Alienation in Post World War America


World War II ended with the surrender of the Japanese Empire in August 1945 leaving a wake of destruction on almost every continent. America was elated, not only had they defeated the Nazis but the Japanese were defeated as well. Yet, America’s place in the world changed as a result of the war in a way very few people would have thought possible. Only an up and coming nation in the last World War, the United States emerged from World War II as the preeminent world power. Amidst the jubilation of victory in both theaters of war, Americans had to come to grips not only with America’s new place in the world, but with what had happened in the war to America. The story of Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye demonstrates the alienation some particular Americans felt in the aftermath of the Second World War.

The beginning of The Catcher in the Rye takes the reader to a boarding school and a character named Holden Caulfield. Holden is arguably one of the most controversial characters in literature, but his story is an important one as it is the story of America after World War II. Holden’s alienation from the rest of the world is central in his story. Throughout most of the story Holden is unable to find the good in the world and insists that everyone he knows or meets is a phony. Holden is a confused young man who is attempting to reconcile the world of his childhood with the world of his young adulthood. At sixteen when the story takes place, Holden was born two years after the stock market crashed and was still too young when the United States entered the Second World War in December, 1941. America, in a lot of ways, has grown up rapidly in the span of Holden’s short life.

The main antagonists in Holden’s life are his roommate Stradlater, his neighbor Ackley, a friend from home Sally, and a pimp and a prostitute he meets while staying in New York. In each case, the antagonists choose to ignore the realities of life by distracting themselves with sex, money or theater. Holden faults each character for being a phony, and considers his dead brother Allie, and his younger sister Phoebe as two of the only real people he has ever met. Holden has been affected by the war and its aftermath and maintains a child-like opinion of the world. In fact, he states, “Certain things they should stay the way they are. You ought to be able to stick them in those big glass cases and just leave them alone.”[1] Holden is alienated from those who are his age, or close because of his own inability to grow up. The various encounters Holden ha leave him more alienated than before. In the case of Sally, Holden contacts her and makes a date only to alienate himself from her by saying:  “You give me a royal pain in the ass…”[2] Holden is completely unable to maintain friendships and continues to draw further and further away from the world.

As Holden is unable to maintain friendships with anyone he meets, he is also a contradiction. At the beginning of the book he states, “If there’s one thing I hate, it’s the movies.”[3] And yet he goes to see a movie at Radio City after his date with Sally. He goes into the bar at his hotel and has a low opinion of everything about it from where they seat him, to the band, to the patrons.[4] Holden constantly belittles people, places and things only to turn around and immerse himself in them. This further alienates him from the world and people around him as they view him as an immature person.[5] His sense of superiority, which results in his alienation, prevents Holden from having any meaningful relationships with anyone aside from his sister and dead brother Allie.

Holden is so disillusioned with the world around him that the only thing he can think to do is protect those who he views as innocent. Holden’s depression is lifted whenever he is around kids. The first instance the reader sees this is in the streets of New York. On his way to find a record store open on Sundays, Holden follows a family of three. The parents are on the sidewalk and immediately gain the disapproval of Holden when he says, “They looked sort of poor, which implies that Holden views the family, at least the parents, as beneath him. The child, however, entertains Holden as he is walking behind the family. The child is in the street singing, “‘If a body catch a body coming through the rye.’” The child and song make Holden, “feel better. It made me feel not so depressed any more.”[6] Holden is not alienated from children the way he is from those closer in age to him because he is able to find a truth in children that doesn’t exist for him in his contemporaries.

Holden’s alienation goes even further, to a desire to remove himself completely from society. At first, Holden pleads with Sally to, “drive up to Massachusetts or Vermont….We’ll stay in these cabin camps and stuff like that till the dough runs out…I could get a job somewhere and we could live somewhere with a brook and all….I could chop wood in the wintertime and all.”[7] His feeling of superiority has alienated him not only from any meaningful relationships but also a desire to quit society almost all together. Later on he says, “Everybody’d think I was just a poor deaf-mute bastard and they’d leave me alone. They’d let me put gas and oil in their stupid cars, and they’d pay me a salary and all for it, and I’d build me a little cabin somewhere with the dough I made and live there the rest of my life.”[8] Both times, Holden suggests leaving society to live away from a world he doesn’t fully believe he belongs to.

Holden’s alienation also drives him to attempt to save those he believes he cares most about. In his first desire to leave society, he invites Sally to go with him only to alienate himself from her when she refuses to go with him. Holden also feels a need to assist a roommate at a previous school before he ultimately rejects him. His roommate Dick Slagle is poorer than Holden and doesn’t have as fancy of luggage as he has. As Holden describes the situation: “The thing is, it’s really hard to be roommates with people if your suitcases are much better than theirs…”[9] But he goes on to clarify, “You think if they’re intelligent and all, the other person, and have a good sense of humor, that they don’t give a damn whose suitcases are better, but they do.”[10] Holden both creates his own alienation, as in the case of Sally, and is a victim of society’s mandated alienation as was the case with the former roommate. Yet in both cases, Holden attempts to save that person from the phony world as Holden perceives it.

Finally, Holden’s struggle not to care about what others think or do and his desire to save people from their phoniness comes to a head. His sister Phoebe questions whether or not Holden actually likes anything, or if he simply hates everything.[11] As he avoids Phoebe’s questions, she finally prompts him, “All right, name something else. Name something you’d like to be.”[12] And it is here that Holden admits to his desire to protect children and to allow them to maintain their innocence when he tells Phoebe, “I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all.”[13] Holden’s alienation from friends closer in age; his hatred of cars and movies all stem from his own desire to return and protect the innocence of childhood.

Yet, it takes Holden until he has nearly broken down psychologically that he realizes he can’t protect everyone from everything. While on the way to  deliver a note to Phoebe at her school, Holden notices writing on the walls outside the school. He desires to protect the innocence of the children from the writing  and dreams of killing the person responsible for writing obscenities on the school’s walls. The second time he finds the obscenities, however, he realizes that it has been craved into the wall.[14] It is at this point that Holden comes to the realization, “If you had a million years to do it in, you couldn’t rub out even half the ‘Fuck you’ signs in the world. It’s impossible.”[15] He finally realizes that things won’t return to how they were when he was a child and life was simpler. Holden recognizes that the world is full of things he hates and wants to protect others from but it is a fool’s mission to try to protect the world from all the bad.

The story of Holden Caulfield could be analogous to the story of the United States after World War II. Like Holden, the United States was alienated from the rest of the world, including our allies. As the most powerful nation in the world, the United States had a responsibility not shared by her allies. Both the Soviet Union and the allies of the United States differed from the U.S.and did not seem to share many beliefs held by America. The United States, as well as Holden, had to come to grips with the reality of the world. Holden was never going to achieve living in a world where people were to be exactly as he wanted to be more ready to believe exactly what he believed. Holden is defined by his alienation from the world and weather he is finally able to reconcile himself with both the world and people around him.


[1] Salinger, J.D. The Catcher in the Rye(Boston: Little Brown and Company 1951) page 122.

[2] Ibid. 133

[3] Ibid. 2

[4] “they gave me a lousy table anyways…”, “The band was putrid”, “show-offy-looking guys with their dates.” Ibid. 69

[5] “Same old Caulfield. When are you going to grow up?” Ibid, 144

[6] Ibid. 115

[7] Ibid. 132

[8] Ibid. 199

[9] Ibid. 109

[10] Ibid.

[11] “You don’t like anything that’s happening.” Ibid. 169

[12] Ibid. 172

[13] Ibid. 173

[14] “I saw something that drove me crazy…”, “I went down by a different staircase….” Ibid. 201, 202

[15] Ibid.

 

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