To what extent can society be blamed for the isolation in the lives of the protagonists of J.D Salingers The Catcher in the Rye and Albert Camuss The Stranger.
To what extent can society be blamed for the isolation in the lives of the protagonists of J.D Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and Albert Camus’s The Stranger.
Word Count: 4,283 words.
People who dare to make a unique stand, people who don’t fit into the social rules and norms of the world, are rejected by the circle of Society. Society allows those who fit comfortably into its circle, obeys the regulations it creates and follows what everyone else in the group does. Being outside this circle made by Society is not only a challenge, it has become nearly impossible to do so all these years. As time passes by, society narrows its thoughts even more, and the space of the group descends with time, and those outside the circle, are the ones who remain isolated.
In J.D Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and Albert Camus’ The Stranger, the protagonists, Holden and Mersault chose not to follow what society had destined for them, and followed their own route. When this route betrays them, and society pushes them into further isolation and despair, they realize the importance of being accepted in the circle of society.
I would like to explore as to what extent society can really be blamed for isolating these characters, and whether it is society’s fault or the individual who suffers in adjusting with the way the world works, and to reflect upon the conflict between the individual and society.
The Protagonist’s Individual Isolation___________________Page 6
Society’s Relationship with the Protagonists______________Page 7
Symbols and Metaphors to portray Isolation______________Page 10
Isolation is the state of being alone and not being surrounded by anybody. In a world consisting of six billion human beings, it is impossible for someone to spend their life devoid of people around them. Someone could be sitting all alone in an empty room, and yet not enjoy loneliness and isolation, and there could be someone struggling with millions of people around him, and yet could suffer an isolated life. Such is the rule of isolation. Physical detachment does not define isolation, as the isolated are detached from the three main functions of a human being: the heart, the mind and the soul. Isolation brings along sorrow to some beings and relief to others. Nobody can define isolation as either a positive or a negative feeling, as there are some who frantically pursue isolation and some who rapidly veer away from it.
It is as good or as bad as not accepting the norms of the world, not following the tide that the others create and not feeling comfortable in other people’s comfort. It is about the desire to create something that stands out of everything, yet something that stands completely true to the person itself. The troubled souls are those who isolate themselves from their problems, the circumstances and the attached sorrow that comes with it. They conveniently decide not to embrace reality and delve into fantasy and illusion in pursuit of happiness, acceptance and satisfaction.
Some people enjoy embracing other people, combining themselves with their pain, celebrating their sorrows with other people around them and slowly fanning their untouched insecurities and inner fears and surrounding themselves with as many people possible. Whether or not, either way cannot be termed right in its approach, as it destroys and disrupts the usual way of living as manifested by a stronger power called God. Anything done in extremity or out of necessity or forcefulness will disrupt the usual way of living. The stronger power called God wants everyone to live life according to the wide boundaries he has set. Society wishes everyone to live according to the narrow boundaries it has set. Society diminishes natural boundaries by a great distance, and humans are supposed to live and die in that cubicle.
The protagonists in ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ and ‘The Stanger’, being Holden Caulfield and Mersault respectively, have chosen to cross those boundaries by a great distance, and thus, have isolated themselves from the world.
In J.D Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, the protagonist Holden Caulfield is a lonely teenager studying at a prestigious school in the United States of America, and it is his hesitance of accepting the fact that children eventually grow up and with time, and that immaturity leads to maturity, which pushes him into isolation. He isolates himself from the world of adults and primarily remembers them for their negative qualities. While indulging in conversation with adults, he constantly seems to digress away from the topic or veer into talking about irrelevant and unimportant details about them, and this proves the disinterest that lies within him for the older generation. His attachment with people who aren’t with him anymore also states the fact that he values what is lost and doesn’t pay much importance to what he actually possesses. His insecurity is proven by his obsession for constant movement and not settling down in a certain fixed place. He also wishes how he could sync fantasy and reality together, and detach himself from the usual norms of society. It is his obstinacy to embrace the absurdity of reality and dreams of a living life as a recluse.
Whereas, in Albert Camus’s The Stranger, the protagonist Mersault is an existential and isolated character who is affected by none of his surroundings, however extreme they may be, and doesn’t wish to delve into thoughts or express his opinions for any reason. He merely suffices everything with slight nods and mono syllabic responses and thus, can be termed impassive Humans mostly function carelessly to the meaninglessness and absurdity of their condition. To the contrary, sometimes, some people go through an awakening and realization that life is purposeless.
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At extreme circumstances like his own mother’s death, Mersault is expected to react with awe and grief, but he remains unaffected by it. On his professional front, when he is offered a job in Paris, he refuses to change locations as he doesn’t care about where he works, and this also proves that not only is he a recluse, but also apathetic and remains quiet and content with what he possesses. The people and characters around him do not penetrate his consciousness, even though one of them expresses her love for him, it still remains unaffected. Once he is sent to jail, he relies on prison interrogations for human contact, and this clearly portrays the isolation that has been lying within him all throughout his life.
The Protagonist’s Individual Isolation
The difference in the isolation and solitude that Holden Caulfield and Mersault possess is that Holden yearns to escape reality and venture into fantasy, whereas Mersault is satisfied with the absurdity of life and remains isolated firmly with his own existence, refusing to get affected by anything or anyone, and I would like to argue that as stated by Eric Lomazoff that
“Caulfield’s self-destruction over a period of days forces one to contemplate society's attitude toward the human condition. Salinger's portrayal of Holden, which includes incidents of depression, nervous breakdown, impulsive spending, sexual exploration, vulgarity, and other erratic behavior, have all attributed to the controversial nature of the novel”
I infer that though society has it’s harsh ways of surviving and people have their unusual way of living in society, and it is indeed society and the people in it that Caulfield is escaping from, Caulfield is adamant not to give into the norms of society and conform to its rules, and thus has been isolated and been pushed towards disillusionment. Society does not make an attempt to let Holden redeem its faith in the people and their behavior around him, and gradually, he is pushed further away from the regular norms of living.
I would like to argue that it is not completely ‘society’s attitude towards human condition’ that allows him to slip into his state of insanity, but his hesitance and fear of conforming to the way the cruel society works, and as renowned existentialist Jean Paul Sartre states
“The absurd man will not commit suicide; he wants to live, without relinquishing any of his certainty, without a future, without hope, without illusions ... and without resignation either. He stares at death with passionate attention and this fascination liberates him. He experiences the "divine irresponsibility" of the condemned man.”
I would also like to infer with provided evidence that I agree with his statement, and it aptly defines the character of Mersault and the isolation and loneliness he is suffering, and how it is not entirely the society that pushes him into solitude, but his attitude towards himself and the style of life he wishes to embrace is also the key factor for his loneliness.
Society and its relationship with the Protagonists
As stated by Wikipedia, A society or a human society is a group of people related to each other through persistent relations such as social status, roles and social networks. Human societies are characterized by patterns of relationships between individuals sharing a distinctive culture and institutions. Without an article, the term refers either to the entirety of humanity or a contextually specific subset.
Society includes all kinds of people. People you wish to meet, people you not wish to meet and people you wish you never meet again. But such is society, and people who do not conform to the norms are the ones who are isolated, segregated and separated from those who follow these norms. Holden claims not to be fond of The Holy Bible, even though he is fond of Jesus, despite terming himself as an atheist. If we study the Bible, it states that
“Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”
It seems as if Holden has indeed read The Bible before, as he obviously talks about his dislike for the Disciples. This statement stands completely true to the theory that Caulfield follows. He doesn’t allow himself to conform himself into the pattern of the world, but instead of getting transformed by the renewing of the mind, he escapes the mundane behavior taking place around him. Society cannot be completely blamed. It is true that society consists of double faced characters, pretentious people and people hiding in their closets, but their mere existence lies in everyone’s lives, and not just Holden. For him to truly function in society, he would have to change his set of beliefs and give up his battle, or wage a battle against society and it’s various atrocities, and living a secluded life in a lonely environment. For instance, when he asks his old friend Sally to go out for a date with him, and buys the tickets for her favorite show, you expect him to get along well with her, and expect some social signs within him. On the contrary, he gets annoyed as he thinks the performance is annoying and cannot stand the fact that Sally is conversing with an intelligent high school graduate, someone who was quite appealing to Sally. It angered him. It could be that such successful school graduates metaphorically stare at him into his eyes and his failure and further isolate him each day. He couldn’t enjoy his time with her, as she kept disagreeing. She didn’t listen to him properly either. Maybe Holden expected Sally to be someone who could understand the reason why he is the way he is. But she did not, and this angered Holden further when their ideologies clashed and he left Sally in a fit of rage. He classified her also as being phony when she wore a short skirt to flaunt her assets. It can be seen that people around him are falling below his already low expectations, and his frustration automatically ascends and this isolates him further from his surroundings.
As renowned American Philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson says “"Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most requests is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs."
The protagonist of Albert Camus’ The Stranger, Mersault is someone who conforms to society, unlike Holden. He doesn’t bother to wage a battle against society and redeem its lost faith. He doesn’t bother to notice or ponder upon anything around him. He simply lives in the existence around him, without complaining.
While indulging with an old female acquaintance, Mersault claims that “A minute later she asked me if I loved her. I told her it didn’t mean anything but that I didn’t think so.” Love and companionship is what acts as removal of solitude in someone’s life, and most of the times, the isolated seek true love and concern, and seek someone who stand by them through the tribulations and emotional turbulence. But Mersault doesn’t seek anything. It could be that he knows that Marie doesn’t mean what she says, and blindly believing her would be a mistake, in turn hurting him more, and isolating him even further. Despite that, he continues to be physically intimate with Marie and kisses her, which could mean that he believes in what he says and believes in speaking nothing but the truth. This incident also acts as evidence to the fact that despite getting lured by beauty and sex, he still does not lie to her that he loves her. He never changes his expression or opinion to settle into social expectations.
Albert Camus also claims that “In our society any man who doesn’t cry at his mother’s funeral is liable to be condemned to death” and that “Mersault doesn’t play the game, the game being: he refuses to lie. We all lie, to make life simpler and he refuses to hide his feelings and society immediately feels threatened”
After murdering the Arab at the beach house and being arrested for it, he is taken to the lawyer for interrogation. The Magistrate wonders whether he loves his mother or not, and he replies saying that he loves her as much as he loves anyone else, and states that “All normal people at one time wished their loved ones were dead’. The lawyer asks him not to state any of this at the court in the Magistrate’s presence, and Mersault refuses to contradict the truth in front of the court. To adjust to the beliefs of society and law, the innocent and the criminals are made to make false statements, which in turn, destroy the situation even further.
‘He merely replied that I had obviously never had anything to do with the law’
It can be proven that lawyers make people give false statements, in order to save them and letting them conform into society’s narrow minded rules. Most of the times, when criminals are acquitted as innocent, it is a case of a rebellious man giving up his unique beliefs and values and falling down to the standards and boundaries of society.
I said that people never change their lives, that in any case one life was as good as another and that I wasn’t dissatisfied with mine here at all.
Furthermore, this statement by Mersault adds onto his disinterest for discovering newer territories and breaking new grounds, and shows his satisfaction with what he possesses. Even though he claims he’s satisfied, there is an underlying sorrow in everything he does, as a result of his isolation. His isolation prevents him from opening up. For instance, his boss offers him a job in Paris. It means a new place, newer people, newer surroundings and probably increased remuneration. But nothing of this affects Mersault. No financial, personal or professional factor is powerful enough to push Mersault into changing his lifestyle.
Albert Camus believes that fleeing from the absurdity of reality into illusions, religion or death is not the way out. Instead of fleeing the absurd meaninglessness of life, we should embrace life passionately.
Mersault does not embrace life, but merely accepts life and its elements. He does not delve into illusions or religion, but remains satisfied in his meaningless life. It’s as if he knows that anything new he discovers would be lead by darker consequences and would further push him into isolation.
He is unmoved by death. When he receives a telegram about his mother’s death, he talks about how after the funeral, the death would be classified as a mere official document, and even wishes to smoke during her vigil, which proves that there is no emotional detachment that he is suffering from, but the death is a mere disturbance or disruption in his usually purposeless life. He even desires to go for a long and pleasant walk, but is bound by his mother’s recent death. It all seems like a superficial duty that he is waiting to free himself from.
Furthermore, in the novel, when he murders the Arab at his friend’s beach house, he gradually recognizes the meaningless and purposeless life that he had been leading all along and during the months of imprisonment, he reminisces about the small pleasures of his life outside prison. These are the first signs of reminiscing and regret that can be seen in Mersault’s character. The small pleasures being: smoking a cigarette, going out for swimming and making love to a woman. Before his imprisonment, these pleasures were not desires, but mere habits. He smoked a cigarette out of his habit to smoke, not due to the desire to smoke. Again, this is an indicator of his bland and purposeless life. Despite having lead a restricted life, he admits that ‘I kept thinking like a free man’ and how he wishes he could take a walk on the beach or stroll near the sea, but prison gradually acclimatized him into thinking like a prisoner and also making him much more restricted and isolated than he already was. He eventually realized the essence of being imprisoned. It was a punishment. He was deprived of freedom, the freedom of smoking a cigarette, the freedom of going out swimming and the freedom of making love, and being deprived of these small things, he was isolated even further.
For the first time in years, I had this stupid urge to cry, because I could feel how much all these people hated me.
This is the first time Mersault cries and shows sign of remorse and sorrow, at the expense of society around him. He spoke nothing but the truth during the trial, and kept getting crucified for whatever he said, and couldn’t please anyone including the Magistrate. This shows how a man can not only survive but live fruitfully if he pleases the people around him, if he contradicts the bitter truth and sweetly wraps it under the section of law. His first sign of remorse shows his defeat to society’s persistence for following its rules and living like a member of society.
Symbols and Metaphors for Isolation
The Catcher in the Rye has various symbols and metaphors used by J.D Salinger to bring out the isolation within Holden. His fascination as to where do the ducks disappear during winter at Central Park portrays his extreme imagination, and how his thoughts don’t stay stationery, but rapidly move from one place to another. It could be his desire to be a duck himself, and maybe discover the way of reappearing during summers and disappearing during winters. The summer is when the weather is pleasant, the sun shines bright and symbolizes the days of joy and enjoyment, and winter symbolizes pain and the loss of innocence, akin to the loss of leaves at autumn and the maturity that the plants, trees and the environment absorbs during that time. It is as if he yearns to find out the place where the ducks fly away to, so that during the time of gaining maturity, he could also fly away like them.
Holden’s favorite hunting Hat that he buys from New York the day he loses the foils at a metro station can be pictured as his device of independence that he carries along with him. Independence is co related with Isolation. Sometimes, the isolated wish to embrace self pity and conform to the norms of the world around them, but Holden wishes to make a statement of independence and change, and wears a hat which symbolizes uniqueness and the color of which matches his dead brother’s hair. This could be a way of lingering onto memories, but also a way of isolating his kind of people with the help of wearing this hat. This can be proven, when in the end, Holden gives away the hat to Phoebe and she wears it, and it’s as if its Holden’s reassurance of the fact that Phoebe would not grow up like a regular adult, or in fact, not grow into maturity at all.
The vulgar graffiti signs on Phoebe’s school walls and the National Museum and his reaction to them are a deep insight into his isolation from the younger generation of society. As he went to the same school as Phoebe and has visited the museum numerous times, he holds a special attachment for both the places, as they are also reminiscent of his childhood. His childhood and the days of growing up hold a special place in his heart as he resents growing up as an adult. He feels that people are destroying his childhood in a way, and also the curious children who might get influenced by it, and grow up as corrupt adults. His extreme hatred for the people vandalizing the beauty of childhood is also what isolates him further from society. Society ignores these people as it has much important tasks to complete, and leaves out the little things that matter. This angers Holden and he cannot place himself in the same circle as society.
In The Stranger, After Mersault is accused of murder and finally ready for execution, he is forced to meet the chaplain, who despite repeated rejections, still insisted on meeting Mersault. Mersault ponders over his life in a fit of rage, and is angered by the chaplain. He thought about his mother after a very long time, and acknowledged why she fell in love with Thomas Parez. It was because at the brink of her life, among souls ready for departure, she thought of giving life a new chance, a chance that is usually given during the young and zestful days.
“ As if this great outburst of anger had purged all my ills, killed all my hopes, I looked up at the mass of signs and stars in the night sky and laid myself open for the first time to the benign indifference of the world. And finding it so much like myself”
This statement by Mersault just before his execution portrays his defeat against society. The battle against the absurdity of life and the battle where he finally accepts that the world around him is similar to what he is now, as society has gradually acclimatized him over the period of his life, and has made him identical to the way it functions. Society has proven that severe isolation from itself for a long period of time will lead to nothing but defeat. Mersault realizes that the world is indifferent to all its human beings, and life stands to be meaningless, as everyone will eventually experience death. The fact that everyone is walking towards death and decay makes everyone as meaningless and purposeless as each other, and after death, the person loses its importance in the world. Even though he claims to be content and satisfied in the end, it is because in a way it seems society has allowed him in its circle, and given him solace. With the helping hand of society, Mersault experiences false contentment, maybe because he finally recognizes himself is no longer a stranger to him.
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 and all.
In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden, while talking to his sister Phoebe, expresses his innermost desire. A desire which seems to be vital in the current state he is in, and a desire that he secretly dreams about. Holden’s fantasy was to hitchhike his way to the West, where it would be much more beautiful and peaceful a place than he has ever lived, and wanted to settle down there. He wishes he could get a job somewhere, a place where he could walk unrecognized and where he could recognize nobody. He wanted to pretend as a deaf-mute, in order to avoid conversation with anyone around him, particularly adults, who might start phony conversations as he fills the gas up in their car. He wanted to prevent all ways of interaction and conversation from the world around him and live the rest of his life as a recluse. His innermost desire is to escape the absurdity and the corruption that society possesses and sneak into the paranormal world of fantasy. To be a catcher in the rye is symbolic of when little innocent children play in the rye, without the prying eyes of society and without the knowledge of the world ahead of them, and the task of the catcher is to stop them from falling and hurting themselves, which is metaphoric of how Holden would catch the children from losing their innocence, hurting themselves and gradually turning into phony adults. He yearns that he could just catch them all day, immersing himself in their laughter, their tears and their innocence, and clean the world from its maturity. The dream is certainly extreme in its thinking, and the reader could sense the instability that Caulfield is experiencing to experience such thoughts.
I would like to infer that the conflict between an individual and society has been taking place for many years. Many of them become martyrs and live life without any pattern or without conforming to the narrow minded rules of the world. It is difficult to assume as to who is victorious in the end, whether it is society or the protagonists. It is also a battle between absolute truth and society’s tinted statements. Society will isolate those who do not conform its rules, and if the isolated are strong enough, they could live life their own way, and die as martyrs, but as Albert Camus comments about Mersault, he calls him not a reject, but a “poor and naked man, in love with a sun which leaves no shadows” and someone “without any heroic pretensions, agrees to die for the truth”, whereas Holden spends his life clinging and lingering onto the notion that basic yet the most beautiful values of life like love, kindness and innocence are the key to a fulfilling and satisfying life, we do not know whether he succeeds in proving that to society and the world around him, as he quietly goes back home, instead of leaving his home.
- Salinger, J. D. The Catcher in the Rye. London: Penguin, 2010. Print
- Camus, Albert, and Joseph Laredo. The Outsider. London: Penguin, 2000. Print.
- "Society." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 09 Aug. 2010
- "The Praises and Criticisms of J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye." LEVITY. Web. 09
- Quote by Jean Paul Sartre: "The Absurd Man Will Not Commit Suicide; He Wants T.
- Nordquist, Richard. ""Self-Reliance," by Ralph Waldo Emerson (page Two)." Grammar and Composition - Homepage of About Grammar and Composition. Web. 09
- Romans 12:2 Do Not Conform Any Longer to the Pattern of This World, but Be Transformed by the Renewing of Your Mind. Then You Will Be Able to Test and Approve What God's Will Is--his Good, Pleasing and Perfect Will." Online Parallel Bible: Weaving God's Word into the Web. Web. 09 Aug. 2010.