Common Themes in Salinger’s works
Introduction: Like every writer, Salinger also tries to give messages to his readers through his works. Thesis statement: Common themes in Salinger’s works are alienation, loss of innocence and death.
A. Some of Salinger’s characters feel isolated because of lack of love
B. Salinger’s some other characters are alienated because they are not connected with others
C. According to the characters, they do not satisfy with the parental love and this need of parental love lays the groundwork for alienation
II. Loss of innocence
A. His characters do not want to lose their innocence in a corrupt and phony world
B. Salinger’s characters become sensitive and nostalgic when they see anything that represents childhood where innocence lies
III. Concept of death
A. He displays the grief and behavior of others after death.
B. Salinger often uses death scenes to accentuate different point of views towards death.
Conclusion – Salinger conveys the theme of isolation, innocent childhood and death in his works. Teenagers in real life can feel themselves connected with these issues, because what Salinger strongly wants to expose is how teenagers feel and he achieves this aim by using mostly young characters.
Common Themes in Salinger’s works
Like every writer, Salinger also tries to give messages to his readers through his works. Hence he mostly uses his characters to speak for his messages. His characters are outsiders because of the real world’s hypocrisy (Kerr 53). Some of them are different than people in the society because of their difference in terms of society’s norms (53). They feel themselves alienated, because they do not have traits that are required to be accepted by the society (53). Children in Salinger’s works hate phoniness and do not want to be adults. They do not want to grow up and want to preserve childhood. They want everything to stay in the same way. Similarly, according to Arthur Heiserman and James E. Miller Jr., the ones that are capable to love in Salinger’s works are children or men affected by a child (qtd. in Bloom 7). They mostly value people who are dead or children or capable of communication and love. Also people, they care for, play major roles on the themes. Thus common themes in Salinger’s works are alienation, loss of innocence and death.
First, some of Salinger’s characters feel isolated because of lack of love. They cannot get the affection that they are longing for. For instance, after Seymour, protagonist of “A Perfect Day for Banana Fish”, is released from army hospital, he cannot adapt to life with his pompous wife Muriel who is not able to love Seymour, as he needs (Thiruvalluvan 2). Even though Seymour gives a German poem book, that he really loves, in order to form a connection with Muriel, she does not even read and care about this book (“A Perfect Day for Bananafish” 22). What she most values are expensive clothing, fashion and magazines (21-22). So she cannot give the love that Seymour seeks to “make him whole” (Gwynn, and Blotner 19). Although a couple must complement each other and metaphorically half of each others, Muriel and Seymour have different interests and do not have any connection that tightly holds their relationship to make them feel as one. However, Seymour Glass is full of love, but he does not have someone to show his love, and this leads him to commit suicide (Levine 94). Furthermore, in “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut”, Eloise does not love her husband and her child after Walt, whom she only loves, died at the war (Salinger “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut” 33). According to Eloise, Walt was “the only boy [she] ever knew that could make [her] laugh”, whereas her husband is a humorless and envious man (33). This leads her to feel hopeless about her recent life and is longing for her life before she married by saying “I was a nice girl, wasn’t I?” (36). It can be inferred that she is unhappy in her recent life and there is a distance between Eloise and her husband. Hence these both characters cannot find anyone that they can value to show their love. This leads them to be literally or psychologically alienated from the life.
Next, Salinger’s some other characters are alienated because they are not connected with others. Specifically, Holden, protagonist of The Catcher in the Rye, has problems about finding people or places that he can relate himself to. Holden’s inability to relate to his classmates or his brother D.B. leads him to lose his way and to feel alienated in a phony world which he does not suit (Shuman 1307). To cover up his loneliness he brands adults, his peers, his siblings as “phonies” (Simmons 27). According to him, teachers, parents and friends are phony. Indeed Holden refers his brother’s job, screenwriter, as “prostitute” (Salinger The Catcher in the Rye 2). Then he expresses his dislike for his last school Pencey Prep’s advertisements which are not true according to him (2). In fact Holden is overwhelmed with the phoniness and says that he pretends to be a “deaf-mute”, so that “[people]’d leave [him] alone” (199). Furthermore, by saying “Whole school except me was there.” he expresses his dislike for his classmates and school and how he chooses to hinder possible communication with them (2). However, he is desperately longing for a “human connection” and tries to call and meet someone in bars on the streets of New York after he leaves Pencey Prep (Stevenson). Also the reason for Salinger’s heroes’ communication problem is phoniness, which represents his anger towards people. Likewise, Charles Kegel in “Incommunicability in Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye” points out Holden’s communication problem: “His problem is one of communication: as a teenager, he simply cannot get through to the adult world which surrounds him: as a sensitive teenager he cannot get through to others of his own age” (qtd. in Stevenson). Moreover, Franny Glass ,college student and protagonist of “Franny”, gets angry with her boyfriend Lane after he talks for a long time about his latest paper on Flaubert and brags about himself and education (Salinger Franny and Zooey 14). During this period, “she found herself looking at Lane as if he were a stranger” (16). Then she starts to question Lane’s loyalty and says that Lane’s friends are useless and predictable (17,25). Consequently she is isolated from his phony and meaningless college friends and her boyfriend and becomes sick of their monotonous conversation.
Later, according to the characters, they do not satisfy with the parental love and this need of parental love lays the groundwork for alienation. For instance, Holden’s parents are absent in providing the affection that he seeks according to him. Therefore he feels different in his family. In fact Holden refers himself “the only dumb one in the family” and this shows how he senses that he is not a part of his family, because he is not intelligent or academically successful (Salinger The Catcher in the Rye 67). Besides, Teddy in “Teddy” is the “underloved child” according to himself (Kaufman 130). Teddy is angry and feels that he does not get enough parental love. Therefore he expresses “They don’t love me and Booper… I mean they don’t seem able to love us just the way we are. They love their reasons for loving us almost as much as they love us and most of the time more.” (Salinger “Teddy” 34). Accordingly, he feels himself isolated from his parents, because he does not think himself as being one of them. To express his loneliness, he recites two lines of a Japanese poem to his friend Nicholson: “Along this road goes no one, this autumn eve” (33). As a result of feeling isolated from his parents, he has no one to talk with. Eventually, these two young characters do not feel that they are valued and cared by adults, and it leads them to become alienated from these adult figures.
Next key theme in Salinger’s works is loss of innocence when his characters do not want to lose their innocence in a corrupt and phony world. So they actually do not accept “initiation into adulthood” also called loss of innocence where teenagers become adults. (Simmons 28). For example, when Holden sees little children playing on the top of the cliff, he wants to be the “catcher in the rye” who catches them, before they fall down off the cliff (Salinger The Catcher in the Rye 173). Therefore he wants to care for the innocence of childhood as a protector that guards innocent children against adult world. During this period of time, his quest happens to be a quest against “adult values” (Thiruvalluvan 6). Even though he simply seeks for “the sincere, the pure, the innocent, the beautiful” as Ihab Hassan refers “simple truth”, he steps into the phony adult world filled with “all kinds of phonies, pretense, social compromise” (6). Hence he treats his sister, Phoebe, as well as other children gently. With this in mind “He is against the world of grown-ups. … He does not want to become grown-up himself.” (6). In fact Holden devotes himself to Phoebe. Although it is risky to sneak into his house because of his parents, he comes to visit only Phoebe late at night (Salinger The Catcher in the Rye 158). Then he open-heartedly speaks with her . Next day in her school, when he waits for Phoebe , he sees “F... you” written on the walls and wants to erase them to protect Phoebe (204). However he cannot erase the one that is written with a knife. Hence he realizes that he cannot protect Phoebe from the severe realities of adult world even though he wants to provide a peaceful place for Phoebe where there is not any trace of adult world.
Another aspect of innocence is that Salinger’s characters become sensitive and nostalgic when they see anything that represents childhood where innocence lies. In particularly, Holden wants to preserve childhood memories about Jane Gallagher, his childhood friend. He keeps talking about the times that Jane and he played checkers and that they spent together in the summer (Salinger The Catcher in the Rye 31-32). Accordingly, Holden really values this childish stuff about Jane and wants those memories about her to stay the same. Even though Jane waits downstairs, he does not want to go down to see her, because he fears that his innocent childhood image of Jane is altered (31). Additionally, Holden expresses his concern and worry about Jane because of her drunken father, when he says “I never saw [Jane’s father] do was booze all the time … And run around the goddam house, naked. With Jane around, and all… She had a lousy childhood” (32). Due to this childhood memory, he feels that he must protect Jane and senses that having a drunken and supposedly abusive father has a negative effect on Jane’s innocence. Furthermore Seymour searches banana fish with a girl named Sybil, who finds him at the beach. After the search is done, Seymour kisses her foot and leaves the beach (Salinger “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” 24-24). Hence Seymour communicates with this girl better than his wife Muriel. Even though he cannot properly communicate with adults, he has his most pleasant conversation and relationship with this little girl. Also according to him, Sybil’s “youth and curious, innocent outlook on the world [is] refreshing in comparison to his shallow, materialistic peers” (Stevenson). When it comes to childhood, these both characters feel protective and touchy and thus realize how adult world is insensitive and cruel. Thus they want to escape from the fact that children inevitably change when they step into adulthood. So remembering or perceiving these kinds of changes in their lives triggers their emotions with nostalgia.
Last major theme in Salinger’s works is concept of death. He displays the grief and behavior of others after death. Mostly he uses deceased siblings to show how death affects the others. To illustrate, Holden tries to deal with his brother Allie’s death, “his childhood tragedy” (Shuman 1315). After Allie’s death and during Holden’s early teenage years, Allie has been Holden’s only role model that he idolizes. So that Holden holds Allie’s baseball mitt and even writes a composition for Stradlater, his roommate at Pencey Prep, about Allie’s mitt (Salinger The Catcher in the Rye 37-38). Hence Holden really values Allies’ baseball mitt, the only object that reminds him of Allie. Moreover, in Glass Family, Franny Glass uses Jesus prayer in the restaurant in order to grasp her brother Seymour’s suicide or to find a way to connect, to communicate with him again (Shuman 1316). On the other hand, Seymour’s brother Buddy Glass thinks that Seymour was best at everything and exceptional (1318). As Kerry McSweeney in “Salinger Revisited” points out that Seymour is “the one person who was always much, much too large to fit on ordinary typewriter paper” according to Buddy in “Seymour: An Introduction” (qtd. in Bloom 53). Thus after their siblings’ death, Salinger’s characters go through a phase where they try to understand their siblings. During this journey, they realize that their dead siblings are the ones that should have been admired and their guide.
Eventually, Salinger often uses death scenes to accentuate different point of views towards death. Specifically, Walt’s death in the war has broken down Eloise’s private life. By mentioning that Walt died, when he wanted to help carrying the packages, Salinger ironically wants to highlight the uselessness of deaths in the war (Salinger “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut” 34). Then her later marriage does not bring her anything, and yet “her life is really empty” (Stevenson). At the end she ponders how death ruined her life so much. With this in mind she states, “I was a nice girl, wasn’t I?” and it shows how unhappy she is with her life and how she is longing for her past (Salinger “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut” 36). Death ruins everything she is satisfied with and Salinger tries to convey the sense that death especially in the war brings nothing but agony and ruin. On the other hand, Teddy underestimates death and declares that he can predict when a person will die (Salinger “Teddy” 38). Thus he says that an empty pool downstairs can cause an accident (38). Ironically, as Nicholson goes downstairs, he hears “all-piercing, sustained” scream from Teddy’s sister Booper who sees Teddy’s fall into the pool (45). This shows how serious death is as Salinger emphasizes. Death comes with screams and it will probably hurt Booper, so much even though they do not get well with. So because death is unpredictable, one must take death serious.
All in all, Salinger conveys the theme of isolation, innocent childhood and death in his works. Teenagers and adults in Salinger’s works are estranged from their societies, husbands, wives, families and friends. As Donald Barr states that Salinger deals with feelings of loneliness and alienation (Wilson 2446). Likewise teenagers in real life can feel themselves connected with these issues, because what Salinger strongly wants to expose is how teenagers feel and he achieves this aim by using mostly young characters. Therefore teenagers, who go through transition from childhood to adulthood, are the ones that can thoroughly fathom what Salinger tells about. So Salinger’s books can be seen as reflection of earlier ages such as of adolescences and of children.
- Quote paper
- Boğaç Aybey (Author), 2012, Alienation, Loss, and Death. Common Themes in J. D. Salinger’s works, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/342144