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J.D Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye tells the story
of a young man named Holden Caulfield. Narrated by himself, the novel observes
several days of Holden’s life following his expulsion from a prep academy. In
many ways, Holden’s actions throughout his trip home suggest that he is
searching for direction in his life. Existentialism is a way of thinking
concerned with one’s finding of the self and the meaning of a life with no
inherent purpose. Holden’s journey is readily interpretable as an existential
exploration. An important theme relevant to existentialism in literature is the
idea that people will experience a feeling of anxiety once they recognize the
absurdity of life.  An existential
reading of Salinger’s novel reveals that Holden’s journey for understanding is
one filled with extreme ontological insecurity. In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden suffers existential anxiety due to a
fear of death, a lack of guidance, and from a feeling of isolation.

            The idea of death and the death which has already taken
place in Holden’s life prompt the feeling of existential anxiety in Holden. Holden’s
little brother Allie’s death is one that appears particularly unusual to
Holden. It is unnatural for one that is younger to die first; Allie’s death is
an indication of absurdity in Holden’s life. Holden’s realization of this
causes him to have a fascination with his own death while never forgetting his
brother’s. Evidence of this is seen when Holden is in Central Park, cold and
alone. “That worried me. I thought I’d get pneumonia and die. I started
picturing millions of jerks coming to my funeral and all.” (Salinger 171)
Holden says. Holden is worried about his death and what would happen after.
This illustrates a degree of unease he feels when it comes to his own death.
Furthermore, the funeral he pictures parallels the funeral following Allie’s
death. Miller draws this connection between Holden’s vision and Allie’s death,
stating that “his ‘picture’ cannot lift his guilt, dissolve his rage, or make
over reality’ (136). This interpretation reveals that Holden attempts to disguise
the reality of Allie’s death to ease the anxiety he feels because of the death.
Thus, Holden’s unease about his own death and the anxiety that pervades his
mind following his brother’s is revealed in the picture Holden creates about
dying from pneumonia. Later in the novel, Holden mentions the death of a former
classmate. After being asked a meaningful question by his sister, Holden
recalls James Castle’s death. He says “That was about all I could think of,
though… The funny part is, I hardly even know James Castle” (Salinger 188).
This reveals the dominant nature of the thought of death in Holden’s mind. The
death occupies his thoughts at a moment when he should think of how to answer
his sister, yet he continues to contemplate Castle’s death. Death is a
significant source of anxiety here as it prevails his thoughts, especially as
Holden was not close to Castle in any way. Thus, Holden experiences existential
uneasiness as he recognizes death as absurd and something he cannot understand
no matter how much he thinks.

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            Furthermore, Holden feels anxiety because he was never
guided reliably to choose a path. Holden looks for meaning throughout the
novel, yet he never has anyone to guide him. Not knowing what to do with his
life is a major source of uneasiness. This idea is echoed by Gerald Rosen when
he states “Holden can not get advice on how to leave the world of childhood
from the adults around him. Nor can he find suitable models to emulate” (552).
Rosen says this about Pencey alumni who appear in the novel, neither of whom
can inspire Holden to invest enough effort to stay in school. In addition to
the alumni, there exist several people that do not serve as models, although
they have the power to. This is evident in Holden’s interaction with his former
school teacher, Mr. Antolini. When Holden turns to Antolini after finding
guidance from no one else, Antolini says “Frankly, I don’t know what the hell
to tell you, Holden” (Salinger 205). This demonstrates Antolini’s inability to
be a reliable source of guidance. Additionally, Holden discloses his problems
to Antolini but is met with mediocre advice. Antolini manages to stress Holden
further about his future when he says “You can’t afford to lose a minute. Not
you” (208). Thus, Holden reveals his anxiety about the way his life is going as
well as his anxiety due to an unsure future. This existential uneasiness is
amplified by the lack of mentorship. Salinger further undercuts Antolini’s
potential as a guiding figure through their interaction when Holden is
sleeping. Antolini ultimately gives Holden even more cause to worry. A source
of Holden’s ontological insecurity is found in the relationship he has with his
parents as well. In the novel, it is virtually nonexistent. Early in the novel,
Holden covers his eyes with his hunting hat while goofing around, saying
“Mother darling, give me your hand.
Why won’t you give me your hand?”
(25). The hat over his eyes symbolizes the lack of a clear future for Holden.
Holden also demonstrates his desire for a connection to his mother and the
damage caused by the absence of it. His lack of a purpose in life is a source
of anxiety and although he desires guidance he does not get it from teacher or
parent. The lack of instruction in his life amplifies Holden’s existential
anxiety.

            Holden lacks a strong connection not only with adults,
but with almost everyone he talks to in the novel. His inability to relate to
the people around him results in uneasiness. Not being able to understand
others allows him to recognize additional absurdity in his life; he realizes
there is no predefined way for others to act. Holden’s failure to connect with
his classmates at Pencey is mentioned when he tells his sister why he left the
school. He says “It was full of phonies. And mean guys… Everybody was always locking their door when somebody wanted
to come in” (195). This indicates that Holden disliked his classmates.
Furthermore, it shows he detests that his classmates would exclude others. This
demonstrates an underlying anxiety Holden has of not being understood and
accepted by others. It is not rare for Holden to criticize the people he
interacts with. In discussing ways to cope with existential anxiety, Gupta
states “we may react to ontological insecurity through petrification… by
attempting to confirm our own value by degrading others” (102). It is easy to
interpret Holden’s consistent belittling of others as a means to endure the
anxiety he feels from lacking emotional connection. Evidence of this anxiety is
found in his interaction with Sunny as well. When they meet, Holden asks “Don’t
you feel like talking for a while?” and mentions “It was a childish thing to
say, but he was feeling so damn peculiar” (Salinger 105). His peculiar
feeling equates to the uneasiness he feels as he attempts to form an emotional
connection with Sunny. Failing to connect with her gives Holden existential
anxiety. He begins to put her down and even finds her scary once she is unable
to relate to Holden. Thus, it is evident that the feeling of isolation Holden
feels from a lack of connection to people leads him to feel anxious about the
life he lives.

            In conclusion, in Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Holden experiences existential anxiety as
he discovers the absurdity of life by contemplating the role of death, finding
no intrinsic ambition from adults, and by learning that those around him will
never be the same as him. His anxiety manifests itself as an obsession with
criticizing others and it affects the way he feels about his life. He often
feels depressed and thinks about his past because he has difficulty finding his
own path in life. By the end of the novel, Holden is more comfortable with the
absurdity of life and decides to face his future instead of feeling anxious
about everything in his life. Although The
Catcher in the Rye is essentially a coming of age book, it is able to
thoroughly explore the concept of existentialism using a young man’s anxieties.
It is effective in its ability to identify several of the absurdities in life
that ultimately lead to the understanding that one must find their own purpose
in this world. Holden’s trip home from Pencey truly is an example of the
struggles one goes through when on the quest for a meaning in this absurd life. 

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