Bachelor Thesis, 2008
41 Pages, Grade: 1
2. The Catcher in the Rye and Less Than Zero as Novels of Adolescence
2.1 The Novel of Adolescence
2.2 The Catcher in the Rye and the Novel of Adolescence
2.3 Less Than Zero and the Novel of Adolescence
3. Initiation in Salinger and Ellis
3.1 The Catcher in the Rye: An “Initiationsreiseroman”
3.2 Less Than Zero: A Deconstruction of the “Initiationsreiseroman”?
4. Symbols, Motifs and Themes of Adolescence
4.1 Symbols and Verbal Iterations
4.2 Family, Friends and Tutors
4.3 Childhood, Innocence and Change
4.4 Communication and Isolation.
4.5 The Media and Consumerism
5. The Dimension of Social Criticism
6. The Protagonists: Epiphanies, Progress and Outlook.
American Literature thematizing youth, adolescence and initiation draws on a long tradition reaching back to the 18th century, including writers like Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Henry James and William Faulkner.1 After the Second World War, the American novel of adolescence flourished again in a period that also gave birth to the genre's arguably most prominent representative:
When J.D. Salinger's novel The Catcher in the Rye first entered the American book market in 1951, its critical reception could not have diverged more. Salinger's first novel, after publishing a number of short stories in the New Yorker, was mostly attacked for its extensive use of colloquial language. Initial reviews ranged from “an unusual brilliant first novel”2to “wholly repellent in its mingled vulgarity [...] and sly perversion”3.
In 1985, thirty-four years later, Less Than Zero , the first novel of Bennington College student Bret Easton Ellis, was published and also received widely mixed criticism. While Interview Magazine called his debut “startling and hypnotic”4 , Paul Gray wrote in an article for Time Magazine that the novel “offers little more than its title promises”5 , referring to its lack of depth and fully developed characters.
Both novels, unified by strongly diverting criticism, depict a formative phase in their protagonists' adolescence. Less Than Zero's eighteen-year-old narrator Clay, as well as The Catcher in the Rye's sixteen-year-old protagonist Holden are both on a quest searching for their identity and respective place in society. Despite of many parallels and analogies in the novels, however, Less Than Zero and The Catcher in the Rye are far from being similar. The differences in tone, form and especially in characterization of their protagonists are great and far-reaching.
This paper's intention is not to enforce analogies, which would certainly be inappropriate, but rather to discuss the theme and the presentation of adolescence in two different, and yet so similar works of fiction and their respective presentations of society.
The first part of this work will lay the theoretical foundations and discuss the genre of the novel of adolescence in respect to the two novels under investigation.
Another chapter will then go further into the question of genre specifications and analyze both works for characteristics of the novel of initiation, and particularly the “Initiationsreiseroman”.
After covering the theoretical basics, the second part of this paper intends to concentrate on detecting parallels in the themes and presentations of adolescence and initiation in both works. Since social criticism is always a central genre-specific characteristic of the novel of adolescence6, the next part will briefly discuss this issue in respect to The Catcher in the Rye as well as Less Than Zero and point to a possible interpretation of a diachronic development of American society that the two novels delineate. Subsequently, the focus will be shifted to the final chapters of both novels and center upon questions concerning epiphanies, progress and outlook for the respective protagonist.
Eventually, this paper intends to give a far reaching picture of the presentation of adolescence in two novels from very different backgrounds, that, in all their diversity, are so astoundingly similar.
The central characteristic of a novel of adolescence is certainly the age of the protagonist, which usually ranges between twelve and twenty-five years of age7. Apart from this, there are other attributes that qualify a novel as a member of the genre. This chapter will focus on the central themes and structures of the novel of adolescence and attempt to identify these in The Catcher in the Rye as well as Less Than Zero, to evaluate whether, and in how far, they are typical representatives of the genre.
Child and youth psychiatrist Helmut Remschmidt defines the period of adolescence as “die psychologische Bewältigung der körperlichen und sexuellen Reifung”8. This process is also the central theme of the novel of adolescence, which draws particular
attention to the processes of individualization, initiation and psychological development. The term 'novel of adolescence' predominantly refers to the more recent development of the genre in the 20th century, while its roots reach back as far as the 18thcentury9 .
One distinctive feature of novels about adolescence is what Kenneth Millard calls “a close critical focus on the dramatization of that 'innocence' which childhood and adolescence are often believed to exemplify”10. This focus on innocence, and especially the loss of it during the process of maturation, is an essential element of the genre.
The novel of adolescence thematizes the protagonist's quest for identity and a place in society by confronting him with a number of critical experiences of initiation. Influenced by psychoanalysis, the novel of adolescence is mostly associated with upper-class, male protagonists11 while the two novels under investigation constitute no exception to this observation. Other central themes and structures of the genre include the protagonist's detachment from his family and the development of an individual value system. While the focus is on the psychological development of the protagonist, the usually episodic external plot often remains underdeveloped12 .
Another important characteristic of the novel of adolescence is its value as a work of social criticism, because of, as Millard formulates it, “the ways in which they [adolescents] are at the forefront of social change, even while they are simultaneously the products of an adult social culture that shapes them”13. This characteristic, as well as the protagonist's opposing position to the society that he lives in, make works of this genre to an optimal platform for social criticism. Steur even considers the genre to be a potential mirror of American society and self- conception14.
The target of the developmental processes that are at the center of the novel of adolescence is the adolescent's initiation to adult society and the development of intellectual and social competence, as well as a conformable value system15. The
adolescent “should 'grow up', accept the world for what it is, and live in it”16 . These processes are, however, not completed at the end. The novel only outlines a fraction of the development process, which is “necessarily incomplete”17 when the novel reaches its end. The protagonist then, though often disenchanted, tentatively faces his future18 .
The novel of adolescence is, especially for the United States of America, a genre of value and tradition, since many analogies can be found to the history and the original conception of the nation. Kenneth Millard draws the comparison of “America [as] the rebellous teenager, impatient with the authority of its European parents and eager to create its own character”19 .
J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye takes place in the 1950s, a time which many critics consider to be “America's own 'coming of age' [...] following World War II”20 . The plot of the novel deals with the experiences of its sixteen-year-old narrating protagonist Holden Caulfield, who leaves the setting of his prep-school shortly before his repulsion, and strays through post-war New York, unwilling to return to his parents' home. Narrated in retrospective from a health institution in California, the sensitive, romantic and often cynical protagonist reports the reader about his quest through his hometown, where Holden “encounters pompous hypocrisy, ignorance, indifference, moral corruption, sexual perversion, and -pervading all- 'phoniness'”21 . During the plot, Holden extensively criticizes the phoniness and materialism of the society he observes and sometimes participates in. The novel has often been characterized as a “defense of innocence in conflict with an amoral world”22 .
The journey through New York and the events that Holden witnesses, illustrate a number of experiences of maturation and initiation to the society that he so much despises and yet sometimes represents himself. With the focus on the internal plot,
The Catcher in the Rye thematizes innocence, recurringly impersonated by little children or nuns, and the loss of it, as well as Holden's struggle for individuality. The typical upper-class male narrator reports on a perverted, corrupt society and gives the novel also a distinctive dimension of social criticism.
Characteristically for the genre, the processes like Holden's search for identity and the acquisition of a conformable value system, are not completed in the end. Merely the impulse for the protagonist's development and maturation is covered, but there are signs, which this paper will deal with in greater detail further down, that Holden Caulfield might have initiated his entrance to adult society. Although the ending is kept open, Holden might have come to terms with the world and the society he lives in.
Exhibiting all major characteristics of a novel of adolescence presented in the previous section, The Catcher in the Rye is, also throughout literature, considered to constitute the “Orientierungsmuster des modernen Adoleszenzromanes”23 .
Like The Catcher in the Rye , Less Than Zero is narrated retrospectively by its upper- class male protagonist and also features an episodic plot which consists of mostly one-page chapters. Midway through the 1980s, eighteen-year-old narrator Clay visits his hometown Los Angeles after four months at college. During the four weeks of his stay, Clay reestablishes contact with his old clique and experiences an ever-repeating journey of parties, drug-abuse, random sexual encounters, and constant and omnipresent stream of tv, video games and movies. As this “ruthless pursuit of pleasure24 ” quickly escalates into incidents of rape and screenings of “snuff movies”, and as Clay watches his former best friend Julian turn into a heroin-using prostitute, he more and more feels the need to withdraw from the city and his peers, although he remains alarmingly passive.
In Less Than Zero , Bret Easton Ellis depicts the directionless life of the supersaturated children of Hollywood magnates, creating an entropic25 atmosphere of complete nothingness. At the end of his visit, Clay leaves Los Angeles and returns to his College in New Hampshire.
Unlike Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye , Clay fails to be a fully sympathetic and likeable hero. This is mostly due to the fact that he remains too passive and too static to completely convince the reader of a change in personality and a positively directed development. Although he condemns the behavior of his friends, he unabatingly keeps seeing them. However, also in this novel, there are signs that might point to the adoption of a value system that is more mature and to a possible new life in New Hampshire. Although decisively less optimistic than The Catcher in the Rye , the ending of Less Than Zero also covers only the beginning of a hypothetical initiation- and maturation process.
Eventhough “the novel refrains from any evaluative commentary”26 , the value of Less Than Zer o as a novel critical of society is undeniable. Another aspect typical of novels of adolescence is also Clay's detachment from his family. Since his family is practically absent in the novel, Clay detaches himself from his surrogate family, namely his clique. The critical and potentially formative experiences during his stay in Los Angeles constitute decisive experiences with initiating character. Clay's search for identity and a place in society dominates the entire plot, as he feels more and more alienated from his childhood friends. Not wanting to belong to the corrupt and perverted society of Ellis' vision of Los Angeles, Clay's progress is minimal, but yet imaginable at the end of the novel.
Both novels, The Catcher in the Rye as well as Less Than Zero are clear representatives of the novel of adolescence with sometimes similar, and sometimes diverting continuity in literary tradition.
This chapter intends to further specify the characteristics of The Catcher in the Rye and Less Than Zero on the basis of the genre of the “Initiationsreiseroman” as covered in Freese.27 The “Initiationsreiseroman” belongs to the main group of the novels of adolescence, and is a further specification of the novel of initiation. Novels of initiation focus on a child's or adolescent's initiation into a new phase of life or a new personality. This initiation is forced on the protagonist by the encounters and experiences he makes throughout the plot.
One aspect which is distinctive for novels of initiation is, as Freese argues, “Die Entdeckung der Existenz des Bösen”28 . This aspect denotes the protagonist's painful realization of the existence of evil in the world, which presents one important step towards his or her initiation. As related to The Catcher in the Rye , this process is certainly described by Holden's journey through New York in which he experiences sexual perversion, apathy and where he is deceived by the lift boy and the prostitute. In Less Than Zero , the existence of evil is represented even more obvious. Clay's encounters with almost ultimate displays of meaningless violence and evil dominate his journey through the moral wasteland of Los Angeles. Although his reactions to these encounters remain admittedly weak, the experiences have an increasing effect on Clay and his impatience to leave the city. All these encounters constitute steps in
Holden's and Clay's initiation processes.
1 Cf. Peter Freese, Die Initiationsreise (Tübingen: Stauffenburg, 1998) 84ff.
2 Mark Silverberg, "'You Must Change Your Life': Formative Responses to The Catcher in the Rye, " The Catcher in the Rye: New Essays, ed. J.P Steed (New York: Peter Lang, 2002) 9.
3 Eberhard Alsen, A Reader's Guide to J.D. Salinger (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002) 54.
4 Praise in Bret Easton Ellis, Less Than Zero (New York: Vintage, 1998) 1.
5 Horst Steur, Der Schein und das Nichts (Essen: Die Blaue Eule, 1995) 14f.
6 Cf. Annette Wagner, Postmoderne im Adoleszenzroman der Gegenwart (Frankfurt a.M: PeterLang, 2007) 48f.
7 Cf. Helmut Remschmidt, Adoleszenz (Stuttgart/New York: Georg Thieme, 1992): 92f, as cited in Wagner, Postmoderne im Adoleszenzroman der Gegenwart, 26.
8 Remschmidt, Adoleszenz: Entwicklung und Entwicklungskrisen im Jugendalter, 2, as cited in Wagner, Postmoderne im Adoleszenzroman der Gegenwart, 24.
9 Cf. Wagner, Postmoderne im Adoleszenzroman der Gegenwart, 23.
10 Kenneth Millard, Coming of Age in Contemporary American Fiction (Edingburgh: Edingburgh University Press, 2007) 5.
11 Cf. Wagner, Postmoderne im Adoleszenzroman der Gegenwart, 35.
12 Cf. Wagner, Postmoderne im Adoleszenzroman der Gegenwart, 47.
13 Millard, Coming of Age in Contemporary American Fiction, 1.
14 Cf. Steur, Der Schein und das Nichts, 9 .
15 Cf. Klaus Hurrelmann, ed, Lebensphase Jugend (Weinheim/München: Juventa, 1999), as cited in Wagner, Postmoderne im Adoleszenzroman der Gegenwart, 30.
16 Bernard Kinnick, "Holden Caulfield: Adolescents' Enduring Model," High School Journal 53:8 (1970): 440-443, as cited in Silverberg, "'You Must Change Your Life'", 21.
17 Millard, Coming of Age in Contemporary American Fiction, 5.
18 Cf. Wagner, Postmoderne im Adoleszenzroman der Gegenwart, 78.
19 Millard, Coming of Age in Contemporary American Fiction, 5.
20 Matt Evertson, "Love, Loss and Growing Up in J.D. Salinger and Cormac McCarthy," The Catcher in the Rye: New Essays, e d. J.P Steed (New York: Peter Lang, 2002) 102.
21 Charles Kaplan, "Holden and Huck: The Odysseys of Youth," Studies in J.D. Salinger: Reviews, Essays and Critiques, eds. Marvin Laser and Norman Fruman (New York: Odyssey, 1963) 36.
22 Anne Marple, "Salinger's Oasis of Innocence," Studies in J.D. Salinger: Reviews, Essays and Critiques, eds. Marvin Laser and Norman Fruman (New York: Odyssey, 1963) 243.
23 Wagner, Postmoderne im Adoleszenzroman der Gegenwart, 80.
24 Peter Freese, "Bret Easton Ellis, Less Than Zero : Entropy in the 'MTV Novel'?" Approaches to American, Canadian and British Fiction , ed.Reingard M. Nischik and Barbara Korte (Würzburg: Könighausen & Neumann, 1990) 77.
25 Cf. Peter Freese, From Apocalypse to Entropy and Beyond (Essen: Die Blaue Eule, 1997) 455.
26 Günter Leypoldt, Casual Silences (Trier: WVT, 2001) 277.
27 Cf. Freese, Die Initiationsreise .
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