The Catcher in the Rye examines the fine line between everyday teenage angst and serious depression or unhappiness. Throughout the novel, Holden refers to himself as a “madman,” calls himself crazy, and frequently declares that he is depressed. At first, these statements seem somewhat trivial, since Holden tends to exaggerate. In addition, his claims about how much he dislikes his life sometimes seem rather undeserved, since he’s actually quite privileged. After all, he comes from a wealthy family, has a loving sister, and has no shortage of opportunity, so it’s sometimes hard to understand what he has to be upset about. As the novel progresses, though, the depths of his discontent become all the more apparent, and his persistent ruminations about death and suicide begin to indicate that he’s dealing with emotions that are more troubling than the average dissatisfaction that most adolescents experience. By scrutinizing the difference between ordinary discontent and true depression, then, Salinger gives an account of the delicate nature of mental health, making it clear that unhappiness exists on a complex, nuanced spectrum, and that it’s possible to be depressed even while leading a seemingly fortunate life.
Right away, Holden gives readers the impression that he’s a cynical teenager who has a bitter overall outlook on life. He begins his story by saying, “If you really want to hear about it,” a phrase that underscores his sarcastic, sneering attitude. With this mentality, he frames the story he’s about to tell as nothing more than a crazy sequence of events, something to be related because it’s entertaining in a morbidly fascinating way. Strangely enough, this trivializes his entire account, allowing him to portray his unhappiness as something casual instead of treating it seriously. Asserting that he’s not going to talk much about his personal history, he decides to narrate “this madman stuff that happened” to him. By calling the content of his story—which readers soon learn is rather depressing—“madman stuff,” Holden admits that what happened to him was rather out of control, but he does so in a hyperbolic way, thereby diminishing its impact. Instead of acknowledging the fact that he is currently telling this story from an unidentified rest home where he’s receiving psychoanalysis (which he reveals at the end of the novel), he begins his tale as if it’s little more than a wild anecdote one might tell a group of friends to make them laugh. In doing so, he presents himself as an average teenager dealing with everyday problems.
One of the first indications that Holden’s internal emotional world is more turbulent than he lets on comes when he tells the story of Allie’s death. Holden was 13 when Allie died, and his response to his brother’s death was quite severe—upon learning that Allie died, he spent the night in the garage, where he punched out all the windows with his bare hand. Of course, it makes sense that he would be beside himself, but this strong reaction is worth noting because it suggests he has trouble dealing with difficult emotions. More importantly, his parents wanted to have him psychoanalyzed in the aftermath of this event, but for some reason they seem to have decided against this. This, in turn, means that Holden has most likely never fully processed the difficult feelings that arose after Allie’s death.
Having never properly dealt with his feelings about Allie’s death, Holden finds himself thinking about his brother in moments of pronounced loneliness. Throughout his three-day solo stint in New York City, he frequently experiences feelings of depression and isolation, and during one of these moments he even speaks out loud to Allie, addressing his deceased younger brother simply to make himself feel less alone. As he does so, it becomes increasingly clear that the nature of his discontent isn’t simply related to the typical teenage angst he experiences, but to something more profound—namely, his unaddressed feelings of grief regarding Allie’s death.
What is perhaps most alarming about Holden’s depression is that it tends to lead him to suicidal thoughts. For instance, shortly after speaking out loud to Allie, he remarks, “What I really felt like, though, was committing suicide.” Even if he doesn’t follow through with this, the mere fact that his feelings of depression and grief eventually inspire this thought is troubling, especially since he makes multiple comments like this one. Although it’s true that it’s common for teenagers (and, in fact, all people) to feel depressed or upset, not everyone lingers on thoughts of death and suicide the way Holden does. In fact, he even seems to fantasize about suicide, which is a troubling sign because it underlines just how fixated he is on the idea that death might be a way to solve his problems. And yet, he doesn’t attempt suicide in the novel. This creates a sense of ambiguity, inviting readers to consider the nature of Holden’s depression—it’s unclear whether he will someday act on his dark thoughts and actually kill himself. However, it is clear that Holden struggles with both ordinary and more severe forms of unhappiness, since some of his discontent resembles the everyday angst most people experience at some point in their lives, whereas other forms of his unhappiness have to do with his unprocessed grief. By bringing this dynamic to light, Salinger considers the many nuances of depression, ultimately implying that certain kinds of discontent ought to be addressed even if unhappiness is an unavoidable and universal part of life.