Holden Caulfield as Castrated Hero

By Scott, Glorianne E. | PSYART, January 1, 2007 | Go to article overview
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Holden Caulfield as Castrated Hero


Scott, Glorianne E., PSYART


TThis essay discusses Catcher in the Rye as a vehicle for Holden Caulfield's psychological session with the reader, as well as the latent signs this analysis reveals. Using Freud's own interpretations of dream objects, the reader can unveil the psychological basis of Holden's obsessions. Holden is symbolically castrated early on in the novel as he is expelled from school ("I got the ax"), and again when he loses his fencing foils on the subway. As a result, Holden fetishizes his phallic replacement: the red hunting cap that will become his focus for the entirety of the novel.

keywords: Catcher in the Rye, Salinger, Freud, Castration, Phallic

url: http://www.clas.ufl.edu/ipsa/journal/2007_scott01.shtml

I am a tainted wether of the flock,

Meetest for death: the weakest kind of fruit

Drops earliest to the ground.

-Merchant of Venice, IV.i.114-6.

Holden Caulfield is without a doubt a troubled teen. From the beginning of the novel, the protagonist of J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye is in session with a therapist, immediately cluing the reader in on his unbalanced psychological state. However, it is a clue often ignored, as many critics instead focus on the hypocritical society with which Holden is at odds. Many view Holden as heroic in his confrontation with "phonies." An analysis of Holden's prevalent psychological crises, however, provokes an alternative interpretation of the character.

Fortunately, some insightful work has been done examining the psychological structure of this text and reevaluating the character of Holden Caulfield. Notably, Carl Strauch provides an in-depth structural analysis in his essay "Kings in the Back Row: Meaning through Structure." Similarly, James Bryan, in his essay "The Psychological Structure of The Catcher in the Rye" not only reacts to Strauch's work but also provides a thought-provoking interpretation as he construes the Holden/Phoebe relationship as one wrought with sexual tension. Indeed, both critics have provided meaningful explorations of Holden's psyche and what his psychological neuroses reveal about the text.

Yet both Bryan and Strauch omit the psychological crisis that most informs Holden's actions throughout the novel: his castration complex. The concept of the "castration complex," originally developed by Sigmund Freud as a literal fear of castration and later reinterpreted as a metaphoric sense or fear of loss by Jacques Lacan, clearly applies to Holden. Symbolically castrated early in the novel as he is expelled from school (getting "the ax"), Holden becomes obsessed with his phallic replacement: his hunting cap. As exposed by his digressions, nervous habits, and fixations, Holden's psychological state is one consumed by a loss, and his resulting actions are a reaction to that loss.

Catcher lends itself particularly well to a psychoanalytic read because Holden himself is in a psychoanalytic session for the entirety of the novel; however, this therapist is neither seen nor described to the reader. In fact, Holden only mentions the doctor in 2nd person references, and for practical purposes the reader himself takes the place of the psychoanalyst from the very first line: "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."

In effect, the reader becomes the "you" Holden refers to and is thus responsible for analyzing Holden's words for their psychological significance. As Holden reveals more of his exploits, he is acting out the Freudian "talking cure" by transferring his psychical tensions to the reader as psychotherapist. The reader, in analyzing Holden's psychological state, is dependent upon his vacillations in speech, his obsessions, and digressions to determine his latent anxieties.

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