Study Guide

The Catcher in the Rye Madness

By J. D. Salinger

Madness

Chapter 1
Holden Caulfield

I'll just tell you about this madman stuff that happened to me around last Christmas just before I got pretty run-down and had to come out here and take it easy. I mean, that's all I told D.B. about, and he's my brother and all. He's in Hollywood. That isn't too far from this crumby place. (1.1)

Since Holden (or Salinger, depending on how you want to look at it) isn't entirely forthcoming, we have to look carefully at these hints about where Holden is now (when he's seventeen) telling us the story about where he was then (when he was sixteen, around Christmas). We guess that he's in California "resting up." Wonder exactly what kind of break-down/episode happened?

I ran all the way to the main gate, and then I waited a second till I got my breath. I have no wind, if you want to know the truth. I'm quite a heavy smoker, for one thing—that is, I used to be. They made me cut it out. Another thing, I grew six and a half inches last year. That's also how I practically got t.b. and came out here for all these goddam checkups and stuff. I'm pretty healthy though. (1.10)

Check out those words "they" and "here." It's ambiguous, but we have an idea that "they" are some sort of professionals taking care of Holden, and "here" is some sort of institution or place that gives "checkups and stuff." Again, more hints that something went wrong with Holden. Clever, clever.

Chapter 5

I was only thirteen, and they were going to have my psychoanalyzed and all, because I broke all the windows in the garage. I don't blame them. I really don't. I 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. (5.7)

On the one hand, yes: breaking all the windows in the garage sounds fairly unstable. On the other hand—his little brother just died, so maybe give the guy a break?

Chapter 6
Holden Caulfield

"What'd you do?" I said. "Give her the time in Ed Banky's goddam car?" My voice was shaking something awful.

[…]

The next part I don't remember so hot. All I know is I got up from the bed, like I was going down to the can or something, and then I tried to sock him, with all my might, right smack in the toothbrush, so it would split his goddam throat open. […] It probably would've hurt him a lot, but I did it with my right hand, and I can't make a good fist with that hand. On account of that injury I told you about." (6.32-36)

It’s a little anti-social to flip out on a guy like Holden does to Stradlater, just because you suspect him of sleeping with a girl you like—but it’s not unheard of, or anything. The troubling part is that Holden doesn’t “remember so hot.”

Chapter 17
Holden Caulfield

"Boy, do I hate it," I said. "But it isn't just that. It's everything. I hate living in New York and all. Taxicabs, and Madison avenue buses, with the drivers and all always yelling at you to get out at the rear door, and being introduced to phony guys that call the Lunts angels, and going up and down in elevators when you just want to go outside, and guys fitting your pants all the time at Brooks, and people always–"

"Don't shout, please," old Sally said. Which was very funny, because I wasn't even shouting."

[…]

"Why not? Why the hell not?"

"Stop screaming at me, please," she said. Which was crap, because I wasn't even screaming at her." (17.41-55)

Again we get subtlety. Twice Sally asks Holden to stop shouting—he insists he's not, but, you know, we don't quite believe him. The whole shouting/mumbling thing he’s apparently doing here sounds pretty cray-cray to us. (We’d cross the street, is what we’re saying.)

Chapter 22

"I thought it was 'If a body catch a body,'" I said. "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 – I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. 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. I know it's crazy." (22.55)

A few times in The Catcher in the Rye, Holden says things like "I'm a madman" or "I'm crazy" or "It's a crazy idea." At first, it sounds like joking self-deprecation… but by this point in the novel, we’re starting to agree with him.

Chapter 24
Holden Caulfield

"I had this terrific headache all of a sudden." (24.21)

A headache isn’t so surprising—but the fact that it’s a “sudden” headache is a little more eyebrow-raising. It sounds like Holden’s depression is getting really physical, really fast.

I would have walked […], but I felt funny when I got outside. Sort of dizzy. (24.2)

We’re not too surprised at this point that Holden isn’t feeling well—a lot of alcohol, not too much food or sleep—but the “funny” “dizzy” feeling is a little troubling.

Chapter 25
Holden Caulfield

"So I went in this very cheap-looking restaurant and had doughnuts and coffee. Only, I didn't eat the doughnuts. I couldn't swallow them too well. The thing is, if you get very depressed about something, it's hard as hell to swallow." (25.3; 25.7)

If Holden can’t eat doughnuts, he must be really depressed. The question is, at what point (if ever) does depression actually become a form of insanity?

After I came out of the place where the mummies were, I had to go to the bathroom. I sort of had diarrhea, if you want to know the truth. I didn't mind the diarrhea part too much, but something else happened. When I was coming out of the can, right before I got to the door, I sort of passed out. I was lucky, though. I mean I could've killed myself when I hit the floor, but all I did was sort of land on my side. It was a funny thing, though. I felt better after I passed out. I really did. My arm sort of hurt, from where I fell, but I didn't feel so damn dizzy. (25.41)

While we would like to write this off as hangover blues, we're starting to wonder if there isn't something more serious going on here. Did you notice how Salinger built this up, starting with a headache, then sweating, then nausea, and then the passing out?

Anyway, I kept walking and walking up Fifth Avenue, without any tie on or anything. 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. You can't imagine. I started sweating like a bastard – my whole shirt and underwear and everything. 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. Allie, don't let me disappear. Please, Allie." And then when I'd reach the other side of the street without disappearing, I'd thank him. Then it would start all over again as soon as I got to the next corner. But I kept going and all. I was sort of afraid to stop, I think – I don't remember, to tell you the truth. I know I didn't stop till I was way up in the Sixties, past the zoo and all. Then I sat down on this bench. I could hardly get my breath, and I was still sweating like a bastard. I sat there, I guess, for about an hour. (25.8)

This is Holden’s rock-bottom, and you have to admit that he sounds pretty crazy here—like, he’s actually having a psychotic break. He says he’s “making believe,” but he’s “afraid to stop”—like the boundaries of reality and, well, madness are really starting to blur.

Chapter 26
Holden Caulfield

That's all I'm going to tell about. I could probably tell you what I did after I went home, and how I got sick and all, and what school I'm supposed to go to next fall, after I get out of here, but I don't feel like it. I really don't. That stuff doesn't interest me too much right now.

A lot of people, especially this one psychoanalyst guy they have here, keeps asking me if I'm going to apply myself when I go back to school next September. (26.1-2)

Once he’s done telling the longest story about three days ever, Holden brings us back to his own present time. Here’s what we know: he’s in some sort of institution. He "got sick" at some point. And he’s supposed to go back to school. But is he better? Can we tell based on the way he tells his story?