The transition between childhood and adulthood is demonstrated by Esther and Holden to be a challenging one

The transition between childhood and adulthood is demonstrated by Esther and Holden to be a challenging one. The characters of Esther Greenwood in ‘The Bell Jar’ and Holden Caulfield in ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ both struggle going through the adolescence stage due to the amount of crisis they experience. Esther experiences a gradual breakdown and what seems to be a slow recovery while Holden spends his days interacting with different people following his expulsion of Pencey Prep. Because both books are written around the 1950s and in the first person we get a much more personal view of the time, meaning we go through their journey with them and slowly watch their mental health deteriorate following alongside the crisis they experience. Both Holden and Esther are parallel characters in the novels, yet a common theme both novels share is the difficulty of growing up, alongside of this, experiencing the decay of their own mental health. Plath’s purpose in writing this semi-autobiographical novel is uncertain, yet critic Carl Rollyson states that, “Plath would not have wanted the book published in her mother’s lifetime. I think Sylvia certainly was very sensitive to all that,” suggesting that perhaps there was no evidence that she had wanted the book published under her real name and she hadn’t wanted the novel to ever come out at all, as this was her only novel and she didn’t want her mother to blame herself. Yet, Salinger wanted to put his feelings into words, he wanted to teach and help, while commenting on the isolation that comes with wealth and position as exemplified in Holden’s character. The Bell Jar and The Catcher in the Rye are very alike and the main protagonists can be connected in many ways, they are both teenagers, going around New York getting into awkward situations. Both characters are surrounded by “phonies” and although Plath never uses the word, Esther is doubtful about people who “live double lives,” this is reinforced as they go through alienation, failure and loss. In comparison though, The Bell Jar often consists of abrupt shifts in time and events aren’t written in a chronological order-making it much more disorientating for us to read, similarly, reflecting on how Esther’s mind would function, as she finds life highly dizzying and feels as though her main crisis is she lives trapped under a bell jar, suffocating. In Catcher in the Rye the whole novel is written in mainly informal language which accurately reflects the inner workings of Holden’s teenage mind. Salinger uses idiolect which is often colloquial and sometimes uses vernacular language or informal phrases such as “…and all…” seeming like these thoughts are free-flowing and just coming off the top of his head. Other critics have compared both novels and describe ‘The Bell Jar’ as being a feminine version of ‘Catcher in the Rye’ because their transition is a traumatic and unsuccessful one.
Through the theme of loss the transition from childhood to adulthood very tough is shown to be extremely tough for Esther and Holden. Esther’s first crisis she experiences is the loss of her father figure at the age of nine which undoubtedly had affected her terribly and arguably can be said that the loss of her father was the reason she sunk into depression. She states, “I was only purely happy until I was nine years old,” suggesting that her father might’ve helped her through her crisis’ in life, the last time she remembers she was truly happy was while her father was alive. Also, the fact her mother didn’t allow either of them to properly mourn for her father meant she could never accept the fact he had died. She didn’t visit his grave nor cry for him and consequently missed out on things a father could give her in life and particularly in childhood, such as support and advice. When, for the first time she sat by her father’s grave she remembers that her mother had once said it was better (him) “being dead than living life as a cripple,” this gave Esther her own reason for wanting to commit suicide or otherwise be destined to a life of madness, leading her to attempt suicide the day after she visits her father’s grave. She also loses all her self-esteem, influencing her depression even more which meant she begun to add up all the things she couldn’t do. She writes “I began adding up all the things I couldn’t do. I began with cooking,” although this was not necessarily the case, as she is written as an intelligent young woman who successfully was living in New York and working in a job as guest editor for a fashion magazine. But her depression and low self-esteem hid who she really was as she continually cut herself off from others and her own feelings. Similarly, the character of Holden experiences a devastating crisis which is the death of a family member, his brother Allie. He has an extremely hard time accepting Allie’s death; he says, “He’s dead now. You’d have liked him,” he says this to the reader which gives us the illusion that he’s right there talking to you which is colloquial and ‘slangy’. He has such a tough time he broke all the windows in his garage after he heard the news for the first time. He also describes Allie as “much more mature for his age than he should be.” This is the basis of Holden’s fear of growth and change. The more someone grows, the closer to death they will become. He admits that he fears growing close and connecting with people because he thinks only crisis will follow and he will lose them just like he lost Allie. His death also made him acknowledge all the unfairness and hatred in the world. This makes him determined to save children from falling out of their innocence and into crisis because he believes that when this happens they will enter the world of “superficiality” and “phoniness” and that adulthood is just like death or a fall over the edge of a cliff. The books title is a reflection of Holden’s dream job, he wants to be a “catcher in the rye”, when his sister asks him what he wants to do when he grows up his response is “I have to catch everybody, if they start going over to the cliff- I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they are going I have to come from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day,” suggesting that his past experiences of crisis encourage him to want to help others before they fall into madness like all the other “phonies” in the world. Both of their losses in their childhood made their transition to adulthood very difficult, they both fear and are overwhelmed by the change they’re going through. Their loss drives them into their insanity which enviably means they begin to spiral out of control while growing up due to the lack of someone important enough in their lives to guide them and not knowing what adulthood holds for them.
Through the theme of society’s expectations, Esther and Holden both believe they will never meet the demands of the adult life sufficiently. Because both novels were set in1950s America the society at this time had conventional beliefs and expectations of how they should behave at this time and this caused significant crisis in the protagonists lives. The real problem for Esther is that she is convinced that life is just like her “fig tree” a metaphor in which each fig represents a different choice in her life like, having a husband, a career as a poet or the expectation from society of being a mother; but unfortunately for her she can only pick one. She says “I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest”. Yet, she is afraid that while she is waiting to pick one they will all drop off and there will be none left for her at all. Picking one would be her first step into adulthood and the rest of her future yet she never truly gets to decide for herself so she is left in a state of crisis. Esther’s true desire though was to write poetry, yet because it was against societies expectations she felt alienated. Society expected children to behave like young adults; a critic called Brian Sheldon said that “this was a waiting period for full adulthood that offered a few opportunities for practising their future roles as possible- the earlier, the more promising.” Despite this, her mother had high hopes that she would marry her childhood boyfriend Buddy. Which yet again put more pressure on Esther to make a choice a pick a role, which only ended in crisis, she states “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”. Esther’s depression and crisis increases when Buddy tells her that when she has children her passion for writing poetry would dissolve, consequently this infuriated Esther and reinforced her idea that she can’t have both choices in life. She remains a virgin especially for Buddy as she sees this as the first step in the transition from childhood to adulthood and she knows her sexual desire would be disapproved by society. She eventually finds out that Buddy had spent the summer sleeping with a waitress. Therefore making her realise that the transition is filled with disappointment and she can’t trust men. In chapter 5 she introduces the bell jar when she says, “Wherever I sat-on the deck of a ship or at a street café in Paris or Bangkok-I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air”, explaining that no matter where she goes she is trapped inside herself and exists in “the hell of her own mind”. She believes she is never really in charge of her own life, this is shown when Esther is institutionalized and treated without her own consent. Meaning her transition from childhood to adulthood is a difficult one because she doesn’t feel like she belongs in either childhood or adulthood. For Esther the transformation from childhood to adulthood involves pain and suffering not joy. Blood is a common motif throughout the novel, she gives Marco a bloody nose when he attempts to rape her, she bleeds when she loses her virginity so badly that she has to get medical attention afterwards and when she decides she wants to kill herself she practises slashing her wrists open, which is where the main crisis begins, the motif of blood suggests the sacrifice she has to make for peace of mind. While Esther’s general feelings of sadness and helplessness are aimed to be cured using shock therapy, unfortunately cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) wasn’t founded until 1972 by Dr. Aaron T. Beck, which is still the most successful mental treatment for depression which most likely would’ve been very effective in curing Esther and many others in the 1950’s. In contrast Holden sees children as pure, gentle and innocent; we know this because he speaks fondly of the children in the novel, Allie and Phoebe. But he fears the transition from childhood to adulthood more than the “phony” adult world because all the children will have to grow up and face crisis from death to sex and he finds this terrifying and thinks he has the pressure of having to save them meaning he believes he needs to be a masculine, responsible man. Holden’s lack of trust in the adult world comes from his belief that all the adults only look out for their best interests. Although, I don’t believe that Holden’s pressures are as demanding as Esther’s because men typically would’ve only been expected to work hard and bring the money home for the family. On the other hand Esther is expected to nurture and sacrifice her ambition to raise a family. Yet, in Catcher in the Rye, Salinger writes the character of Holden to feel like he is the motif of one of the ducks in the story; he asks the cab driver Horowitz where the ducks go in the winter as he believes the ducks “can’t just ignore it” (the ice). Holden takes a deterministic approach in viewing life and truly believes that what happens to the ducks is similar to what will happen to him. He is afraid to grow up because he is scared that when he makes the gradual transition from childhood to adulthood he will also become a “phony”. Holden views the character of James Castle as one of few people in the world that isn’t a “phony”, yet he doesn’t survive very long so Holden begins to believe that unless you are a phony, you won’t survive. He admires him so much because stands up to people and wouldn’t take back what he said despite people doing unspeakable things to him to get him to try and take back what he said. Holden appreciates what he because he stood up for what he believed in and “instead of taking back what he said, he jumped out the window” and someone who isn’t a phony will stand up for what they believe in rather than being fake and James died for what he believed in despite it ending in crisis. Although he didn’t know James very well he felt closeness to him, mainly because their names were both next to each other in the register, “Cabel, R, Cabel, W, Castle, Caulfield” and because they were very few people in the world who he considered not a “phony”.
Through the theme of alienation from the rest of the world, Plath presents Esther as approaching everything in life with an uncertainty which not only causes her to feel alienated but causes her to alienate around her. Her inner withdrawal of life is parallel to Holden Caulfield’s. From the very first scene of Catcher in the Rye, when Holden decides not to go to the football game the rest of his school is attending it’s clear that he just doesn’t fit in, instead Salinger writes of Holden, “I remember around three o’clock that afternoon I was standing way the hell up on top of Thomsen Hill”, making the reader aware instantly that while everyone else is at the game, he’s isolated and watching people rather than interacting with them he’s choosing to be alone. He also runs away from school in order to protect his individuality from the phonies of the school so he isn’t forced into the transition of adulthood. Phoebe sums up Holden’s sense of separateness from his anger at other people when she tells him he doesn’t like anything. Holden’s red hunting cap, which he holds when he is most insecure, is a continuing symbol throughout the book of his feeling that he is different and doesn’t fit into his environment and wants to fit in. Yet madness may not only be an issue for Esther, it could be a name for people who don’t follow the expectations of society like the Rosenberg family as she stated The Rosenberg’s’ execution “had nothing to do with me, but I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive along your nerves. I thought it must be the worst thing in the world.” This foreshadowing quote may also represent the build up to when she receives her shock therapy to cure her madness. While Holden is fearful of adulthood, Esther is fearful of life and her ultimate fear which is death. Yet, a source concluded that Esther’s fear is more than anxiety or depression but an addiction to end one’s own life. Damien Hirst said “So smoking is the perfect way to commit suicide without actually dying. I smoke because it’s bad, it’s really simple.” Similarly, Esther takes the more gradual approach to suicide, she asks Cal what method she would use to kill herself, he says he would shoot himself, she is let down by this answer as she believes it’s a very masculine response and she would have no idea where to get a gun. She decides that if she can swim far out enough into the ocean eventually she will have to get tired and drown. Therefore we can assume that she doesn’t want her suicide to be painless, she will just do whatever it takes. This is also shown again when she recalls the morning she tried to hang herself with the cord from her mother’s bathrobe, yet she did not succeed as there was no place for her to hang herself and whenever she tried doing it herself she began to feel woozy and her hands went numb and weak. After many attempts to commit suicide Esther can’t seem to kill herself. Indifferently to Esther when Holden says or believes he is “going crazy” he doesn’t mean insane, he just means he is acting oddly, he only uses these words for effect. But as the novel progresses we see Holden really does consider killing himself as she only way out to escape the transition from childhood to adulthood.
Both novels ‘The Bell Jar’ and ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ echo each other really well. Holden and Esther both came from caring families who raised them well although this can mean living up to their expectations of how to have a successful transition into adulthood. Esther’s background was less promising as Holden’s because it was down to her to provide a good education and gain scholarships and puts pressure on herself to gain these places. She also recognises that this is what separates her from the other girls and therefore worked harder in her childhood than others to benefit her future adulthood. Indifferently, Holden’s and his parents can afford to have him flunking his classes because they can place him in another school, therefore meaning he doesn’t have as much pressure on him to make the most out of his childhood opportunities unlike Esther. Both The Bell Jar and The Catcher in the Rye share the same theme of difficulties of growing up which are demonstrated through loss, alienation from society and the deterioration of their mental health and because of this their experiences have distorted the way they view themselves and the world around them. These experiences have only had a negative impact which is shown when Esther attempted suicide and gets moved to a mental ward, Holden similarly gets sent to a mental institution. Adolescence is a crucially 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, but Esther and Holden’s adolescence were far from a typical one. The Bell Jar is undoubtedly is the female version of The Catcher in the Rye. Esther is smarter, more observant and in touch with life, Holden on the other hand isn’t very intelligent and constantly questions the world. He lies to everyone whereas Esther only tells the occasional lie. Their desires and mind sets are very different and they’re both trapped by their society’s expectations which is the only thing that sets them apart in the novels.


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