Study Guide

The Catcher in the Rye Mortality

By J. D. Salinger

Mortality

Chapter 5

I was only thirteen, and they were going to have me 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. My hand still hurts me once in a while when it rains and all, and I can't make a real fist any more – not a tight one, I mean – but outside of that I don't care much. I mean I'm not going to be a goddam surgeon or a violinist or anything anyway. (5.7)

Notice how they’re going to have Holden psychoanalyzed because he broke the windows in his garage—and not because his little brother just died. His reaction is categorized as anger—not sadness or depression or confusion.

The thing was, I couldn't think of a room or a house or anything to describe the way Stradlater said he had to have. I'm not too crazy about describing rooms and houses anyway. So what I did, I wrote about my brother Allie's baseball mitt. It was a very descriptive subject. It really was. My brother Allie had this left-handed fielder's 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. In green ink. He wrote them on it so that he'd have something to read when he was in the field and nobody was up at bat. 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 as intelligent. He was terrifically intelligent. His teachers were always writing letters to my mother, telling her what a pleasure it was having a boy like Allie in their class. And they weren't just shooting the crap. They really meant it. But it wasn't just that he was the most intelligent member in the family. He was also the nicest, in lots of ways. He never got mad at anybody. […] God, he was a nice kid, though. He used to laugh so hard at something he thought of at the dinner table that he just about fell off his chair. (5.7)

We’re pretty sure that this all happened before the idea of grief counseling was really a standard thing—so, no wonder Holden uses any and every excuse to talk about Allie.

Chapter 9
Holden Caulfield

I didn't want to start an argument. "Okay," I said. Then I thought of something, all of a sudden. "Hey, listen," I said. "You know those ducks in that lagoon right near Central Park South? That little lake? By any chance, do you happen to know where they go, the ducks, when it gets all frozen over? Do you happen to know, by any chance?" I realized it was only one chance in a million.

He turned around and looked at me like I was a madman. "What're ya tryna do, bud?" he said. "Kid me?"

"No—I was just interested, that's all."

He didn't say anything more, so I didn't either. Until we came out of the park at Ninetieth Street. Then he said, "All right, buddy. Where to?" (9.4-7)

Holden isn’t just obsessed with his mortality or his brother’s mortality—he’s obsessed with the idea that everything dies. No wonder he can’t make friends.

Chapter 12
Holden Caulfield

"The ducks. Do you know, by any chance? I mean does somebody come around in a truck or something and take them away, or do they fly away by themselves – go south or something?"

Old Horwitz turned all the way around and looked at me. He was a very impatient-type guy. He wasn't a bad guy, though.

"How the hell should I know?" he said.

"How the hell should I know a stupid thing like that?"

"Well, don't get sore about it," I said. He was sore about it or something.

"Who's sore? Nobody's sore."

I stopped having a conversation with him, if he was going to get so damn touchy about it. But he started it up again himself. He turned all the way around again, and said, "The fish don't go no place. They stay right where they are, the fish. Right in the goddam lake."

[…] "Listen," he said. "If you was a fish, Mother Nature'd take care of you, wouldn't she? Right? You don't think them fish just die when it gets to be winter, do ya?"

"No, but – "

"You're goddam right they don't," Horwitz said, and drove off like a bat out of hell. He was about the touchiest guy I ever met. Everything you said made him sore. (12.8-28)

Even when Holden does find someone else willing to discuss his interest in the ducks (and mortality), he classifies the man as "touchy" and paints a picture of him as emotionally unstable. In fact, the cab driver isn't that different from Holden, who experiences some emotional outbreaks of his own.

I stopped having a conversation with him, if he was going to get so damn touchy about it. But he started it up again himself. He turned all the way around again, and said, "The fish don't go no place. They stay right where they are, the fish. Right in the goddam lake."

[…] "Listen," he said. "If you was a fish, Mother Nature'd take care of you, wouldn't she? Right? You don't think them fish just die when it gets to be winter, do ya?"

"No, but—"

"You're goddam right they don't," Horwitz said, and drove off like a bat out of hell. He was about the touchiest guy I ever met. Everything you said made him sore. (12.8-28)

Even when Holden does find someone else willing to discuss his interest in the ducks (and mortality), he classifies the man as "touchy" and possibly emotionally unstable. Pot, meet kettle: the cab driver isn't all that different from Holden, who experiences some emotional outbreaks of his own.

Chapter 14

What I did, I started talking, sort of out loud, to Allie. I do that sometimes when I get very depressed. I keep telling him to go home and get his bike and meet me in front of Bobby Fallon's house. Bobby Fallon used to live quite near us in Maine. […] We thought we could shoot something without BB guns. Anyway, Allie heard us talking about it, and he wanted to go, and I wouldn't let him. I told him he was a child. So once in a while now, when I get very depressed, I keep saying to him, "Okay. Go home and get your bike and meet me in front of Bobby's house. Hurry up." […] I keep thinking about it, anyway, when I get very depressed. (14.1)

Death: the final frontier. Holden is trying to comfort himself by altering his memory of a past event, but he can’t. Allie’s dead. Does this mean he’ll be more careful about how he treats the people in his life who are still alive?

But I'm crazy. I swear to God I am. About halfway to the bathroom, I sort of started pretending I had a bullet in my guts. Old 'Maurice had plugged me. Now I was on the way to the bathroom to get a good shot of bourbon or something to steady my nerves and help me really go into action. I pictured myself coming out of the goddam bathroom, dressed and all, with my automatic in my pocket, and staggering around a little bit. Then I'd walk downstairs, instead of using the elevator. I'd hold onto the banister and all, with this blood trickling out of the side of my mouth a little at a time. What I'd do, I'd walk down a few floors—holding onto my guts, blood leaking all over the place—and then I'd ring the elevator bell. As soon as old Maurice opened the doors, he'd see me with the automatic in my hand and he'd start screaming at me, in this very high-pitched, yellow-belly voice, to leave him alone. But I'd plug him anyway. Six shots right through his fat hairy belly. Then I'd throw my automatic down the elevator shaft—after I'd wiped off all the finger prints and all. Then I'd crawl back to my room and call up Jane and have her come over and bandage up my guts. I pictured her holding a cigarette for me to smoke while I was bleeding and all. (14.44)

Whoa, Holden. These are the kind of fantasies that today would earn Holden a quick trip to the school counselor. But we think we understand: in a world where he feels insignificant, these fantasies make him important, wanted, and loved. Unfortunately, that means Holden to feel the only thing important about himself is his potential death.

Chapter 18
Holden Caulfield

Anyway, I'm sort of glad they've got the atomic bomb invented. If there's ever another war, I'm going to sit right the hell on top of it. I'll volunteer for it, I swear to God I will. (18.7)

Talk about a death wish. And look—they even named a trope for it!

Chapter 20

Then, finally, I found it. What it was, it was partly frozen and partly not frozen. But I didn't see any ducks around. I walked all around the whole damn lake—I damn near fell in once, in fact—but I didn't see a single duck. I thought maybe if there were any around, they might be asleep or something near the edge of the water, near the grass and all. That's how I nearly fell in. But I couldn't find any. (20.40)

Is Holden worried that the ducks have vanished—or is he just worried that he himself is going to vanish? We think there might be a little transference going on.

I've lived in New York all my life, and I know Central Park like the back of my hand, because I used to roller-skate there all the time and ride my bike when I was a kid, but I had the most terrific trouble finding that lagoon that night. I knew right where it was – it was right near Central Park South and all – but I still couldn't find it. […] Then, finally, I found it. What it was, it was partly frozen and partly not frozen. But I didn't see any ducks around. I walked all around the whole damn lake – I damn near fell in once, in fact – but I didn't see a single duck. I thought maybe if there were any around, they might be asleep or something near the edge of the water, near the grass and all. That's how I nearly fell in. But I couldn't find any. (20.40)

Holden is worried that the ducks have vanished – much like his concern, as we see later, that he himself will disappear.

Then I thought about the whole bunch of them sticking me in a goddam cemetery and all, with my name on this tombstone and all. Surrounded by dead guys. Boy, when you're dead, they really fix you up. I hope to hell when I do die somebody has sense enough to just dump me in the river or something. Anything except sticking me in a goddam cemetery. People coming and putting a bunch of flowers on your stomach on Sunday, and all that crap. Who wants flowers when you're dead? Nobody. (20.41)

To Holden, can't be smoothed over with a lovely ceremony and a bunch of flowers. Flowers might smell nice, but the dead are still dead—and they’re sure not worrying about flowers.

When the weather's nice, my parents go out quite frequently and stick a bunch of flowers on old Allie's grave (20.42)

Holden doesn’t actually make the point, but he doesn’t have to: his parents only care about Allie as long as it doesn’t inconvenience them. Visiting the grave when it’s raining? No way.

Finally I sat down on this bench, where it wasn't so goddam dark. Boy, I was still shivering like a bastard, and the back of my hair, even though I had my hunting hat on, was sort of full of little hunks of ice. That worried me. I thought probably I'd get pneumonia and die. I started picturing millions of jerks coming to my funeral and all. My grandfather from Detroit, that keeps calling out the numbers of the streets when you ride on a goddam bus with him, and my aunts – I have about fifty aunts – and all my lousy cousins. What a mob'd be there. They all came when Allie died, the whole goddam stupid bunch of them. I have this one stupid aunt with halitosis that kept saying how peaceful he looked lying there, D.B. told me. I wasn't there. I was still in the hospital. I had to go to the hospital and all after I hurt my hand. (20.42)

Holden’s fantasy quickly turns away from the typical "You'd be sorry if I died" self-centered thought to think about Allie. No matter how many times a person says it is peaceful, death is anything but peaceful—or it shouldn’t be. Compare the aunt's use of this word (peaceful) to Holden's confinement to a hospital bed after his own violent reaction to Allie's death.

Chapter 22

There was this one boy at Elkton Hills, named James Castle, that wouldn't take back something he said about this very conceited boy, Phil Stabile. […] Stabile, with about six other dirty bastards, went down to James Castle's room and went in and locked the goddam door and tried to make him take back what he said, but he wouldn't do it. I won't even tell you what they did to him – it's too repulsive. […] Finally, what he did, instead of taking back what he said, he jumped out the window. I was in the shower and all, and even I could hear him land outside. […] There was old James Castle laying right on the stone steps and all. He was dead, and his teeth, and blood, were all over the place. […] He had on this turtleneck sweater I'd lent him. (22.30)

Ouch. Talk about dying for an ignoble cause. Our question: is there a suggestion that Holden understands this attitude—that rather than give in and take back something he knows is true, the kid would kill himself? Isn’t this kind of what Holden is doing—refusing to live peacefully in a phony world?

Holden Caulfield

"You don't like a million things. You don't.

[…] Name one thing."

[…]

"I like Allie."

"Allie's dead – You always say that! If somebody's dead and everything, and in Heaven, then it isn't really–"

"I know he's dead! Don't you think I know that? I can still like him, though, can't I? Just because somebody's dead, you don't just stop liking them, for God's sake – especially if they were about a thousand times nicer than the people you know that're alive and all." (22.22-38)

Again, we see that Holden glorifies his dead brother. We don't doubt that Allie was a great person, but Holden, in his dissatisfaction with the existing world, can idealize his brother, instill in him all the values he feels are missing from reality. This, of course, only drives him further into isolation and anger at the people around him.

Chapter 25

Finally, what I decided I'd do, 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 I 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. […] I'd meet this beautiful girl that was also a deaf-mute and we'd get married. She'd come and live in my cabin with me, and if she wanted to say anything to me, she'd have to write it on a goddam piece of paper, like everybody else. If we had any children, we'd hide them somewhere. We could buy them a lot of books and teach them how to read and write by ourselves. (25.8)

After his encounter with Mr. Antolini, Holden imagines a kind of symbolic death: as a deaf-mute, he wouldn’t have to speak or listen to anybody—to interact with the world at all. But even this fantasy involves meeting another deaf-mute, because he just can’t stand to be alone. (There’s probably a dating website for exactly these kinds of pairings.)

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)

What would it mean for Holden to disappear? Notice that he doesn't ask not to get hit by a car, not to fall down a pothole, not to get struck by lightning; he asks not to disappear. It seems as though he's talking about dying here, but isn't able to use that label. Part of this may have to do with Holden not fully understanding how to deal with death – the death of his brother and his own mortality. Instead of facing the very real nature of death, he makes it supernatural and calls it "disappearing" instead of "dying."

Finally we found the place where the mummies were, and we went in.

"You know how the Egyptians buried their dead?" I asked the one kid. "Naa."

"Well, you should. It's very interesting. They wrapped their faces up in these cloths that were treated with some secret chemical. That way they could be buried in their tombs for thousands of years and their faces wouldn't rot or anything. Nobody knows how to do it except the Egyptians. Even modern science." (25.32-35)

Here’s something weird: The mummies don't worry Holden the way the ducks do, even though they’re dead. The mummies are preserved. This makes us think that Holden is more upset that Allie appears to have “disappeared” than he’s dead per se.