The Catcher in the Rye

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Madness, Depression, Suicide Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Phoniness Theme Icon
Alienation and Meltdown Theme Icon
Women and Sex Theme Icon
Childhood and Growing Up Theme Icon
Madness, Depression, Suicide Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Catcher in the Rye, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Madness, Depression, Suicide Theme Icon

If "phony" is the most frequently repeated word in The Catcher in the Rye, "crazy," "madman," and "depressed" rank close behind it. Because Holden is the narrator of the novel, and because he seems in so many ways to be a typical teenager battling typical teenage issues of identity, it seems like he is using these words for effect. In other words, when he says he's crazy he seems to mean that he's acting oddly, or inconsistently, or stupidly, but not that he's actually going insane. And when he says he wishes he were dead, it likewise seems at first as if he's using the phrase as a teenage expression to make his emotions seem as intense to you as they seem to him. But as the novel progresses, it begins to become clear through hints and an intensification of Holden's own language that Holden really is on the verge of losing it, and really is seriously thinking of killing himself as the only way out of this world he can't control or understand.

Madness, Depression, Suicide ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Madness, Depression, Suicide appears in each chapter of The Catcher in the Rye. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Madness, Depression, Suicide Quotes in The Catcher in the Rye

Below you will find the important quotes in The Catcher in the Rye related to the theme of Madness, Depression, Suicide.
Chapter 5 Quotes
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... 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.
Related Characters: Holden Caulfield (speaker), Allie Caulfield
Page Number: 50
Explanation and Analysis:

Holden describes his aggressive reaction to Allie’s death. He notes that his behavior was irrational, but also defends himself based on the unique connection he had with Allie.

This interplay of reason and unreason is mediated by Holden’s parents’ response to his actions. That they wanted to have him “psychoanalyzed” after his aggressive behavior would strike the reader as entirely rational given their position—and Holden affirms this sympathetic interpretation when he says “I don’t blame them. I really don’t.” He then offers evidence of how this choice would be reasonable by reiterating how ludicrous his behaviors would have seemed. In particular that he acts “just for the hell of it…” highlights his own awareness of the lack of rational motivation.

A turn comes, however, when Holden says “I hardly didn’t even know I was doing it,” indicating that he should be absolved from the guilt of the mania because he was not conscious of his actions. The next defense “you didn’t know Allie” is of a rather different nature, for it relies not just on ignorance but implies that the aggressive response was actually reasonable considering the importance of his brother. Beyond continuing to humanize Holden—and implying that his current psychic issues are the result of a lost brother—this passage showcases Holden’s fraught relationship to his own conduct. Salinger illustrates how one may defend rash actions even as they accept how others would see them as inappropriate.

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Chapter 13 Quotes
The trouble was, I just didn't want to do it. I felt more depressed than sexy, if you want to know the truth. She was depressing. Her green dress hanging in the closet and all. And besides, I don't think I could ever do it with somebody that sits in a stupid movie all day long. I really don't think I could.
Related Characters: Holden Caulfield (speaker), Sunny
Page Number: 123
Explanation and Analysis:

When the prostitute Sunny comes to Holden’s room, his fear develops into depression and paralysis. Holden declines to have sex and explains, here, that the refusal comes from how sad he found the scene.

The moment clarifies the occasions Holden referred to earlier when he could have lost his virginity. It shows that in such instances, he becomes distraught by the depressing circumstances of the interaction. Sexual interest alone is insufficient to make him pursue sex, and Holden thus seems to want to search for something meaningful. One should note, however, that Holden’s response is not based on any kind of ethical principle. (He would likely find such moralizing to be “phony.”) Rather it is based on an immediate emotional response—as well as on the appearance of the scene in which he finds himself. Holden, above all, is disheartened by the physical detail of the “green dress,” and his reference to the “stupid movie” indicates that he is filtering his experience through a cinematic lens. That is to say, Holden seems to be watching the movie of his life, as well as the movie of Sunny’s life, play out—and he becomes “depressed” when he understands the nature of this hypothetical film.

The reference to the movies also implies that Holden's earlier criticism of "phony" movies and the people who enjoy them extends even to his instincts. This also suggests that Holden truly does want something meaningful from sex, since he feels he couldn't do it with just anyone, particularly someone he doesn't respect.

Chapter 14 Quotes
It took me quite a while to get to sleep—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. I probably would've done it, too, if I'd been sure somebody'd cover me up as soon as I landed. I didn't want a bunch of stupid rubbernecks looking at me when I was all gory.
Related Characters: Holden Caulfield (speaker)
Page Number: 136
Explanation and Analysis:

After Sunny takes his money and Maurice punches him in the stomach, Holden tries to fall asleep. He considers suicide, but decides against it because of an imagined social response.

This passage shows Holden at the depths of his despair. Whereas his earlier comments have certainly conveyed depression and angst, contemplating suicide marks a significant shift toward the worse. He does not even try to hide the fact, explicitly using the term “committing suicide” and only then using the more euphemistic phrase “jumping out the window.” As with the prostitute, what stops Holden from acting is not an ethical belief—nor a rational consideration—but rather an issue with the cinematic quality of what would take place. Here, what he finds depressing is the way others would look at him “all gory.” This image reiterates the way Holden tends to see his life as a movie playing out before him, in which his actions are made largely based on whether he would be pleased or disheartened by the quality of the movie. Suicide is only ruled out because the resulting scene for the “stupid rubbernecks” would not fit with his aesthetic wishes.

Chapter 16 Quotes
I got up close so I could hear what he was singing. He was singing that song, "If a body catch a body coming through the rye." He had a pretty little voice, too. He was just singing for the hell of it, you could tell. The cars zoomed by, brakes screeched all over the place, his parents paid no attention to him, and he kept on walking next to the curb and singing "If a body catch a body coming through the rye." It made me feel better. It made me feel not so depressed any more.
Related Characters: Holden Caulfield (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Catcher in the Rye
Page Number: 150
Explanation and Analysis:

As Holden walks by a church, he hears a boy singing the tune from which the novel’s title will be taken. He finds in this moment a source of endearing and heartening purity that contrasts with his otherwise disheartening existence.

When Holden refers to the tune as “that song,” he shows himself to be already familiar with it—indicating that it has a nostalgic effect. Though the meaning of the song’s image is not yet clear, we can already see in the image of “catch a body” that it describes one “body” supporting another. “Through the rye” summons a rural environment that opposes the harsh city, while the hypothetical “If” gives the tune a dreamy quality. It seems to exist in an idyllic alternative universe, one that brings Holden a sense of real peace.

What Holden finds particularly moving, however, is less the content of the song than the way in which the boy sings it. Specifically, he does so “for the hell of it”: entirely for himself and with no regard to the indifference of “cars,” “brakes,” or even “his parents.” The boy, then, would epitomize the kind of earnest poetics that Holden identifies with Allie—and also opposes the phony adult society that acts solely based on social recognition. It is no coincidence that Holden has this spiritual moment near a church, for the catcher symbol will act like a psalm or incantation for the lost Holden.

Chapter 17 Quotes
Then, just to show you how crazy I am, when we were coming out of this big clinch, I told her I loved her and all. It was a lie, of course, but the thing is, I meant it when I said it. I'm crazy. I swear to God I am.
Related Characters: Holden Caulfield (speaker), Sally Hayes
Page Number: 163
Explanation and Analysis:

Holden and Sally travel to the theater in a cab, and Holden finds himself acting increasingly irrational. He simultaneously professes his love, claims the statement is a lie, and defends the validity of the lie.

Salinger continues to construct a complicated, self-contradictory psyche for Holden: he seems capable of telling a “lie” that is also true in that he “meant it” at the moment when he spoke it. This disparity points out the fickleness of human identity, a factor that Holden despises in others but continues to encounter in himself. He describes such volatile emotions an indication of lunacy—“I’m crazy”—but Salinger implies, rather, that they are a universal aspect of the human experience.

It is important, here, to observe the reemergence of Holden’s confessional tone. The phrases “just to show you” and “I swear” reinforce how Holden feels his life to be constantly on display. He sets a high stake in an implied audience of his life, one that could presumably note the inconsistencies between his thoughts and his actions. Part of this stems from the structure of a novel, in which a character is indeed "on trial" through the narrative—but it also speaks more generally to Holden’s self-conscious character. He is self-admonishing, even self-hating, yet he also desperately wishes to be absolved of his guilt.

Chapter 22 Quotes
"You don't like anything that's happening."
It made me even more depressed when she said that.
"Yes I do. Yes I do. Sure I do. Don't say that. Why the hell do you say that?"
"Because you don't. You don't like any schools. You don't like a million things. You don't."
"I do! That's where you're wrong—that's exactly where you're wrong! Why the hell do you have to say that?" I said. Boy, was she depressing me. "Because you don't," she said. "Name one thing."
"One thing? One thing I like?" I said. "Okay."
The trouble was, I couldn't concentrate too hot. Sometimes it's hard to concentrate.
Related Characters: Holden Caulfield (speaker), Phoebe Caulfield (speaker)
Page Number: 220
Explanation and Analysis:

When Holden complains about the other students at Pencey, Phoebe challenges him to name something he likes. She pokes fun at his misanthropic behavior, showing that Holden’s critical views are equally and unfairly applied to everything.

The brilliance of Phoebe’s comment, “You don’t like anything that’s happening” is that it points out the indiscriminate quality of Holden’s criticisms. If he does indeed find everything negative, then his specific contentions with each school and each thing cannot be taken seriously. This would render Holden a banal cynic, as opposed to a genuine outsider who can articulate compelling views. To defend his position, Holden finds himself ironically affirming that he enjoys some elements of life: yet his repeated insistences “Yes I do. Yes I do. Sure I do,” only repeat empty terms instead of actually providing an example. And when he is pushed to “name one thing,” he cannot come up with a single example.

We should note that Holden is at least partly sensitive to Phoebe’s criticisms. Were they to come from another character, Holden would likely find her points irrelevant or themselves phony, yet here he takes them quite seriously. Salinger stresses, then, Holden’s close relationship to his siblings and the way he will accept criticism from those whose opinion he values. Furthermore, Holden does not want to just be seen as a depressive who finds everything meaningless: he evidently maintains a wish to enjoy certain things and to defend that his criticisms of specific “phony” things are indeed valid.

Chapter 24 Quotes
This fall I think you're riding for — it's a special kind of fall, a horrible kind. The man falling isn't permitted to feel or hear himself hit bottom. He just keeps falling and falling. The whole arrangement's designed for men who, at some time or other in their lives, were looking for something their own environment couldn't supply them with. Or they thought their own environment couldn't supply them with. So they gave up looking.
Related Characters: Mr. Antolini (speaker), Holden Caulfield
Page Number: 243
Explanation and Analysis:

Holden visits his old English teacher, Mr. Antolini, who offers this compelling advice on his future. Mr. Antolini claims that Holden is following a well-trod narrative in which he expects too much from the world and will thus end up inevitably disappointed.

Mr. Antolini’s story, here, is more compelling for Holden than the comments he has received from other adults—for instead of offering stock phrases, Mr. Antolini closely examines Holden’s position and gives a specific diagnosis of his problem: “a special kind of fall.” Holden’s fall, he contends, is notable because it is infinite. Whereas a normal fall, say a specific negative experience, has a painful endpoint and impact of pain, Holden’s fall is permanent because it stems from the mental state he applies to every experience.

This mental state is the result of “looking for something their own environment couldn’t supply them with”—that is to say setting unreasonably high expectations for people and for experiences that consistently disappoint. Alternatively, it may be the result of presuming this fact to be the case, as if the environment may indeed be able to provide the wished-for experience. In either case, these permanently-falling men nihilistically abandon the entire quest for happiness and meaning because of the mismatch between expectation and reality. Salinger thus universalizes Holden’s experience and contends that one must continue to find meaning in the world even if it does not satisfy all of one’s desires.