Saturday, February 20, 2010

Holden Caulfield and Esther Greenwood

When I re-read The Catcher In The Rye a couple of weeks ago in preparation for this discussion, I saw things I hadn't seen before. Holden keeps making remarks that foreshadow J.D. Salinger's withdrawal from the world for the last half of his life. In one instance, Holden is watching a piano player in a bar and he thinks about how the guy is so good and he knows he's good so he's become phony. Holden vows that if he could play like that, he'd "play piano in the closet."

Another thing that struck me was how The Bell Jar and The Catcher In The Rye are so much alike. Of course Sylvia Plath had it planned that way. Like so many other college students, she read Catcher back when it was published in 1951 and completely related to Holden's angst. Like so many readers across several generations, she was a huge fan of the novel. Years before she finally wrote The Bell Jar, she noted in one of her journals that she wanted her heroine to have a cynical, slangy voice like Holden's. The first 100 pages of The Bell Jar are a brilliant homage to Salinger and Catcher In The Rye.


Critics have compared Esther to another Salinger heroine, Franny, but I disagree. Esther is Holden minus the red deer hunting cap with flaps and traipsing around New York City in "size 7 black patent leather pumps with a matching belt and handbag from Bloomingdale's."


I made notes on the similarities and differences between Holden and Esther. The differences seem to mirror each other, or act like a negative vs. the finished photograph.

  • Although Holden is a high school junior and Esther is a junior in college, both are teenagers. He is 16, and she is 19, soon to turn 20. Both are quite gauche, going around New York City and getting into awkward situations.

  • How did they get there? Holden fled to NYC to escape Pencey Prep after he was expelled, his latest expulsion from a long string of prep schools and is hiding from his parents until Christmas break begins. Esther is in NYC because she won a summer internship with a women's magazine called Ladies' Day. (Plath did a summer internship with Mademoiselle during the same summer mentioned in the novel, that "queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs.")

  • Esther has been a straight-A student all of her life and Holden has flunked everything but English, but both of them receive well-meaning but humiliating lectures from would-be mentors about how they need a change of attitude. Esther's is from her editor at Ladies' Day, Jay Cee and Holden's is from Mr. Spencer, the history teacher at Pencey Prep. Both seem to tune out their respective lectures. Both muse about the unattractiveness of their tormentors. Holden talks about how Mr. Spencer's chest (he is home in pajamas, recovering from the grippe) "bumpy chest...wasn't such a beautiful view" and Esther tries to picture "plug-ugly" Jay Cee "out of her business suit and in bed with her fat husband."

  • Both are surrounded by "phonies." This is Holden's favorite word. Esther never uses the word, but she is disdainful about people who "live double lives." Holden's girlfriend, Sally Hayes is a pretentious social climber and name-dropper and Esther's boyfriend, Buddy Willard (seen in flashbacks during the New York section of the novel) is an insufferable, pompous, humorless medical student.

  • Esther and Holden are both virgins, and obsessed with the idea of sex. Holden gets angry when he thinks that his roommate, Stradlater might have had sex in his car with an old friend of his, Jane Gallagher. He provokes Stradlater into a fight when Stradlater won't tell. Esther, who has divided the world into "people who are pure and people who aren't" becomes furious when she finds out that Buddy slept with a waitress the previous summer while he was seeing Esther and "pretending to be so pure."

  • Both have identical reactions when they are in the middle of a sexual situation. Holden (who has just been talked into hiring a 5-dollar hotel hooker): "I know you're supposed to feel pretty sexy when somebody gets up and pulls their dress over their head, but I didn't. Sexy was about the last thing I was feeling. I felt much more depressed than sexy." Esther (when Buddy pulls down his pants and shows her his genitals): "The only thing I could think of was turkey neck and turkey gizzards and I felt very depressed."

  • Both have negative experiences relating to sex. Holden is beaten up by his would-be hooker's pimp, Maurice and Esther is nearly raped by a "woman-hater" named Marco.

  • Death figures prominently into both Esther's and Holden's lives. Esther's father died when she was nine "the last time I was really happy" and Holden's beloved younger brother Allie died two years before the events in Catcher. Both novels seem to indicate that Esther and Holden are resentful that these deaths have been swept under the rug and that all of that dysfunction has led to them becoming unstrung.
  • Holden and Esther both reluctantly go and see putrid movies. Both describe these movies fully with gleeful loathing. Esther trumps Holden's movie experience by succumbing to food poisoning before the end of the picture. She wonders caustically (in a way that would have made Holden proud) if she's really sick or if it's the awful movie that is making her feel sick.
  • Both characters are fond of giving false names. Holden tells Mrs. Morrow he's Rudolf Schmidt (the name of the janitor at Pencey Prep) and Esther tells a couple of different guys that she's Elly Higginbottom from Chicago. Esther also has a plan to send Jay Cee a short story under a pseudonym.
  • Holden and Esther both break down and cry uncontrollably while they're in New York City. Holden cries when his little sister Phoebe (and the only character he seems to care for) gives him her Christmas money. Esther cries while she's sitting for a photo shoot at Ladies' Day magazine.
  • Each character has a habit of making spontaneous and slightly absurd plans for the future. Holden famously wants to be "the catcher in the rye" and keep children from falling from "a crazy cliff", but he also proposed to Sally Hayes that they run off, get married and live and work in the country. "Plan after plan leap[s] through [Esther's] head like a family of scatty rabbits." She decides in rapid succession to write a novel, learn shorthand, apprentice herself to a pottery maker and work in Germany as a waitress until she's bilingual. She also fantasizes about becoming Elly Higginbottom, moving to Chicago and marrying a mechanic.
  • Both of their stories are told from the vantage point of the future. Holden's experiences are fairly recent "I'll just tell about this madman stuff that happened to me last Christmas..." but several years have passed since the summer Esther "...didn't know what [she] was doing in New York." The chief clue is that she has taken one of her free gifts from that summer, a sunglasses case and "cut the plastic starfish off...for the baby to play with."
  • Odd clothing. Holden buys a red deer hunting cap on the subway and becomes quite attached to it. Esther throws her trip wardrobe from the roof of her hotel and forgets to save any for her journey home. She trades her bathrobe to Betsy for a dirndl dress that she subsequently wears without washing for several weeks.
  • Both characters end up in mental institutions soon after their New York sojourns. Holden, who is usually known for speaking plainly is oddly vague about this, saying that he got "run-down" and "nearly got TB" but briefly mentions talking to a psychoanalyst near the end of the novel. Esther's breakdown is much more detailed and horrifying and comprises the second half of the novel.
Holden and Esther are also similar in that they helped to usher in significant eras. Catcher was published right before the cult of teenagerhood took off. The Bell Jar was published under a pseudonym in 1963, the same year as Betty Freidan published The Feminine Mystique. The Bell Jar became available to American readers in 1971 and women who were having their consciousnesses raised by the women's movement responded strongly to the disgust and anger Esther feels about how women are held to a different standard than men.

I wish I could compare authors as well. Except for their published canon being rather on the smallish side, there's hardly any similarities at all. J.D. Salinger died in late January, a couple of weeks past his 91st birthday. He was bitter and contemptuous of his overwhelming fame. Sadly, Sylvia Plath only lived a third of that lifespan, committing suicide 47 years ago at the age of 30. She yearned for the fame and fortune that Salinger repudiated and achieved it (as well as instant legendary, iconic status) posthumously in 1965 with the publication of her second book of poems, Ariel. 1965 was also the year that Salinger published his last short story and began life as a full-blown recluse.

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post. I always enjoy whatever you have to write, but this one surpasses all others in my opinion. Detailed. Erudite. I love it!

nat @book, line, and sinker said...

such copious notes!! i never really looked at these novels for similarities. i've read them both but the parallels never dawned on me. maybe it's time to pull them both out and do a close reading.

hmmm...i come here for fun and end up with a weekend reading assignment! hee hee.

enjoy the weekend.

Chelsea said...

What great books to consider comparing - and thanks for doing so! I never would have realized just how closely the two were reflections/inversions of one another without something this line-by-line. Of course, the tone of the books are so similar that it would be almost impossible not to consider them similar at all, but still. Thanks for taking such awesome time with such awesome books!

Arlaina said...

Catcher and the Bell Jar were the two books that influenced me most as a teenager. Of COURSE they are mirror images of each other... I never noticed. Thanks so much for the insight. In other news, my Young Adult Novel, BELL JAR SUMMER about a girl obsessed with Sylvia Plath debuts in summer 2011... I'd love to hear what you have to say about it! Happy reading~

Autodidact101 said...

I just read about a book called Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan which is supposed to be the prelude to Catcher in the rye and the inspiration for the song Sound of Silence by Simon and Garfunkel. It is also about teenage angst and the foibles of adults. I was thinking it would be fun to read this and then Catcher now I'll have to add The Bell Jar.

Bybee said...

Anonymous,
Thank you so much...

Nat,
If nothing else, read the movie scenes for a fun compare.

Chelsea,
I wish there were a novel in which those 2 could hang out and Harriet M. Welsch could take notes on them.

Arlaina,
I'd love to have a copy of your novel when it comes out. Have you ever read Sleepwalking by Meg Wolitzer? 3 college girls are obsessed by 3 dead poets, one of them Plath.

Autodidact 101,
I'm not sure when Bonjour Tristesse came out, but I remember that it was written by a 17 or 18 year old French girl and has a lot of angst. I'd like to read it again.

Arlaina said...

Thanks! I didn't know about Sleepwalking. Can't wait! When BELL JAR SUMMER comes out I'll see what I can do to get you a copy~! xx

jenclair said...

It has been such a long time since I've read these novels. I was about Holden's age when I first read Catcher in the Rye and a few years older when I read The Bell Jar--all in the midst of that teenage angst scene myself.

I liked Franny and Zoe and all the Glass stories much better than Catcher in the Rye, but should re-visit all of them.

Thanks for the comparisons and making me think about these novels, their characters, and their authors again!

Jeane said...

I really enjoyed reading your comparison. I love both these books, but never realized how many similarities they have until you pointed it out!

Miss Moppet said...

Wonderful post Bybee! You've made me want to do what I thought no one could - read The Bell Jar.

Good catch on the piano player.

About it being ahead of its time - I said so too but not nearly as succinctly.

Hannah Stoneham said...

Great post - good detail and really compelling. Like one of your other readers - for me, these books are the ultimate teenage reads - so your comparison is very natural and rigorous. You really make me think in new ways about books that I have read, thank you, Hannah

Care said...

Just one more kick that I must read The Bell Jar! and SOON. I'll come back and pay more attn to this post after.

joemmamas@gmail.com said...

Thanks for sharing your apple crumble with me and you can have my pudding cup...how about a sleepover? Love this post!

Jodi said...

Thank you for posting this! I have read once somewhere that they resemble each other, but not in such a detailed comparison! Really interesting to read!

Samantha! said...

I haven't read Catcher in years, but the second I started reading The Bell Jar I thought of Holden. I just finished reading it and figured I'd do a quick search to see if others thought these two were alike. Thanks for doing this comparison!