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A Psychological Look at "The Catcher in the Rye" by J.D. Salinger

Updated on April 23, 2012

Developmental Essay

There are two different types of developmental theories that I will cover in regards to Holden, in the book The Catcher in the Rye. The first is Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. The second is Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development. Another developmental theory is Kohlberg’s stages of moral development, which I will not be covering in this paper. I will examine the various behaviors, thoughts, and feelings that Holden has throughout the book.

Holden is a very hard person to figure out and analyze. Throughout the whole book, Holden constantly changes his mind about things and has various conflicting thoughts. The book is written in a stream-of-consciousness style of writing, so it really does show how a real person’s mind thinks and how it relates to the different types of developmental theories. By using these developmental theories, I can try to explain why Holden does or doesn’t think in certain ways.

Piaget’s theory of cognitive development has four main periods in the development of thought structures. They are the sensorimotor stage, the preoperational stage, the concrete operational stage, and the formal operational stage. These periods are said to be reached by certain ages. At these precise ages, a person must move on to the next stage of development. Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development have eight different stages. They are as follows: Hope: Trust vs. Mistrust, Will: Autonomy vs. Shame & Doubt, Purpose: Initiative vs. Guilt, Competence: Industry vs. Inferiority, Fidelity: Identity vs. Role Confusion, Love: Intimacy vs. Isolation, Care: Generativity vs. Stagnation, and Wisdom: Ego Integrity vs. Despair. Along with these stages there are guidelines for the ages for when each of these stages are supposed to happen. The next stages build on the completion of earlier stages, so skipping a stage can cause complications with the future stages. Both of these developmental theories shows ways for a human to develop, and both can be used to explain Holden through looking at his behaviors, thoughts, and feelings.

In the beginning of the book, Holden is getting kicked out of his current school, Pencey Prep. He has already failed out of three other schools besides Pencey, and he is not looking forward to telling his parents he has just failed out of the fourth school they have paid for. In regards to Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, Holden would be in the fourth stage, the formal operational stage. Piaget says that in this stage, people devise plans to solve problems, and in this situation, that is exactly what Holden is trying to do with his parents and getting kicked out of Pencey Prep. In this stage, people compare different situations that might happen and from that, they decide what path to choose. Holden is doing this when deciding what to do regarding Pencey Prep and his future.

In regards to Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development, Holden would be in the fifth stage, Fidelity: Identity vs. Role Confusion. The main question that a person faces in this stage is “Who am I and where am I going?” Holden faces a challenge of finding an identity that he can call his own. Getting kicked out of Pencey doesn’t help his cause at all; instead, it creates problems with how he is thinking and where he will go with his life. Holden starts to doubt whether he should be going to school and if he should even go back to his parent’s house. This type of doubtfulness was coined by Erikson as the “Identity Crisis”. The identity crisis marks the change from the relatively simple thinking of childhood to the more complex thoughts in adulthood. From reading the book, it doesn’t seem like Holden has completely reached the end of his identity crisis. He has very compulsive thinking and sometimes his thought process doesn’t make any sense. Nevertheless, Holden is currently being faced with his specific “Identity Crisis”.

While Holden is trying to figure out what he is going to do with his parents, he ends up getting into a fight with his roommate, Stradlater. The cause of this fight is the fact that Stradlater goes on a date with a childhood friend of Holden’s, Jane Gallagher. Holden wants to know about what happened on the date, but Stradlater won’t tell him anything. Holden gets mad at Stradlater and starts to insult him. Stradlater doesn’t really like being insulted much and decides that it was time for Holden to be quiet. They get in a small tussle, and this shows the immaturity of Holden. It seems that Holden doesn’t think this situation through at all and in regards to Piaget’s theory of cognitive development it seems that Holden has dropped down to the third stage, the concrete operational stage. In this stage, Holden would only be able to think things through concretely and not abstractly, like thinking about what would happen if he continues to insult Stradlater. This is puzzling because Holden earlier in the book was in the formal operational stage when deciding what to do with his parents and telling them about Pencey Prep. Knowing this, I can say that it is possible to change stages during different situations.

In Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development, it seems that Holden is in the third stage, Purpose: Initiative vs. Guilt. According to Erikson’s stages, this stage involves risk taking and aggressive behaviors. This might explain why Holden continues to pester Stradlater instead of calming down and letting the situation pass. This doesn’t completely explain why Holden has dropped so many stages from the situation earlier to this new situation. The fact that Holden does change from the fifth down to the third stage shows and explains that he seems to have random thoughts and can become angered or annoyed quite easily. This will become a frequent point that is made throughout the book as Holden continues to make decisions, some of them being rash and hasty.

After Holden’s fight with Stradlater, he decides to leave Pencey Prep early seeing as he had no other people there he wanted to be around and he had already been kicked out. Holden lives in Manhattan so he takes a train into New York City and decides to live in a hotel for a few days before the school break begins. This decision seems a little bit under thought and it can maybe be explained by Piaget’s theory of cognitive development or Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development. With this decision, Holden seems to be in the formal operational stage for Piaget and the Fidelity: Identity vs. Role Confusion stage for Erikson. He seems to have thought his decision through enough that he knows where he is going and how he is going to live for the next few days, even if he doesn’t have every little detail planned out. This shows how from the last scene he has at least grown enough to think things through more than just on a split second reaction.

While in New York City, Holden goes through a couple of nights of being depressed and going to different bars and clubs. Holden calls up some old friends and people he used to know, but he can’t seem to connect with any of them. Holden easily becomes annoyed with all of these people and he sees everything as phony. In regards to Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, Holden seems to be in the formal operational stage due to his changes in social behavior. Holden is drunk a lot and is quite depressed these last few nights, and he has changes in his social outlook. He seems to think of himself as someone who is useless to the world, yet he still wants to accomplish something.

In regards to Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development, Holden would be in the Fidelity: Identity vs. Role Confusion stage. This stage would explain his differing opinions on social matters due to the “Identity Crisis.” Holden is having trouble finding himself after being alone and depressed. He can’t seem to have any relationships with any of the people that he thought he once knew. He is trying to figure out what he wants to do with his life once he is able to get back home and relax a little. He doesn’t seem to like the stressfulness that he has brought upon himself, but he does know that he needs to deal with it.

Instead of dealing with his problems alone, Holden decides to go visit his sister Phoebe in his parent’s apartment. He does realize that he could get caught, but luckily for him, his parents aren’t home yet. Phoebe does figure out that he got kicked out of school and is disappointed in him, but Holden does make Phoebe promise not to tell their parents about it. Holden is now staying in the formal operational stage of Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. This shows how throughout the book, Holden is stabilizing his behaviors, thoughts, and feelings. He is also in the Fidelity: Identity vs. Role Confusion stage of Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development. This has become the norm for him as well. Holden wants to find out what his life is going to bring him, but in his current situation that is difficult and by seeing Phoebe, he is comforted a little bit. This comfort seems to calm him down, and from now on, his thoughts seem to be a little bit more organized and not so rushed or not thought out.

Ultimately, Holden decides to stay at home. He doesn’t want to abandon Phoebe alone with his parents and he knows that nothing good will come if he runs or stays away from home. This shows how he has grown in his thought processes. He finally starts looking hypothetically into the future about what might happen if he does one thing versus another. Holden has an interesting mindset throughout the book, but towards the end he seems to be optimistic about what he can do with his life. He decided to go back to school after the summer break and he is looking forward to improving his studies, thus improving his life. This shows a true change in all of his behaviors, thoughts, and feelings from a depressed, scatter-brained personality to an optimistic and hopeful one in the end.


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