Identity Crises in The Catcher in The Rye and The Awakening Many of the world’s literary characters face struggles or crises of identity, either due to societal pressures or because of their personal lives. Holden Caulfield and Edna Pontellier, from the Catcher in the Rye and The Awakening, respectively, are not exceptions to this common theme. In both The Catcher in the Rye and The Awakening, the main protagonists, Holden and Edna, experience identity crises that stem mainly from their inability to conform to societal molds.
However, Holden’s personal struggles contribute more to his crises than Edna’s personal struggles do to hers. Edna Pontellier experiences an identity crisis mainly due to her society’s repressive molds, and her inability to conform to them. In The Awakening, Edna Pontellier’s roles as a dutiful upper-class wife and mother, consist mainly of paying/receiving calls, taking care of and loving her children and husband, and actively running her household. Edna despises doing these duties, and when the Pontelliers return from their summer vacation she refuses to do any of them.
She sends her children away to their grandmother’s house, she stops taking/paying any calls, and she refuses to accompany her husband on a trip north for her sister’s wedding. Her newfound hatred and disinterest for her society is best illustrated in this quote, when Edna is examining a street scene. It reads, “Edna looked straight before her with a self-absorbed expression upon her face. She felt no interest in anything about her. The street, the children, the fruit vender, the flowers growing there under her eyes, were all part and parcel of an alien world which had suddenly become antagonistic”(Chopin 8).
The typical world around her for a woman of her status has become strange to her, and her society has become her enemy. This loathing of her society conflicts with her upbringing, which leads her to an identity crises. “One of these days,” she said, ‘I’m going to pull myself together for a while and think–try to determine what character of a woman I am; for, candidly, I don’t know. By all the codes which I am acquainted with, I am a devilishly wicked specimen of the sex. But some way I can’t convince myself that I am. I must think about it” (Chopin 27).
The inner conflict Edna feels is because of society; she is doing what she wants to do, and is happy because of it, but is made to feel as though she is wicked by societal standards. She is unable to ascertain who she truly is because of this conflict, and so suffers from a crisis of identity. Holden Caulfield also experiences an identity crisis, partly due to his society’s repressive molds, and his own inability to conform to them. Holden’s struggles with his own society stem mainly from the blatant lack of innocence and so-called “phoniness” exhibited by his classmates and the adults around him.
The only people he really admires are children. With childhood, comes a certain amount of innocence that is lost when one reaches adulthood. All Holden really seems to want is to grasp of the innocence he lost after leaving childhood. In order to do this, he must rebel against his own society that continually breaks innocence. Although Holden, in his own way, seeks to destroy the hold society has on him and his lack of innocence, he is unable to do so. can be shown in this quote when he speaks of his dream to run away, “I decided I’d go away.
I decided I’d never go home again and I’d never go away to another school again. [… ] I thought what I’d do was, I’d pretend I was one of those deaf-mutes. That way| wouldn’t have to have any goddam stupid useless conversations with anybody. [… ] Everybody’d think I was just a poor deaf-mute bastard and they’d leave me alone”(Salinger 25). While Holden expresses this to be his desire, he never really achieves it. His wish is to run away from a corrupt society and to isolate himself, erhaps gaining back his innocence, and yet his inability to do so creates a conflict in his identity. He is unable to cope with his dreams versus his reality and this hurts him. The same sort of societal repression of innocence is shown through this quote expressing Holden’s feelings on curse words scrawled on an elementary school wall. “But while I was sitting down, I saw something that drove me crazy. Somebody’d written “Fuck you” on the wall. It drove me damn near crazy.
I thought how Phoebe and all the other little kids would see it, and how they’d wonder what the hell it meant, and then finally some dirty kid would tell them – all cockeyed, naturally – what it meant, and how they’d all think about it and maybe even worry about it for a couple of days. I kept wanting to kill whoever’d written it. I figured it was some perverty bum that’d sneaked in the school late at night to take a leak or something and then wrote it on the wall. I kept picturing myself catching him at it, and how I’d smash his head on the stone steps till he was good and goddam dead and bloody.
But I knew, too, I wouldn’t have the guts to do it. I knew that. That made me even more depressed”(Salinger 25). The actual writing of the curse words is unacceptable to Holden, and his reaction and what he wishes to do about it is unacceptable to the society he lives in. The lack of freedom he has to do what he wants versus what he is expected to do, leaves him with an inability to conform which causes a depression. In turn, The depression and subsequent isolation and lack of innocence lead to an identity crisis of himself versus society’s views of him.
The identity crisis, however, does not only stem from societal repression, but also from personal struggles Holden faces. While both Holden and Edna suffer from identity crises due to societal repression, Holden suffers more than Edna from personal struggles that contribute to his identity crisis other than just from societal ones. One of the largest issues Holden has faced in his life was the death of his younger brother Allie. To him, Allie represents all the innocence and goodness in the world. Allie’s death then contributed greatly to Holden’s depression, and the beginning of a sort of psychosis.
When Allie first dies, Holden says that he “slept in the garage the night he died, and I broke all the goddam windows with my fist, just for the hell of it. I even tried to break all the windows on the station wagon we had that summer, but my hand was already broken and everything by that time, and I couldn’t do it. It was a very stupid thing to do, I’ll admit, but I hardly didn’t even know I was doing it, and you didn’t know Allie”(Salinger 5). This sort of behavior, while expected from a recent loss a loved one, was never properly addressed and left Holden feeling horrible about life, and his own feelings.
This leads to another personal struggle, which is Holden’s inability to properly function at school. Throughout his teenage years, Holden goes from one school to another, being unable to apply himself and so flunking out. This is not due to a lack of brains, but rather from a hatred of the “phoniness” of the institutions he attended. In his most recent school, Pencey Prep, he speaks to a teacher about being expelled again. He says “Oh, I have a few qualms, all right. Sure. .. but not too many. Not yet, anyway. I guess it hasn’t really hit me yet.
It takes things a while to hit me. All I’m doing right now is thinking about going home Wednesday. I’m a moron”(Salinger 2). Despite feeling as though Pencey was a bad school, he still believes that he is unintelligent because he was thrown out. This conflicting view of himself and his education in general largely contributes to his identity crisis, as he seeks wisdom but shies away from formal education. This sort of behavior and displacement from schools will subsequently further both his identity crisis and the resulting mental breakdown.
In both The Catcher in the Rye and The Awakening, the main protagonists, Holden and Edna, experience identity crises that stem mainly from their inability to conform to societal molds. However, Holden’s personal struggles contribute more to his crises than Edna’s personal struggles do to hers. While Edna’s roles as a mother and as a “dutiful” wife constricts her and force her to become someone she is not, leading to an identity crisis, Holden’s society’s condemnation of innocence plays a smaller role in his identity crisis.
Rather, serious personal issues such as the death of his brother and his isolation and crippling loneliness cause him to reconsider both his life and his mental health through an identity crisis. Despite the differences between the societies, the personalities, and the identity crises of the characters, Holden and Edna share the fact that they were able to, in some way, overcome their identity crises in order to slowly understand themselves. In the progressions from the characters’ sufferings to their imminent understanding of themselves, lies a hope that all who similarly suffer can one day comprehend why.