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The Catcher in the Rye and the Wasp Factory - Comparison Essay

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A comparative study of the treatment of isolation and alienation from society in J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye” and Iain Banks’ “The Wasp Factory” with reference to symbolism, narrative voice and setting.

S. N. Behrman once said, about “The Catcher in the Rye” that Holden Caulfield “is gasping in the avalanche of disintegration around him.”[1] This statement is appropriate for both novels main protagonists as they both experience this avalanche which eventually overcomes them and results in their complete isolation. Both novels are written in first person and focus on teenage boys, Holden Caulfield from the United States and Frank Cauldhame from a remote Scottish island and although both characters are separated by the Atlantic they both experience a sense of alienation and isolation stemming from their situation and setting. Both novels are written in first person [a]as an inner monologue yet because the story is told through the eyes of these teens the reader should be sceptical and question how true their comments are, especially when the reader is told “I'm the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life”[2]

While Frank Cauldhame in the Wasp Factory is isolated by his location on the rural island he lives on, his isolation is also a product of the number of lies that he was told as a child. His isolation goes as far as he does not have a birth certificate[b] and so to the rest of the world he doesn’t exist. When Frank was young he was attacked by a dog and as he grew his father told him that during this attack he had lost his genitalia. This is a lie as, unbeknown to him, Frank is actually a girl. His isolation is made complete when he reaches this discovery.  Holden Caulfield is very different to Frank and while Holden has had many opportunities to mix in the urban environment he is in, he chooses not to mix with his peers and isolates himself as a form of protection. This transition from adolescence to being on the cusp of adulthood is difficult for Holden and results in his isolation as he wishes to be grown up yet still have many of the things he had as a teen. His obsession with sex also causes him to be isolated as, while everyone else doesn’t seem to care about it, he is driven mad of his lack of sexual activity.[c] 

In the novel, The Catcher in the Rye, the narrative voice is immediately noticed. The first words of the novel are “If you really want to hear about it”, the tone of this is almost arrogant, as if the reader is begging Holden to tell his life story. The truth is that the reader does not actually know who Holden is talking to. Unsure of what Holden is like in the beginning of the novel the reader expects that he is speaking to them however as the novel continues reader understands the way the Narrative voice could be Holden talking to anyone from a psychiatrist to an imaginary friend that he has invented to keep him company when he isolates himself as is it very easy for him to get along with a personality that he has invented. This invention of an imaginary friend may reflect an underlying reason which causes him to separate himself from society. Holden displays several traits which may represent a borderline personality Disorder. Personality Disorders in Modern Life by Theodore Millon[3] outline the main symptoms  which can be attributed to personality, both Holden and Frank meet several of these symptoms with Holden saying “What I really felt like, though, was committing suicide.”[4] and frank stating “Two years after I killed Blyth I murdered my young brother Paul, for quite different and more fundamental reasons than I'd disposed of Blyth, and then a year after that I did for my young cousin Esmerelda, more or less on a whim. That's my score to date. Three.”[5] Both protagonists can be seen to represent traits of a Personality disorder such as their feelings of emptiness along with their clear, uncontrolled inappropriate anger. Frank and Holden both show their Impulsivity and unstableness which is damaging to themselves. It is very likely that protagonists have a disorder which causes them to alienate themselves and causes     [d][e]


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