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The Confrontation of Childhood and Adulthood in Catcher in the Rye

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Holden Caufield, of J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and Frank and April Wheeler, of Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road, encounter the pressures of adulthood. Holden fears the inevitable progression from childhood to adulthood. Frank and April Wheeler have adulthood thrust forcibly upon them at the moment of parenthood. These novels portray the desire to hold onto innocence, and how our childhood impacts our adult life.

Catcher in the Rye embarks the reader on an adventure, written through the perspective of Holden Caufield, enduring his animosity toward adulthood, therefore his attempts to escape it. Holden has recently found out he has been kicked out from his school Pencey Prep, located in Pennsylvania. He decides to leave school a few days before Christmas break and head to New York City. Once he arrives in Manhattan, he hunts for the truth and resists against the “phoniness” of the developed humanity.

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For the most part, Holden is an unreliable narrator. His tone is speculative, he even refers to himself as a “terrific liar.” He begins his story, “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, 3). He paints a picture of his “lousy” childhood without actually going deep into it. He withholds his autobiography but does want the reader to be encapsulated on what is going to happen next. Holden does not want to be an adult. In fact, he associates adulthood with phoniness. He is always referring to adults as “phonies,” even people around his age who have accepted the certainty of adulthood. Compared to the phony adults, he views children as innocent and pure.

Holden Caufield quickly introduces his family members, specifically his siblings. His older brother D.B., who is a screenplay writer in Hollywood, his younger brother Allie who has passed away, and his younger sister Phoebe. He doesn’t respect D.B.’s line of work because he thinks it’s meaningless, he considers D.B. a sell-out. He’s at the height of phoniness because he uses the art of writing just to make money. Holden describes his younger brother Allie and his younger sister Phoebe with the utmost respect. Although Allie has died, Holden talks about him a lot. Salinger writes, “My brother Allie had this left-handed fielder’s baseball mitt. He was left-handed. The thing that was descriptive about it, though, was that he had poems written all over the fingers and the pocket and everywhere…He’s dead now. He got leukemia and died when we were up in Maine, on July 18, 1946. You’d have liked him. He was two years younger than I was, but he was about fifty times more intelligent…God, he was a nice kid, though” (Salinger, 43-44). Holden didn’t react to his death well, the night he died, he broke all the windows in his garage and had to be hospitalized. He glorifies Allie in his childlike state. Allie’s age is eternal at ten years old. He died so young that he was unable to suffer through the complications of adulthood.

Like most teenagers, Holden experiences moments of depression. During these moments, he speaks out to Allie. Holden states, “I kept walking up and down Fifth Avenue…then all of a sudden, something very spooky started happening. Every time I came to the end of a block and stepped off the goddam curb, I had this feeling that I’d never get to the other side of the street. I thought I’d just go down, down, down and nobody’d ever see me again. Boy, did it scare me…Then I started doing something else. Every time I’d get to the end of a block I’d make believe I was talking to my brother Allie. I’d say to him, “Allie, don’t let me disappear. Allie don’t let me disappear. Please, Allie. And then I’d reach the other side of the street without disappearing. I’d thank him” (Salinger, 217-218). Allie can be seen as Holden’s guardian angel, he keeps Holden from going “down, down, down. Holden needs a figure like Allie in order to catch him from losing his innocence.

Holden also has a deep admiration for his younger sister Phoebe. When arriving in New York, his first instinct is to call her up because he genuinely enjoys talking to “somebody with sense and all” (Salinger, 75). But then he quickly remembers, it’s too late and she would be asleep. He describes her as the smartest kid, “You never saw a little kid so pretty and smart in your whole life. She’s really smart…As a matter of fact, I’m the only dumb one in the family. My brother D.B.’s a writer and all, and my brother Allie…was a wizard. I’m the only really dumb one. But you ought to see old Phoebe…You’d like her. I mean if you tell old Phoebe something, she knows exactly what the hell you’re talking about (Salinger, 75). The reader meets Phoebe when Holden sneaks home. They have a long conversation, “Holden,” she said, “how come you’re not home Wednesday?” “What?” “How come you’re not home Wednesday?” she asked me. “I told you. They let us out early. They let the whole¬–” “You did get kicked out! You did!” old Phoebe said…She gets very emotional, I swear to God” (Salinger, 182). Even though Phoebe and Holden have a strong relationship, she is still angry with his immature choices. Phoebe sees more in Holden than he has the ability to see in himself.

Holden’s bond with Phoebe is contingent on how he wants to preserve children’s innocence. He is drawn to helping children in order to save them from the harsh realities of adulthood. He recalls a poem written by Robert Burns, “You know what I’d like to be? I mean if I had the goddam choice? You know that song ‘If a body catch a body comin’ through the rye’? I’d like–” “It’s ‘If a body meet a body coming through the rye’!” old Phoebe said. “It’s a poem. By Robert Burns.” “I know it’s a poem by Robert Burns…Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around–nobody big I mean–except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff…That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be” (Salinger, 191). This is what Holden wants to do with his life. He is preserving the innocence of children by protecting them from falling to their death. He wants to serve in the role of enlightenment. He doesn’t see himself as an “adult,” in fact, he can’t imagine an adult life that isn’t phony.

Revolutionary Road follows a married couple, Frank and April Wheeler through their adult life, a life they didn’t necessarily want to have. The function of children and childhood is different in this novel compared to The Catcher in the Rye. Frank and April have had their own children and their personal childhoods have had an impact on how they raise their children. When living in an adult existence that isn’t warranted, chaos ensues. These characters spend their time rebelling against the suburban life that has been forced on them. They want to follow in their parents' footsteps but when it comes to their own children, Frank and April feel disappointment and detachment. The Wheeler’s story takes place on the mound of Revolutionary Hill. Frank and April are in the middle of an argument because April is upset a play, she had a role in, had a terrible opening night. Yates writes, “Number one, it’s not my fault the play was lousy. Number two, it’s sure as hell not my fault you didn’t turn out to be an actress, and the sooner you get over that little piece of soap opera the better off we’re all going to be. Number three, I don’t happen to fit the role of the dumb, insensitive suburban husband you’ve been trying to hang that one on me ever since we moved out here, and I’m damned if I’ll wear it” (Yates, 26). From this point forward, it is obvious that Frank didn’t want this life in suburbia.

The Wheelers have two children, Jennifer, who is six years old and Michael, their four-year-old son. According to Frank, April’s first pregnancy came seven years too soon. Frank came home to find April pacing in their apartment, he knew she had something to tell him. “Frank, listen. Try not to start talking until I finish, and just listen…It was simplicity itself: you waited until just the right time, the end of the third month, then you took a sterilized rubber syringe and a little bit of sterilized water, and you very carefully…” (Yates, 51). Frank was outraged, “Christ’s sake, don’t be an idiot. You want to kill yourself? I don’t even want to hear about it” (Yates, 52). And yet, Frank didn’t want a child any more than April did. Frank angrily asserts, “And I didn’t even want a baby, he thought to the rhythm of his digging. Isn’t that the damnedest thing? I didn’t want a baby any more than she did. Wasn’t it true, then, that everything in his life from that point on had been a succession of things he hadn’t really wanted to do? Taking a hopelessly dull job to prove he could be a responsible family man, moving to an overpriced, genteel apartment to prove his mature belief in the fundamentals of orderliness…having another child to prove that the first one hadn’t been a mistake” (Yates, 53). Frank’s attitude toward his children is indifferent. All the events he describes are subservient on the birth of his first child.

Frank and April Wheeler were raised very differently. Deep down, Frank admired his father, Earl Wheeler. Taking a tool, a salesman briefcase to work every day, he envied his sureness and sensitivity. Frank claims, “All the same, in moments of troubled solitude like this, he was glad he could muster some vestige of honest affection for his parents” (Yates, 39). April didn’t share too much about her childhood with Frank but was she did share was shocking to him. “I think my mother must’ve taken me straight from the hospital to Aunt Mary’s…the rest of the story was that her father shot himself in a Boston hotel room in 1938, and that her mother had died some years later after long incarceration in a West Coast alcoholic retreat” (Yates, 39). On more than one occasion throughout the novel, April analyzes the abandonment by her parents as a child. Despite being adults with children of their own, Frank and April Wheeler are more focused on their upbringing rather than raising their children. The end of the novel takes a dark turn when April Wheeler gets unexpectedly pregnant with a third child and decides to give herself a late-term abortion. She realizes she might die in the process, it is uncertain whether April aims to die during this dangerous procedure. The fact that she might leave her children behind doesn’t seem to cross her mind much at this time. In the end, it comes full circle. After April’s death, Frank moves to Manhattan on his own, Jennifer and Michael are now living with Frank’s older brother. Their attitude toward children throughout this novel does not change.

Think back to your childhood. Recall the feeling that it was impossible to grow up. Hold onto that feeling when reading these novels. Revolutionary Road portrays that most adults are reinforced by their childhood. The Catcher in the Rye represents the instability of holding onto childhood for too long. Both J.D. Salinger and Richard Yates have depicted diverging representations of childhood, a promise that as a child, feels like it will last forever, but slowly fades away with each passing year.

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