Since it was first published in 1951, The Catcher in the Rye has been the subject of controversy for decades. Between being banned from schools in several states and being linked with the assassination of John Lennon by Mark David Chapman, the novel is widely regarded as one of the most influential novels of the 20th century. A large number of teenagers, from different generations, have found in the main character, Holden Caulfield, someone to whom they can relate, someone who speaks their language. Amidst all the controversy and acclaim, the novel is now undoubtedly a classic in American literature, and as such, it has sparked various discussions between critics and fans alike, about its themes, its messages, but most prominently, about Holden’s character. While there are many questions that surround the meaning of Holden Caulfield’s words, one of them seems to have attracted less attention than others, even though it is a very important one: to whom is Holden telling his story? “Surprisingly, relatively few critics have seemed particularly curious about this” (Cowan 40), writes Michael Cowan in his essay “Holden’s Museum Pieces: Narrator and Nominal Audience in The Catcher in the Rye“, referring to the nominal audience of Holden Caulfield. Another question of equal interest and importance is: why is he in a mental institution? These questions are not unrelated to each other as the answer to the latter may help answer the former. There are multiple indicators throughout the novel that Holden Caulfield might have been suffering from depression and borderline personality disorder and as a result, his mind created an imaginary friend to fulfill his need to be heard, which is the most plausible nominal audience considering the alternatives.
Holden shows traits of depression and borderline personality disorder throughout his narrative. Even to the most casual reader, his depression is evident through his statements, as Holden expresses feeling depressed on fifty different occasions during the span of a few days. After he leaves Antolini’s house, his depression seems to be more severe as it causes a headache, sweating and dizziness. As Holden says himself, “I still had that headache. It was even worse. And I think I was more depressed than I ever was in my whole life” (Salinger 209). Alongside his depression, Holden exhibits symptoms associated with borderline personality disorder. In his book Personality Disorders in Modern Life, Theodore Millon lists nine DSM-IV criteria for borderline personality disorder (414) and writes that a subject needs to meet five out of nine criteria to be diagnosed with this disorder. Some of the criteria include: chronic feelings of emptiness, inappropriate anger, impulsivity in at least two areas that are potentially self-damaging, identity disturbance, a pattern of unstable and intense relationships, and frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment (414). Holden mentions committing suicide a few times in the novel, most explicitly in chapter 14 when he says: “What I really felt like, though, was committing suicide” (Salinger 113). Also, he shows signs of random anger in his dorm, especially towards Ackley when he yells: “Ackley! For Chrissake. Willya please cut your crumby nails over the table? I’ve asked you fifty times” (25), he smokes and drinks, and the whole weekend described in his narrative is a series of unstable relationships, during which he implicitly expresses his feelings of emptiness. This combination of symptoms strongly suggests that Holden can be diagnosed with borderline personality disorder.
Holden’s mental condition deteriorates towards the end of the novel and his brain creates an imaginary friend in order to fulfill his need to be heard. During the days he spent in New York, Holden is continuously trying to reach out to other people and have them listen to him. Most of these attempts fail as he finds everyone to be “phony”, but when he is at Antolini house, he seems pleased by the conversation they had, thinking about it before he goes to sleep: “I laid awake for just a couple of seconds thinking about all that stuff Mr Antolini’d told me. About finding out the size of your mind and all. He was really a pretty smart guy” (206). Thus, his disappointment is even greater when he wakes up to Antolini stroking his hair. He changes his mind about Antolini and calls him a pervert, confessing that this was not his first experience of the kind: “When something perverty like that happens, I start sweating like a bastard. That kind of stuff’s happened to me about twenty times since I was a kid. I can’t stand it” (208). This is a crucial moment in the narrative as shortly after leaving Antolini’s house he expresses his deep depression and feels betrayed by the adult world, which might have been the trigger for his brain to create an imaginary friend to cope with the situation. His borderline personality makes him susceptible to this phenomenon, and as Anju Gupta and Nimesh G. Desai remark in their case report, “fantasy friend phenomenon is considered normal in children, but if encountered in adolescence, it suggests a psychopathological condition” (Desai 2). Holden’s unmet rudimentary need to establish a connection with another person is a credible cause for him creating such a friend, considering that, as Desai writes, “The fantasy friend phenomenon may be fulfilling different functions of the child or adolescent such as developmental changes in reality-testing, fantasies, creativity and changes in socio-emotional development and in friendship conceptions” (Desai 1).
An imaginary friend being Holden’s nominal audience seems even more plausible considering the alternatives. As the narrative comes in the form of a novel, it would be easy to suggest that Holden is writing a book in the hospital, recounting his weekend in New York, so his audience is the reader. It could be convincingly argued though, by paying attention to the language he uses, that Holden is most likely talking to someone rather than writing. In the very beginning of his narrative, he says “If there’s one thing I hate, it’s the movies. Don’t even mention them to me.” (Salinger 2), implying a possibility for interaction between him and his audience. He is clearly at ease and shows no reluctance in sharing intimate details of the story with the audience, an attitude that is completely different from the one he had in New York. The most open and sincere interaction he has is the one with his sister Phoebe towards the end of the novel, but even then he is not as comfortable as he is in the hospital. This fact begs the question of what is special about this person to whom he is talking. As Michael Cowan argues, “He seems most comfortable, and most verbally expansive, talking to a single listener, and he is clearly at his most expansive in his narrative from California” (41). Holden’s listener seems to be such a perfect audience that the possibility of him/her being an imaginary friend Holden himself created based on his needs is only logical.
Holden Caulfield is a character who most of all seeks a genuine connection with another human being, but, repeatedly failing at it, his mind creates an imaginary friend, an ideal audience to fulfill his need to be heard, triggered by the deterioration of his mental well-being, as he exhibits traits of borderline personality disorder and depression throughout the novel. He has become the symbol of teen angst and as The Catcher in the Rye has been one of the most influential novels of the past half-century, his character is a subject of interest among casual readers and scholars alike. Answering, or at least trying to answer, some of the questions surrounding Holden’s persona is very important not only because he provides a unique view on the world, but also because his voice has heavily influenced subsequent novels of the young adult genre.