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Comparing Catcher in the Rye and the Bell Jar

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        Adolescence in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar

and J.D Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye

        Adolescence is one of the most difficult periods of many people’s lives. It is a transition period between one’s childhood to being an adult. Everybody experiences this period differently. Some sail through it with happy memories to last a lifetime but others did not realize that it was going to be very stressful and tough. Esther Greenwood from The Bell Jar and Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye are those of the less fortunate and had bad experiences through their adolescence. Both books are written from the first person’s perspective. This gives us a more personal view, description and observations of their experiences and lets us go through their journey through adolescent with them. Holden and Esther are parallel characters; their stories have been compared with each other multiple times. They have many similar experiences throughout their adolescent and thus similar themes. The Bell Jar has been said to be a feminine version of The Catcher in the Rye. A common theme in The Bell Jar and Catcher in the Rye is the difficulties of growing up. This is exemplified through loss, failure and alienation.

Firstly, a difficulty that both Esther and Holden go through is feeling alienated from their society and rebelling against them. The setting of both stories was in the 1950s America. The society in the 1950s had conventional beliefs and expectations of a woman’s role and identity, which was to get married and have children. Esther was pulled between her desire to write poetry and her other desire to start a family. Her intelligence earned her scholarships, prizes, amazing opportunities and respect, but her classmates mocked her studiousness and only began to show respect when she started dating a handsome and liked boy. Her relationship with Buddy also gained the approval of her mother. Everyone expected her to marry Buddy and this placed pressure on Esther and she began questioning what she really wanted. In her heart, Esther wanted to write poetry, but because this was totally against her society’s belief, she felt very alienated. She commented,

I also remembered Buddy Willard saying in a sinister, knowing way that after I had children I would feel differently, I wouldn't want to write poems any more. So I began to think maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed. (Plath, 81)

Buddy told Esther that when she starts a family, her passion to write poetry would fade. This made Esther very angry and confused about her future and eventually led to her depression. When Esther found out that Buddy spent a summer sleeping with a waitress while dating her but expects Esther to remain a virgin until they get married, she broke up with him. Esther’s desire for sexual experience was disapprove by her society. Esther views her virginity as a burden and realizes that it is the first step towards adulthood. She said,    

Ever since I'd learned about the corruption of Buddy Willard my virginity weighed like a millstone around my neck. It had been of such enormous importance to me for so long that my habit was to defend it at all costs. I had been defending it for five years and I was sick of it. (Plath, 218)

 Esther feels anxiety for her future as she only has two choices, virgin or whore, an obedient married women, or a lonely successful career women. This stressful decision worsens her madness. The bell jar that Esther mentions many times in the book is a form of isolation from society and in that is her madness which distorts her perspective and prevents her from acting normally. Holden also goes through alienation and seems to feel victimized by society throughout the book and says that he feels like he is on “the other side”. He says to Mr.Spencer,

“Game, my ass. Some game. If you get on the side where all the hot-shots are, then it's a game, all right--I'll admit that. But if you get on the other side, where there aren't any hot-shots, then what's a game about it? Nothing. No game,” (Salinger, 8) Holden alienates himself from society as a form of self-protection. Holden's alienation toward the world is what causes unwanted character traits of Holden's. He uses his cynical sense as a form of superiority over others thus making him feel better about himself and forgetting about his own troubles. Holden has trouble interacting with people because he thinks they are “phonies” but it is because he feels overwhelmed communicating with people. It is his isolation from society that makes him think he is above them. Holden’s alienation is the basis of most his suffering. He longs for human contact but the shield that he puts up prevents him from getting close to anyone. Holden draws strength from his alienation but it is also the source of his problems. For instance, Holden wishes to find Jane Gallagher and renew their relationship, but he was too scared to make an effort to reach her. Another reason why Holden feels alienated from his society is his complete rejection to conformity. During postwar America, no one had the nerve to be themselves and unique.  Holden feels that hypocrisy is the biggest problem with society, he also thinks that everything people do is because of their phoniness and that their incentives are rarely pure. He also feels that people could not free themselves of this hypocrisy even if they wanted to. He wonders, “ How would you know you weren’t being a phony? The trouble is, you wouldn’t” (Salinger 172). The fact that every member of society are conformists terrifies Holden. He realizes that your individualism is impossible in his society and just as hard to find who you really are. Holden wears his red hunting cap as a symbol of individuality and desire to stand out from the crowd. Esther and Holden are adolescences who do not quite fit in and feels alienated because of it; it is what caused most of their inner turmoil. They feel strongly about escaping the world that they have been placed in, but they want nothing more than desperately trying to fit in rather than to feel such alienation, to a point where it is almost harmful to themselves.

        Secondly, Holden and Esther both go through loss. It had a negative impact on both characters and affected them terribly. Esther had lost her father at a mere age of nine. Esther's father's death had showed that she was in need of a father figure for love, support and to act as a model for her life, without one, Esther went into depression. Esther stated, “ I felt happier than I had been since I was about nine and running along the hot white beaches with my father the summer before he died” (Plath, 70). Being with her father when she was nine was the last time Esther was truly happy. In addition, her mother did not allow herself or Esther to mourn for her father. She did not cry for him or visit his grave. She also felt that she missed out on the things that her father could have taught her. As a young woman, Esther lacked a father figure. When Esther sat down near her father’s grave, she cried for the first time. She remembered that long ago, her mother had said that it was better him being dead than living his life as a cripple. This gave Esther a reason for her own longing to commit suicide or otherwise be destined to a life of madness. She attempts suicide the day after her visit to her father’s grave. Esther had also lost her self-esteem, which also led to her depression. She said, “I started adding up all the things I couldn’t do. I began with cooking” (Plath, 71). Esther started to think about all the things that she could not do and made a list. She then thought of something that she could do but dismissed it by saying that the era has come to an end. Her idea that she was not capable was obviously not true. She was an intelligent young woman who had many successes in her life, but her low self-esteem and depression hid who she really was. Esther’s losses changed her dramatically and led to her depression and suicide attempts. Holden from The Catcher in the Rye also experienced loss. The death of Allie, Holden’s younger brother was the cause of his inner turmoil. Holden said, “He’s dead now. He got leukemia and died when we were up in Maine, on July 18, 1946. You’d have liked him”(Salinger, 38). Holden had a very tough time accepting Allie’s death; he broke all the windows in his garage with his fist after finding out the news of Allie’s death. He did not just go through pain and grief; he also lost a sense of whom he really was. Holden also talked about how Allie was much more mature for his age then he should be. This is the basis of Holden's fear of growth and change. The more someone grows, the closer to death that person would be and death is the biggest change. Throughout the book, Holden admits how hard it is for him to have a normal conversation. It is difficult for him because if he begins to get close to someone he thinks he will lose them just like how he lost Allie. Allie’s death also made Holden lose his childhood innocence by realizing all the unfairness and hatred in the world. This event changed Holden's positive perspective into a negative one, making him determined to save children from doing the same. When his sister Pheobe asked him what he wanted to do when he grows up, he said, “What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff-I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye” (Salinger, 173). This was also exemplified when Holden did not want to throw the snowball at the snow-covered street.  The snow symbolized purity and Holden’s desire to preserve all the innocence that is left in the world. Holden wishes to protect children from falling out of the innocence of their childhood into the adult world. Both Esther’s and Holden’s losses changed their perspectives of the world and themselves significantly.

Thirdly, both Esther and Holden experiences failure in the academic world and with personal relationships. When Esther came home from New York, she learns of her first academic failure in her life, she has been rejected from the prestigious writing course taught by a world-famous author. Esther  “I think I should tell you right away, she said, and I could see bad news in the set of her neck, "you didn't make that writing course. The air punched out of my stomach” (Plath, 110). Being tremendously successful for all of her academic life, Esther did not know how to handle failure. It was a huge disappointment to Esther and she became depressed after learning the news and proceeded to have a nervous breakdown. She could not read, write, sleep, or eat for twenty-one days. After a bad experience of shock therapy to fix her problems, she attempted suicide. This failure in Esther’s life was definitely a major factor that contributed to her psychological breakdown. Esther also failed the relationship with her boyfriend, Buddy Willard. Esther appreciates Buddy’s near perfection, but once she got to know him, she sees his many flaws. Esther said, "Buddy kissed me again in front of the house steps, and the next fall, when his scholarship to medical school came through, I went there to see him instead of to Yale and it was there I found out that he had fooled me all those years and what a hypocrite he was." (Plath, 58) She says this after finding out that Buddy spent a summer sleeping with a waitress while dating her, and does not apologize. He does not understand Esther’s desire to write poetry and that her passion for poetry will diminish as soon as she becomes a mother. After being in a failed relationship with Buddy, Esther questions her role as a woman and decides to explore her sexuality. Experiencing failure changed Esther’s views on life differently. Holden has also been through many academic and relationship failures. Having being expelled out of four schools for failing classes and lack of initiative. Holden said, “I forgot to tell you about that. They kicked me out. I wasn't supposed to come back after Christmas vacation on account of I was flunking four subjects and not applying myself and all” (Salinger, 4). Because Holden believes he failed to protect Allie from death, he feels the need to not fail others like the way he did to Allie. He watches over Phoebe, Jane and even Mrs. Morrow when Holden sees on the bus. He tries to shield Mrs. Morrow from the truth about his son because he feels that he has failed his parents and that they are ashamed of him. Holden commented, “But I was too afraid my parents would answer, and then they'd find out I was in New York and kicked out of Pencey and all”(Salinger, 68). Esther and Holden both faced failure and had trouble dealing with it.  

Both The Bell Jar and The Catcher in the Rye share the same theme of the difficulties of growing up which was demonstrated through loss, experiencing failure and alienation from society. Esther and Holden’s experiences shaped their views of the world and of themselves.  For Esther and Holden, their experiences had a negative impact. Esther attempted suicide and attends a mental ward. Holden has a negative outlook on society and also got sent to a mental institution. Adolescence is that crucial important stage of life where one develops their first real “sense of self”, it affects and determines the adult they will become. Everyone will go through it differently; Esther and Holden’s adolescence were definitely not from a fairy-tale story.


Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. Queen Square: Faber and Faber, 1963.

Salinger, J.D. The Catcher in the Rye. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1951.

"The Bell Jar." Sparksnotes. 2006. 01 May 2008 <http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/belljar/>.

"The Catcher in the Rye." Sparknotes. 01 May 2008 <http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/catcher/>.

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