The very first page of the novel presents the protagonist, Holden Caulfield, as a frank, sad, and contentious person. The opening sentence reads, “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 how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth” (Salinger, 1991, p. 1). This shows that Holden has negative emotions associated with his childhood and also establishes the fact that it would be difficult to get him to elaborate on these feelings.
From a professional point of view, I believe that Holden has already shown many symptoms attributed to severe depression. According to Solnek and Seiter (2002) the main criteria for diagnosing depression are; a depressed mood for the majority of the day, a diminished interest in daily activities, weight fluctuation, being unable to sleep or sleeping too much, loss of energy, feeling guilty or worthless, an inability to concentrate, and thoughts of suicide (pg. 13). Solnek and Seiter (2002) also note that depression in adolescents may manifest itself as dysfunction in school (pg. 14). In the first chapter, Holden has already; exhibited a depressed mood for the majority of the day, shown a diminished interest in everything around him, casually mentioned suicide (though it’s too early to tell if this is a recurring event), and his dysfunction in school is apparent as he has recently flunked out. Though the thoughts of suicide have only occurred once, according to Consoli et al. (2013) Holden’s lack of familial cohesion and support coupled with his academic failures make him a higher risk for suicide (p. 2).
From a personal standpoint, it is easy for me to relate to Holden. I too had to deal with severe depression during my teenage years. There are many similarities between what Holden is going through and my life experiences. For a time I felt like nothing mattered and this adversely affected my schoolwork. The melancholy that Holden exhibits and his struggle to find meaning in the mundane tasks of daily life are a powerful connection to me. In fact, my struggles with depression are what inspired me to become a clinician. I want to be able to help people such as Holden who cannot enjoy life because they view it as futile or unimportant due to a mental disorder.
An event in my reading that I found interesting was Holden’s interaction with a professor at his school. The professor, “Spencer”, is concerned with Holden’s abysmal academic performance and tries to make Holden understand that he is throwing his life away. Spencer tries to have a meaningful conversation with Holden but Holden just “shoots the bull” with his professor while thinking about other things. Finally, Spencer asks Holden, “How do you feel about all this, boy?” (Salinger, 1991, p. 13). Again, Holden shows hesitation to discuss his emotions and deflects his professor’s sincere question then makes a hasty exit.
This shows that Holden would be a difficult patient to treat with medication. Though he is polite when speaking to those in authoritative positions, it is clear that he neither trusts them, nor is he willing to listen to any criticism of his life choices. Holden’s interaction with his professor, like the opening paragraph of the novel, shows a hesitation to let others see his emotions. Furthermore, this interaction attributes another of the aforementioned symptoms of depression, an inability to concentrate, to Holden.
However, it is important to note that Holden may have developed his habit of establishing an internal monologue as a coping mechanism. I believe that Holden knows that his failures in school are going to negatively affect his life so he is blocking out any external criticism of this fact because he doesn’t want his guilt to be compounded. When I was dealing with depression, my loved ones tried to talk to me about my feelings and my poor performance at school and I too would ignore their attempts to help for a similar reason. I knew that my academic failures were going to have a negative effect on my life so I didn’t believe that I needed anyone else to tell me what I already knew. This served to isolate me from people that genuinely cared about me in the same manner that Holden isolated himself from his professor.
Holden’s hesitation to accept help would be a major barrier to treatment. According to Emslie (1999) the treatment of adolescent depression should be multimodal, which includes both individual and family therapy sessions as well as pharmacological treatment (p. 184). I believe this multimodal approach would be effective, but due to Holden’s hesitation to relate to others, particularly those in authoritative positions, I believe the best option would be to begin his therapy with family sessions before attempting to relate to him on an individual basis.
For the first time in my reading, Holden has shown an emotional attachment to someone. The only time that Holden has portrayed someone in a purely positive manner is when describing his deceased brother, “Allie”. It is clear that Allie’s death is the source of Holden’s depression. Holden relates the night of his brother’s death by claiming, “I slept in the garage the night he died, and I broke all the goddam windows with my fist” (Salinger, 1991, p. 39). Holden also adds that his parents wanted to have him psychoanalyzed after this episode, though it is not clear whether or not they went through with it.
The loss of a brother at a young age further bolsters the idea that Holden is suffering from depression. According to psychiatrist Jeremy Holmes (2013) “childhood trauma can be the developmental precursor of adult depression” (p. 71). This revelation not only established a cause of Holden’s apparent depression, but also inspired a possible treatment option.
Holden introduces the reader to his deceased brother because he is writing a descriptive essay for his roommate, “Stradlater”. Holden decides to write the essay about his brother’s old baseball mitt, which he carries with him. It is clear that Holden enjoys writing because the only class that he didn’t flunk at Pencey was his English class. I believe it would be a healthy exercise to have Holden write about his feelings regarding the death of his brother. This would allow Holden to release his emotions regarding the death of his brother through a medium that he finds to be enjoyable and cathartic. Furthermore, his tendency to withdraw from others’ attempts to help him would be circumvented because Holden would not be expressing his emotions directly to another person. There is a noticeable positive change in Holden’s demeanor and thoughts towards others while he is writing his essay. This shows that this treatment option could be a viable tool in helping him deal with his depression.
The passage regarding the source of Holden’s apparent depression served to further entangle my emotions with his. It turns out that the cause of my depression is shared with Holden as well. My depression stemmed from the death of my brother just like Holden, and this emotional trauma is what caused me to exhibit many of the same symptoms that Holden is expressing.
It is also important to note that, since the similarities between what Holden is going through and my life experiences are so similar, this could lead to countertransference. I see a lot of myself in Holden and this could lead me to take his side and agree with some of his negative actions towards other people because I have had similar experiences. Furthermore, it would make it too easy for me to want to diagnose him with Major Depressive Disorder, the same disorder I live with, rather than accurately evaluate him for other forms of depression.
Holden leaves Pencey after a fight with his roommate that started because Holden believed Stradlater slept with a girl the liked. The next chapters cover Holden’s stay at hotels in New York before he goes home to tell his parents he has flunked out of school again. Literary critic Lisa Privatera (2008) notes that, “Although Holden labels his parents phonies and representatives of everything wrong with society, and claims to want to have nothing to do with them, his trek can be seen as a means of not having to face their censure and disappointment over this new debacle” (p. 204).
The majority of Holden’s stay in New York is uneventful and adheres to Holden’s typical apathetic narrative style. However, there is an important passage that follows Holden’s interaction with a prostitute. Holden paid to have a prostitute sent to his room on a whim, but when she gets there he can’t go through with it and pays her to leave. She returns later with her pimp demanding more money and Holden gets punched in the stomach after he refuses to pay them. It is after this that Holden expresses, for the first time, an explicit desire to kill himself. He is crying on the bathroom floor holding his stomach in pain and confesses, “What I really felt like, though, was committing suicide. I felt like jumping out the window” (Salinger, 1991, p. 104). This shows me that Holden’s depression is becoming more and more dangerous and his thoughts of suicide evince the need for him to receive psychiatric help before his depression has dire consequences.
A passage that I found particularly interesting was Holden’s take on the play, Hamlet. Holden is planning to take a girl he knows, “Sally”, out to a play and this makes him reminisce about the time his older brother “D.B.” took him and his little sister “Phoebe” to see Lawrence Olivier play Hamlet. Holden didn’t like Olivier’s portrayal of Hamlet because, “He was too much like a goddam general, instead of a sad, screwed-up type guy” (Salinger, 1991, p. 117). I felt that Holden wanted Hamlet to be sad and screwed up because Holden felt sad and screwed up and he wanted something to relate to.
Furthermore, Holden’s attempt to draw parallels between Hamlet and himself reminded me of an article I read concerning the psychodynamic theory of Hamlet. Shakespearean critic Bill Delaney (2005) described Hamlet as, “a man whose head is so filled with internal verbalizations that he is incapable of taking action” (p. 67). I believe that Holden has this same problem; he certainly shows a propensity to ignore other people while being consumed in his own thoughts. However, unlike Hamlet, this doesn’t prevent Holden from taking action; it prevents him from having real connections with other people which further enhances his feelings of loneliness and isolation which pushes him into a deeper depression.
During my readings, a main theme that I have noticed is Holden’s obsession with the concept of “phoniness”. Throughout my reading, Holden has used to the term “phony” as a catch-all term for people and things that he doesn’t like. Holden hates superficiality and it doesn’t take much for him to label someone else as a phony. In many instances, Holden has decided that someone is a phony simply because of their use of a certain word. However, it seems that Holden is guilty of the same flaw that he hates so much. Holden constantly lies when interacting with other people and tailors his persona to match his environment rather than just being himself. The only time that I feel like I am seeing the real Holden are the brief moments when he describes his family.
I believe that Holden has developed his concept of phoniness to further alienate himself from others. When I was in a deep depression I felt sad and lonely, but, more specifically, I felt that I deserved to be sad and lonely. By finding small faults with other people Holden is able to categorize them as phonies and have an excuse for not allowing himself to make any real connections with other people.
An important event happened in my recent reading. Holden decides to visit his home to see his little sister, though he avoids making his presence known to his parents. Holden tells Phoebe that he failed out of Pencey because he hated it there. His little sister gets frustrated and asks him to name one thing he likes. Initially Holden cannot think of one thing that makes him happy until finally he declares that Phoebe and his brother Allie make him happy. Phoebe isn’t satisfied with this answer and asks Holden if there’s anything he would like to do for a career. Holden replies that he has a fantasy of being the “catcher in the rye” which entails him guarding the edge of a cliff and preventing children from falling over it accidentally while running through a field of rye. Holden feels the need to save others from falling over the cliff yet he is ignorant to the fact that he is positioned precariously to the cliff and is in grave danger of succumbing to the same fate he wants to protect others from.
According to critic Margaret Svogun (2003), “Holden’s pilgrimmage to see his younger sister, and her talents for advising listening, and enlightening, provide him with the insights, awareness, and guidance he will rely on to come to terms with his despair” (p. 112). I agree that this visit was healthy for Holden, it seems that his little sister is acting more like a therapist for Holden than a sister. He seems to relax and let his guard down while pouring his thoughts out to Phoebe which seems to relieve some of his depression. This shows me that Psychological counseling would be a great way for Holden to get through his depression, however, the only problem would be getting him to open up like he did to his sister. It was refreshing to finally see the real Holden Caulfield.
However, Holden has also begun to exhibit more somatic symptoms of depression which shows that his condition is steadily worsening. His conversation with Phoebe reveals that his mother has a history of depression. According to a recent study by psychiatrist Ana Mendes et al. (2012), “Children of depressed mothers, as compared with children of mothers without a psychiatric history, were shown to have higher levels of depressive symptoms and clinical depression during school years” (p. 145). Furthermore, Holden has begun to suffer from insomnia and has started to abuse alcohol and smokes cigarettes more frequently which also shows that his symptoms of depression are worsening.
The novel ends with Holden finally deciding to go home and confess to his parents that he has flunked out of school again. Holden leaves this interaction to the reader’s imagination, but closes his story by revealing that he had a breakdown and is relating this entire tale to a therapist at a psychiatric care facility. I was glad that Holden was finally able to be diagnosed and have an opportunity to get the help he desperately needed.
As an aspiring clinician, this book served as a valuable learning tool for me. Psychiatrist Joanne Irving (1976) described Holden’s narrative as an insight into the relationship between a patient and therapist and noted that, “Unlike the therapist however, the reader cannot use questions to clarify his understanding and provoke new information” (p. 81). That is why I believe this novel was a useful learning tool. I had to take the narrative and infer what I could from Holden’s thoughts, actions, and emotions.
I believe Holden undoubtedly shows many symptoms of depression including; an inability to sleep, apathy, substance abuse, thoughts of suicide, social inversion, and he may have a genetic predisposition to depression because of his mother. The best way to deduce what type of depression Holden suffers from would be to sit down with him and diagnose him in person. Though I am unable to do so, the novel allowed me an opportunity to use my knowledge and research to adequately show that Holden has severe depression and is definitely in need of psychiatric help.
The parallels between what Holden went through and my struggle with depression are uncanny. It was interesting to get an external view of a disorder that I was affected by, though it was painful to see someone struggle in the same manner I had. The novel gave me a better view of depression and also taught me that I need to be a more keen observer of human nature. My initial reading had me convinced that Holden was suffering for Major Depressive Disorder just as I did because I saw so many similarities in our lives. However, after progressing through the book, I realized that the only way to truly help a patient is to diagnose them systematically and without bias.
Consoli, A., Peyre, H., Speranza, M., Hassler, C., Falissard, B., Touchette, E., … Révah-Lévy, A. (2013). Suicidal behaviors in depressed adolescents: Role of perceived relationships in the family. Child & Adolescent Psychiatry & Mental Health, 7(1), 1-12. doi:10.1186/1753-2000-7-8
Delaney, Bill. (2005). Shakespeare's Hamlet. Explicator, 63(2), 66-68. Retrieved from the EBSCOhost database.
Emslie, G. L. (1999). Depression in children and adolescents: A guide to diagnosis and treatment. CNS Drugs, 11(3), 181-189. Retrieved from the EBSCOhost database.
Holmes, J. (2013). An attachment model of depression: integrating findings from the mood disorder laboratory. Psychiatry: Interpersonal & Biological Processes, 76(1), 68-86 Retrieved from the EBSCOhost database.
Irving, J. (1976). The catcher in the rye: An adlerian interpretation. Journal Of Individual Psychology, (32(1), 81. Retrieved from the Academic Search Complete database.
Mendes, A., Loureiro, S., Crippa, J., de Meneses Gaya, C., García-Esteve, L., & Martín-Santos, R. (2012). Mothers with depression, school-age children with depression? A systematic review. Perspectives In Psychiatric Care, 48(3), 138-148. doi:10.1111/j.1744-6163.2011.00318.x
Privitera, L. (2008). Holden's irony in Salinger's the catcher in the rye. Explicator, 66(4), 203-206. Retrieved September 12, 2013, from the Academic Search Complete database.Salinger, J. D. (1991). The catcher in the rye. New York City: Little, Brown and Company. (Original work published in 1951)
Solnek, B. L., & Seiter, T. (2002). How to diagnose and treat depression. Nurse Practitioner, 27(10), 12-23. Retrieved from the EBSCOhost database.
Svogun, M. (2003). Salinger's the catcher in the rye. Explicator, 61(2), 110. Retrieved from the EBSCOhost database.