Cultural Assumption 2:
Mental Health

Mental health today is only just starting to be understood and accepted in our society , so you could only imagine what the understanding was like in the 1950's.

Mental illness was defined in an extreme way in the 1950's causing society  to reject and neglect people who were mentally ill . Not only did they neglect patients with mental illness, they also viewed doctors who treated them in a negative way. People were unable to distinguish the difference between people with a mental illness and people who are just simply unhappy. The concept of puberty didn't exist, therefore teenagers didn't know that being emotional was part of growing up and didn't know how to deal with their emotions. People that were mentally ill were thought to be outcasts and were put into mental institutions.

In the novel The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger demonstrates the cultural assumption of Mental health through his main character Holden Caulfield's use of language.

Holden seems to be more interested in death than relationships, this could be due to the fact that his brother died of leukemia four years before, he also witnessed a young boy's suicide at prep school and  there was a whole issue with World War II.

Holden Caulfield often refers himself as depressed, sad and lonely. Caulfield also has many moments in the novel where he has suicidal thoughts. Holden's thoughts about being , suicidal, sad and lonely gives us the impression that Holden is depressed for many reasons. One of these could be due to the of the death of his brother, hence why he wants to be "a catcher in the rye" he wants to stop people from dying. He also  feels alone, he feels like he can't turn to his parents and is unable to express his feelings to anyone. He always talks about how he wants to move away and how much he hates everyone because they are all "phonies or they are crumby". His little sister is mentioned extensively throughout the novel because he idolizes and looks up to her because she is the only person he has. He is also never tired, the book goes across 3-4 days and he has slept a total of roughly 3-4 hours. Which could be a sign of mental illness. Holden also talks about how he is  constantly nervous, he talks about how he is always sweating and shaking. He is also always swearing, saying that his insane and that his a madman. This behaviour is similar to the behaviour of someone with anxiety.

Examples from the novel that show this:

"I wasn't even tired--but finally I did. What I really felt like, though, was committing suicide. I felt like jumping out the window."

"Boy, I felt miserable. I felt so depressed, you can't imagine. What I did, I started talking, sort of out loud, to Allie. I do that sometimes when I get very depressed."

"I felt more depressed than sexy, if you want to know the truth. She was depressing."

"It made me feel sad as hell"

"I worry about that stuff sometimes."

"I was a little nervous. I was starting to feel pretty sexy and all, but I was a little nervous anyway."

"but I was feeling so depressed I didn't even think. That's the whole trouble. When you're feeling very depressed, you can't even think."

"bourbon or something to steady my nerves and help me really go into action"

"I wasn't sleepy or anything, but I was feeling sort of lousy. Depressed and all. I almost wished I was dead."

"bourbon or something to steady my nerves and help me really go into action"

"I'm a very rapid packer. One thing about packing depressed me a little."

"I was smoking like a mad man'.

Teenagers need love and support from their family, in the novel Holden has little to no emotional family support and what appears to be very little communication with them. Therefore Holden is left astray to search through this hard time in his life without support, understanding and treatment. Holden often feels neglected by his parents due to the fact that they never call him, see him or help him. His efforts to reach out and communicate, including failing out of schools and getting into fights, are not understood as cries for help but are seen as personal failings.

Examples from the novel:

"She wouldn't've cared if I'd woke her up, but the trouble was, she wouldn't've been the one that answered the phone. My parents would be the ones"

"I couldn't think of anybody to call up."

"I thought of maybe hanging up if my parents answered".

J.D. Salinger challenges the idea of mental illness through his use of theme and flashbacks. Holden seems to only ever be happy when he has flashbacks of his childhood. He seems to be happy when he talks about his little brother Allie, and the memories they shared. He is also happy when he talks about Jane, and the memories they had. But in reality the more connected Holden is to other people, the more depressed he becomes.

Although Holden feels alienated from the world throughout the entire book, the last line of the novel shows us that the act of speaking his story connects him to his audience and saves him from isolation.

Although Holden blames other people and their "phoniness" for his loneliness, it is clear that the fault is entirely his own.  Holden doesn't want to grow up due to the fact that he has grown up believing that adults are phony, self centered "bastards". The adults surrounding him are phonies and he doesn't want to become someone fake.

I believe that J.D Salinger challenges the assumption of mental illness in this novel because he believes that the issue of mental illness needs to be addressed and not ignored. The fact that teenagers were being ignored didn't help them deal with their issues of puberty AND mental illnesses, as well as how to handle growing up. It needed to be addressed and dealt with.


The word depressed or depress occurs 41 times in the novel The Catcher in the Rye!

The word happy only occurs 5 times.