are teenagers today as dissatisfied as Caulfield was 70 years ago?

By Hannah Donlan: Literature Columnist

Known as The Great American novel, The Catcher in the Rye turns seventy this year. It follows disillusioned teenager Holden Caulfield who is travelling New York in a quest to find an emotional connection after been expelled. Salinger’s novel is praised for depicting a snapshot of the dissatisfied youth of post-war America, but are teenagers still as dissatisfied a Holden Caulfield seventy years on?

In a scene which would not be out of place today, Caulfield is rendered self-conscious by a magazine article. The character muses that, “it described how you should look, your face and eyes and all, if your hormones were in good shape, and I didn’t look that way at all.” This article clearly aimed at teenage boys, focuses on how the ideal teen ‘should look’ and resultingly feels inadequate and self-conscious. Today, in a social media driven society, blogs and magazines are competing for attention more than ever and target teenagers to profit from their insecurities. The result: 40 percent of teenagers said images on social media caused them to worry about their body image and 31 percent felt ashamed of their bodies.

If we were to hazard a guess at the reason Salinger’s novel has been beloved by teens to this day, the universality and timeless nature of its key themes of loneliness, isolation and dissatisfaction is a good bet. Caulfield struggles with solitude throughout the novel and his desire to connect emotionally with another person is explored.

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His desperation to find a connection or, indeed, a meaningful conversation is shown by even asking his taxi driver, “would you care to stop on the way and join me for a cocktail?” His efforts to connect to others, such as old friend Sally Hayes ends in disaster when his rudeness and radical ideas of rejecting society alienate Sally and he is once again left alone. It is his isolation from others that Salinger’s protagonist uses to protect himself against the phoniness he is desperately trying to escape, however by isolating himself from society his is only furthering his unhappiness.  

With lockdown and social distancing regulations feelings of loneliness have been compounded. It has been increasingly more difficult to connect with those around us and a real sense of isolation has been felt by many around the world in the last year, with young adults being hit the hardest.

A study in November 2020 found that 49% of young adults in the US felt deep loneliness during lockdown. While social media has allowed us to keep in contact with our loved ones, we must remember that these platforms are a double-edged sword: a way to connect but also a way for ‘influencers’ to bombard you with fake pictures of their seemingly unaffected lives, leaving teenagers feeling more isolated and alienated that ever before.

Perhaps we are still talking about The Catcher in the Rye, seventy years after its publication because the central themes in this treasured novel remain as relevant now as ever. In a society where brands profits from our self-doubt and dissatisfaction with our bodies, we must guard against pervasive feelings of loneliness and dissatisfaction, in our quest to lead our own authentic, fulfilling lifestyle, as Salinger had Caulfield attempt seventy years ago.