Cultural Assumptions in The Catcher in the Rye
Before the 1950s mental health was unspoken about, so by the 1950s societies understanding was limited. Society could not understand the difference between a person who is unwell and a person who is just unhappy. It was seen as a human defect instead of a illness in most cases. Mental health patients were treated very poorly. People reacted negatively to mental health patients and to the people who worked with them. They were starting to treat the patients more humanly during the 1950s but people still had trouble understanding. There was medication starting to be used more and awareness of mental health was becoming more common. There is little to no evidence suggesting that teenagers had any mental health issues. Teenagers especially would have not been thought of as having a mental illness. They were ignored and felt marginalized by society and by their parents. If teenagers had mental illnesses and acted against the rules, society just saw them as another one of those teenage delinquents.
A specific element that highlights mental health in the 1950s is language techniques.
J.D. Salinger uses a range of language techniques to reflect mental health. The language technique he uses the most is repetition. He uses repetition in Holden's speech, phrases and thinking. A good example is a quote from the end of the book when Holden is talking to his little sister Phoebe: "That's depressing, when somebody says 'please' to you. I mean if it's Phoebe or somebody. That depressed the hell out of me."
J.D. Salinger challenges the idea of mental health in the 1950s. We are able to see in the novel that Holden is not a generally happy person. This can be seen through his negativity about everything. The only times he seems genuinely happy is when he flashes back to his childhood or in the end when he is spending time with Phoebe in the park where he had some happy childhood memories. A quote that explains the way he feels in the park with Phoebe is "I felt so damn happy all of a sudden, the way old Phoebe kept going around and around. I was damn near bawling, I felt so damn happy, if you want to know the truth." Holden does not have a close relationship with his parents or with any other adults or anyone else that he would be able to effectively communicate his feelings with. Holden and his brother, Allie, seem to be very close in Holden's memories and the boy he saw commit suicide was a classmate. You could imagine the effect of losing your brother and seeing one of your classmates commit suicide. When Allie died, Holden had a breakdown: "I was only thirteen, and they were going to get me psychoanalysed 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." After this he also talks about how it broke his fist and he can't make a proper fist anymore. This is significant as it is a constant reminder of Allie and the way Holden felt when he passed away." For Holden, these two events impacted greatly on his mental health and he had no body to talk about it with. This caused all his feelings of depression and anxiety to bottle up and cause Holden a breakdown. Before Holden's breakdown these feelings are reflected by Holden's actions and thinking throughout the book. They are reflected through Holden's impulse actions and feelings, through his constant want to escape and through the way that Holden is always wanting a distraction. Impulse actions and feelings are a known symptom of mental illness. Throughout the book Holden says things and does things that afterwards he tells us he doesn't know why he did it. Some examples are when Holden throws money into the lake when he is running low on money, by 'horsing around, when he gets into a fight with Stradlater and when he packs to go to New York. A quote that explains this is from when he throws money across the lake when he is running low: "Then what I did, I went down near the lagoon and I sort of skipped the quarters and nickel across it, where is wasn't frozen. I don't know why I did it, but I did." Throughout the book Holden is looking for some kind of escape. He wants to escape his feelings or depression and loneliness. He searches for physical escapes, mental escapes and social escapes. Holden searches for a physical escape to physically get away. There are many examples of this throughout the book. The main example is when Holden leaves Pencey Prep for New York instead of going home. Holden has a good imagination and he creates mental escapes. Some examples of these are when Holden acts like he has been shot and when he dreams up two situation where he runs away from society and creates a life for himself. Holden also tries to create a social escape through Phoebe. When Holden is with Phoebe he feels he has an innocent child personality where he can be himself and feel happy. Holden also tries to distract himself from his feelings. He is constantly trying to get people to be with him and in the end he gets extremely drunk to try and get his mind off things.
J.D. Salinger was questioning mental health because believed that it was a real problem, especially for teenagers. He wanted to try and show society that mental health was an issue that had to be addressed because there are many troubled people who become unable to live their life. He was also trying to explain that teenagers also experienced mental health issues and that it was important that they were not ignored.