of society. His parents’ obvious wealth is displayed by Holden’s enrollment in a string of expensive and highly respected prep schools. Percy, in particular, is shown to be a well-recognized school. Holden is shown to be embarrassed by his expulsion from the school, not wanting Jane Gallagher to know about it, despite his own disdain for the institutions legitimacy and his experiences there. The school is also recognized by a well to do woman Holden meets on a train, who has sent also sent her son to the school, forcing Holden to lie to her about his identity.

Even after leaving the school, Holden is not despondent. He does not travel home, but instead has enough money to support himself for several days in the city. This makes it obvious that, despite his desire to rebel from the phoniness of the rich, there is still a clear distinction between him and the lower class people of the inner city. Despite wanting the rich to use their wealth in a positive manner, he uses his money for his own self-absorbed purposes such as renting a hotel room and ordering a prostitute.

Even at his young age, he has realized that money can not only purchase things, but can also purchase people and experiences. He recognizes that, by buying drinks, he is able to enjoy the company of people who otherwise would not pay any attention to him. After he is unable to secure a romantic relationship through other means, Holden falls back on his money to simulate the experience, and he orders a prostitute to come to his room. However, when the prostitute arrives, he has second thoughts and refuses her service. This results in an argument about the price of her company. Holden, despite repeatedly mentioning his ability to pay her, refuses based on a prior agreement he had with her pimp. He continues this stinginess, arguing over five dollars which he can easily afford to pay, even after the pimp returns to collect the money. This shows that Holden has realized the importance of money in his life. He is becoming a shrewd businessman and holds the value of the deal in higher regard than his own physical well-being. The fact that he does not appear see the danger associated in denying the pimp and prostitute the money that they demand from him shows his belief that his social position makes him above reproach. Also, it is important to note that the only time Holden refers to the pimp, Maurice, as anything but a “dirty moron” is when Maurice points out Holden’s social and economic status. He calls Maurice “pretty sharp” for saying that Holden would not call for help for fear that his parents would learn that “a high class kid” like Holden spent the night with a whore (Salinger 102-103). Holden realizes the truth in this, and he realizes that taking the physical punishment is better than giving up money or power in the situation.

Since a Marxist view of society shows that the economy is what really drives change, it is the economic forces which Holden rebels against. While Psychoanalytical Criticism may look at Holden’s outlandish hat as an outward reflection of his struggle to deal with the loss of his brother, Marxist Criticism views the backwards hunting cap as a rebellion against the upper class wealth that he is a part of. It is part of an attempt to display himself as something other than a rich prep school student. Meanwhile, the link between the hat and Holden’s struggle with his brother’s death can be viewed as a recognition of the inability of the wealthy to affect any real change in society. Holden’s rich parents were unable to save his brother, so Holden’s uses the hat as a tool of rebellion against the economic forces which were unable to save Allie.

The moment Holden begins to come to terms with, and reach a new level of understanding of, the capitalist system in which he lives is when he is sitting in the park watching his sister ride the carousel. He recognizes the need for children to reach for the golden ring, despite the danger that surrounds them if they fail. Holden states, “All the kids kept trying to grab for the gold ring, and so was Phoebe… if they fall off, they fall off, but it’s bad if you say anything to them” (211). This shows the danger of the capitalist world in which Holden lives. He fancies himself the savior of children, but he realizes that this dream is impossible within their capitalist society. For anyone to reach success, they must risk life and limb to reach for the golden ring. Achieving wealth is of the utmost importance in American society, and those who fail will fall. However, like capitalism, the carousel is a circular device. No matter how long the children ride it, the carousel itself will never bring them any closer to the gold ring. Similarly, the capitalist society in which they live is unable to bring Holden any closer to happiness or self-discovery. Just as every child is alone in their quest of the gold ring, Holden too realizes that he is alone in this society, where if you “ever tell anybody anything… you start missing everybody” (Salinger 214). This is the point in the story where Holden gives up his quest to rebel against capitalism, and instead, finds himself under the care of a psychoanalyst who convinces him that his rebellious acts were that of a madman.

However, as Holden explains at the end of the book, while he has been broken down by the capitalist society, he has not changed. Holden states that everyone asks him if he will apply himself when he returns to school, but he sees it as such a ludicrous question, because he honestly does not know what he will do until he does it (Salinger 213). This is highlighted by his interaction with the consumerism around him. Several times throughout the novel, Holden points out the commodity fetishism surrounding him.

This idea of applying himself in school is intrinsically tied in his mind to the acquisition of commodities. For example, his roommate in school put Holden’s expensive luggage out in the open to give people the impression that the luggage was actually his (Salinger 106). This is a perfect example of the commodities being given a sign-exchange value, which is that they confer social status onto the owner (Tyson 59). To Holden, a diploma is simply a device to achieve more wealth and status, it holds no bearing to the actual acquirement of knowledge by the student. When discussing school, Holden states, “it’s full of phonies, and all you do is study so that you can learn enough to be smart enough to be able to buy a goddam Cadillac someday” (Salinger 131). Holden has come to understand that knowledge itself is a commodity that the poor cannot afford. Therefore, Holden is repeatedly asked by authority figures about how he expects to do in school, because it is an outward reflection of his acceptance of the consumer world in which he lives.

The inability of the rich to relate with society, the overall phoniness of the wealthy, and the commodity fetishism displayed within the education system all demonstrate the Marxist view of American society found within The Catcher in the Rye. Through Marxist Criticism, readers may see the struggle of the youth to learn and cope with the capitalist society around them. Salinger created Holden in such a way that allows readers to relate his struggles to their own experiences of Capitalism in society.

Through these two methods of literary criticism, the deeper meaning behind Holden Caulfield’s opinions and experiences becomes visible. While Psychoanalytic Criticism and Marxist Criticism are often at odds with each other, their interpretations of The Catcher in the Rye provide readers with an understanding of the complex nature of Holden’s story. They allow Holden’s story to become a stand in for the psychological and economic challenges and barriers faced by the youth in contemporary America.



Works Cited

Bryan, James. “The Psychological Structure of The Catcher in the Rye.” PMLA 89.5 (1974): 1065-074. Web. 24 July 2016.

Salinger, J. D. The Catcher in the Rye. Paperback edition. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1991. Print.

Shaw, Peter. “Love and Death in The Catcher in the Rye.” New Essays on The Catcher in the Rye. Cambridge University Press, 1991. 97-114. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Jeffrey W. Hunter. Vol. 138. Gale, 2001. Literature Resource Center. Web. 24 July 2016.

Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today: A User-friendly Guide. 3rd ed. Routledge. New York. 2015. Print.

Vanderbilt, Kermit. “Symbolic Resolution in The Catcher In The Rye: The Cap, The Carrousel, And The American West.” Critical Insights: The Catcher In The Rye (2011): 297-305. Literary Reference Center. Web. 24 July 2016.

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