Existentialism in Catcher in the Rye Holden Caulfield can be seen as an existentialist character searching for meaning and authenticity in a lonely, alienating world. The traumatic events that Holden witnessed in his youth, his expectations and criticism of society, and his need to protect innocence lead him into an existential crisis.
In addition, Holden’s realization of how society differs from his own perception leads to his rejection of humanity. In J.D. Salinger’s Catcher In The Rye, Holden Caulfield’s obsession with death causes an existential crisis which leads to his altered perception of society and his purpose in it, alienating himself from the rest of humanity; however, upon the failure of the quest he comes to a better understanding of his own, and the world’s individuality. Holden experiences an excess amount of negativity in his youth that ultimately corrupts his innocence, his corruption further extends into his thoughts as he begins to assume the worst of every possible situation, leading him to attempt to protect what he values most dearly.
In an article about existential crises, Dr. Bruce Kehr explains an existential crisis effects on young adults, “A number of highly talented young adults are living through what might be termed an “existential crisis.” (Kehr, Typically these are young men and women …
seem to “hit a wall” while in high school, college or graduate school. Dramatically and seemingly without warning, they become depressed, angry, and “lost.” Their life as they and their parents have come to know it grinds to a halt.
They rebel against and at times abandon their prior styles of driven accomplishment, energetic involvement in multiple pursuits, and pride of achievement.” The death of Holden’s younger brother, Allie, causes Holden to experience a mental breakdown as he begins to project the anger he feels onto the world. When Holden’s younger brother Allie dies, he has a mental breakdown and finds this new anger towards the world, but that is not the only traumatising event in his childhood as he is also molested multiple times. From all the negativity in his life, Holden experiences an existential crisis, and begins to question the importance of his life. Following his existential crisis, Holden starts to look for a true purpose in life thinking that it is his duty to save others from experiencing the same trauma he went through. In the Catcher in the Rye, it is evident that Holden criticises and has unrealistic expectations of society, this makes him reject people and humanity, leaving him questioning his own decisions in life.
In an article about existentialist philosophy, it states “Kierkegaard’s argument that life is a series of choices – and that these choices bring meaning (or not) to our life – is a cornerstone of existentialism. Rather than offloading the responsibility onto society or religion, each individual is solely responsible for making their life meaningful and living it authentically.” Holden has trouble finding his purpose in life and has trouble living authentically because of his depression which makes him question his own choices in life. He is depressed because of his constant failure to get the human interaction he longs for, and his realization of the fact that society is different from his own perception of it makes him recet humanity. Holden ends up questioning his choices, and is not able to find his purpose in life, this outlines his struggle with existentialism and his inability to live authentically at the moment. Holden’s isolation accompanied with his depression result in his confusion of his true purpose in life, and his questioning in the decisions that he makes. When Holden realizes that it is pointless to protect other people’s innocence, he becomes aware of the autonomy of all, ultimately resulting in his will to become a guide to ours, this would be his true existential purpose.
Alexandria Szeman states that “Angst causes one to question the meaning of life, one’s purpose on earth, and the extent of one’s Free Will since, during events which cause periods of angst, it may seem as if an individual does not have Free Will. During these times, an individual becomes acutely aware that he is not in control of events or other persons in his life” Holden gains awareness of the worlds corruption and begins to understand his true nature and his feelings towards other people, this makes him gain the awareness of free will and the individuality of others, the cornerstone of existentialism. The quote describes Holden accurately as Holden realizes that he is unable to control free will, and this makes him become a guide to help others find their own purpose. Throughout the novel, Holden’s perception of the events that he witnessed eventually shapes the way he sees things, and ends up changing his overall perspective.
The corruption of Holden’s innocence leads him to an existential crisis that makes him question his decisions and purpose in life, after a long journey through New York Holden finally finds his purpose; to help others find their purpose in accordance to free will and innocence. Holden Caulfield’s existential crisis leads him on a path to realize his perception of society and his purpose in life, leading him to understand the concept of individuality and free will.