Overcoming the Existential Vacuum

The resolution of the problem of death and authenticity in ‘The Catcher in the Rye‘ and ‘The Outsider.

The Catcher in the Rye is emblematic of the existential discomfort of young adulthood. Haunted by the death of his brother Allie, the protagonist, Holden Caulfield, finds himself in deep existential isolation from the rest of society.

It is important to note that Allie’s death acted as a catalyst for Holden’s quest, and achievement, of an authentic existence, defined in existentialist terms. This quest for authenticity is an act in three stages:

  1. his encounter with death,
  2. his encounter with alienation,
  3. and the resolved tension between self, freedom and societal expectations.

The analysis will be considered under the lenses of existential Philosophy; in particular, analysing Holden on the blue print of Albert Camus’ Meursault (protagonist of The Outsider).

In one of the first lines of his seminal work, The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus establishes that suicide is the fundamental question of philosophical enquiry: why should one choose to live in the face of an absurd existence? At the beginning of The Catcher in the Rye, it appears that Holden too finds himself in such a conundrum. Living in a world in which he struggles to form meaningful relationships, and to fixate a true sense of identity, Holden feels this existential weight holding him down. Holden’s preoccupation with death and his alienation are articulated in the rupture between his sense of self and society. Holden’s fragmented sense of self is evident on the narrative style of The Catcher both in its own right, and in comparison to The Outsider.

In The Outsider, Meursault does not provide the reader with any psychological insight or satisfactory narration of the facts. However, the novel is filled with descriptions of Meursault’s physical and mental states, characterised by highly descriptive language. Thus, one of the major existentialist ideas is conveyed through fiction: the world must be primarily understood at the experiential, physical level, not as a cognitive exercise. This is favoured by Camus’ choice of a particular French tense, i.e. the passé composé or passe indéfini. As such, the passe indéfini is characterised by a style that provides a sense of presence and continuance to the narrative arch, shielding past experience from cognitive reconstruction.

Similarly to The Outsider, The Catcher presents selectively descriptive language: throughout the story, Holden fixates his attention on specific moments, the significance of which he either is reluctant to describe or ignores. Such is the case, for example, for the descriptions of the character of Jane Gallagher. Although Holden seems enthusiastic at Stradlater mention of the girl, he decides not to talk with her in the end, hinting at a possible loss of interest. However, numerous references to Jane throughout the book bring forward new interpretative tools through which the reader is able to comprehend her significance. Indeed, she is revealed as one of the focus points of the book.

A significant difference between Meursault’s narration and Holden’s can be found in the latter propensity to fabricate different identities throughout the short narrative span and using them in front of an audience. A clear example of this, for instance, is the episode that takes place on the train with Mrs. Morrow, in which Holden presents himself as Rudolf Schmidt. Throughout the novel, Holden is obsessively reconstructing and manufacturing a new identity in search of one that allows him a place in the adult world. However, it appears evident that this has become a coping mechanism for the protagonist.

Similar to Kierkegaard’s aesthetic stage, Holden tries to focus his hopes, dreams, and desires, in a manufactured identity that would allow him to live in a world without meaning. When Kierkegaard employs the term aesthetic, he is referring to its original meaning of “sense-perception” (from the Latin aisthesis): therefore, the aesthetic man is one who designs their existence in accordance to immediate experience. This is common to both Meursault and Holden when considering their preferred medium of narration: the highly descriptive language employed by the two is a representation of such principle. While it could be argued that at the beginning of the novels, both Meursault and Holden have common traits with Kierkegaard’s aesthetic man who “is immediately who he is”, the tension is yet to be resolved. Kierkegaard himself in fact recognised that authenticity could never be reached through this fragmented, partial sense of self. According to Heidegger, the subjective encounter with death is the key to solve such a tension and to understand the “fundamental problem of living”.

According to Heidegger, death is always present in the ontological structure of every human being, or Dasein (German: da “here”; sein “being”). More specifically, in his reflections on the meaning of existence, Heidegger traces the element of death as a common happenstance shared by this category. Death in such a case is understood in its existential dimension as a factor in every human life, and not as ontic death, the factual termination of one’s life. Through this distinction, Dasein can be understood as inauthentic or authentic being-unto-death. This dichotomy becomes particularly relevant when understanding the evolution of Holden and Meursault’s story.

The death of Maman in The Outsider sanctions the beginning of the narrative arch with the opening sentence “aujourd’hui, maman est morte” (Today, mum died). Death is not a clear starting point in The Catcher, however it is clearly Holden’s main concern. To this dimension there are three identifiable levels of concern:

  1. the death of his brother Allie,
  2. his concern with suicide,
  3. the relation of death and the adult world/ society.

Ultimately, Holden’s concern with death is a catalyst for his quest to authenticity: by realising he is a being-unto-death, he can overcome the subsequent nihilism, and achieve authenticity precisely as a being-unto-death.

Two years after the funeral, Holden appears to be still significantly affected by his brother’s death. This evident trauma, however, has not been entirely cognitively processed: although Holden is aware of his brother’s death, he still needs to be reminded of its factuality, which he is yet to accept. The reader is made aware that Allie’s death had several effects on the way Holden understands the world.

When describing how Allie died, Holden seems to present to the reader a larger issue: if someone as “terrifically intelligent”, the nicest member of the family, could die of such a pointless, arguably undeserved death (i.e. leukaemia), then what is the meaning of life itself. Presented with such an issue, Holden becomes aware of death as an omnipresent factor in human lives. This realisation pervades his existence. This is how Holden begins to think about his own death or disappearance, as in a number of episodes throughout the book, he either thinks that he is going to die, imagines his own funeral, or mentions suicide directly.

Both Holden and Meursault are experiencing what Dr. Frankl theorised as existential vacuum, of which primary symptoms are boredom, isolation, and alienation. Alienation is a symptom of becoming a Heideggerian inauthentic being-unto-death, overcoming said alienation is what brings to authenticity. Holden and Meursault experience the same sense of alienation from society, which in both cases takes the shape of non-conformity, and an inability to connect with others or God.

Non-conformity takes the shape of Holden and Meursault’s perceived immorality or amorality. They both display behaviours that society condemns: Meursault doesn’t cry at his mother’s funeral, Holden partakes in under-age drinking and prostitution. Furthermore, Holden displays a large degree of non-conformity in his writing: he appears to reject traditional forms of writing, and refuses any imposition on the subject matter. Holden’s rejection of traditional or acceptable forms of behaviour is further reinforced by his habit of referring to anyone living up to those standards as a “phoney”.

Meursault and Holden’s shift from existential vacuum to authenticity are centred on their relationships with important people in their life. Meursault shift is exemplified by his ideological reconciliation and understanding of his mother, while Holden’s experience is defined by his relationship with Phoebe (his younger sister), and, by extension, Allie. It could be argued, therefore, that their inability to connect with others is generated by a tension: they cannot connect with people in society because it praises inauthentic lives, and they are yet to be able to connect to those in their lives who are living authentically. This tension shall find its resolution thanks to the characters’ overcoming of alienation and fear of death, and thus reaching authenticity.

To use Heidegger’s vocabulary, Holden understands death as an ontic experience, as the end point of his existence. His fear of death is still understood by the inauthentic being-unto-death. Holden is, in fact, fearful of dying and tries to escape such eventuality in order not to face the death of his brother and, largely, the faith of humanity itself. As such, Meursault is in a similar situation. Although not fearful of death, per se, he is at first reluctant to accept his imprisonment, as he still has the thoughts of a free man (“pensées d’homme libre”). Meursault’s acceptance of death must henceforth be understood in terms of his relationship with his mother, the same way Holden’s with his brother.

When Meursault’s is at the wake of his mother, the director of the retirement home makes him aware that in her last days she had a fiancé, M. Pérez. At first, Meursault appears dubious as to why someone that was aware of their impending death would do such a thing. It isn’t until Meursault is waiting for his own death sentence, that the significance of such a decision appears clear to him: as his mother was about to die, she felt free to live everything (“maman devait s’y sentir libérée et prête à tout revivre”). In such terms, Meursault’s experience must be understood as a metaphor: only once each of us accept death, and the absurdity of life, can one be open to every possibility – to live as the authentic being-unto-death.

Meursault understands this only when faced with the factuality of his own death, however this realisation can take place even without such eventuality, like in The Catcher. The revelatory narrative devise of such a transformation is Phoebe. In the last descriptive scene of the book, Holden looks at her while she is going around in the carousel, and for the first time in the entire book, he appears to be truly happy. A tension that followed the reader from the beginning of the story, is thus relieved. The freedom and possibility of being of his sister, and the responsibility he has for her, makes Holden understand and overcome his fear of death. By becoming aware of Phoebe’s advancement towards death and her freedom, Holden appears to embrace it too: his claim to try to do well at school might be an indication of his renewed commitment to life. Thus, Holden escapes what Heidegger called the inauthentic being-unto-death and reach authenticity.  As such, Holden is able to embrace what Frankl referred to as tragic optimism, the overcoming of the tragic triad of pain, guilt, and death, through accepting it as part of the human condition and striving for the best in view of human potential.

Ultimately, Holden’s search for an existence as authentic being-unto-death was achievable through his confrontation with his brother’s death. As such, a similar movement was highlighted in The Outsider, with Meursault and his relationship with his mother. This analysis considered The Catcher in reference to the blueprint of the existentialist novel The Outsider, meanwhile highlighting existentialist themes of death, alienation or existential vacuum, and authenticity.


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