Holden Caulfield: A New Twist on an Old Tale

A few months ago. I re-read The Catcher in the Rye. Reading it this time, I fixated on that red hat of his and started asking questions of the text: Why a hat? Why a red hat? Why does he wear it sometimes and sometimes take it off? When does he wear it the correct way, and when does he turn it backward, in the way he prefers? Is there a pattern? And what does it all mean?

Holden's Little Red Cap
Holden’s Little Red Cap

I went through the book again, and collected each hat reference.

I  now have to pause and insert a Holden-style hyperbole; it would take me a million years to sort through the patterns and meanings of that hat, and how he wears it, and when he takes it off, and why he gives it to Phoebe, and what it means when she wears it …. You get the picture. While I was trying to sort through all that information, I started to think about another famous literary character  associated with a red hat.

You know her as Little Red Riding Hood, but in some versions of her story she is known more simply as Little Red Cap. In literature, a hat is never just a hat, so I needed to find out the significance of those stories — the plots vary, in addition to her ensemble — and found Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment, a wonderful Freudian analysis of several fairy tales, including Little Red’s. Bettelheim deconstructs it as a story of violent sexual awakening. No real surprise there. But as I read, I couldn’t resist taking  Bettelheim’s ideas about  Little Red’s impulses, conflicts, and horrors and applying them to Holden. It’s hard not to; think about each of the following ideas from Bettelheim:

All through “Little Red Cap,” in the title as in the girl’s name, the emphasis is on the color red, which she openly wears. Red is the color symbolizing violent emotions, very much including sexual ones. . . . She is too little, not for wearing the cap, but for managing what this red cap symbolizes, and what her wearing it invites (173).

This is Holden. He struggles with his transition from childhood (being “too little”) into the adult, sexual world.

And what about this:

Little Red Cap and her grandmother do not really die, but they are certainly reborn. If there is a central theme to the wide variety of fairy tales, it is that of a rebirth to a higher plane (179).

This is Holden, too. Some illness consumes him through much of the book, and causes him to faint while he’s at the museum. When he emerges a short while later and watches his sister at the carousel, he seems transported into a different place, a different plane that allows him to see things differently, perhaps more maturely.

Maybe  Holden’s journey into New York City is comparable to Little Red’s journey into the woods, and into the wolf’s belly. She encounters two  kinds of men in this journey:

the dangerous seducer who, if given in to, turns into the destroyer of the good grandmother and the girl; and the hunter, the responsible, strong, and rescuing father figure (Bettelheim 172).

And Holden encounters these two types of men, as well. The dangerous seducers are there: Stradlater, who Holden fears will seduce his gentle Jane; Maurice, the elevator-operator-turned-pimp; Carl Luce. The father figures are there, too: the ill history teacher, Mr. Spencer (and a bed-ridden grandmother figure?); Mr. Antolini, the former English teacher (and possible seducer?). We never actually meet Holden’s father.

Bettelheim also suggests that the “wolf is not just the male seducer;”

he also represents all the asocial, animalistic tendencies within ourselves. By giving up the school-age child’s virtues of ‘walking singlemindedly,’ as your task demands, Little Red Cap reverts to the pleasure-seeking oedipal child” (Bettelheim 172).

Bettelheim is referring to a version of the Little Red story in which she is persuaded by the cunning wolf to stray from the path and gather flowers, instead of heading straight to grandmother’s  house as instructed. Isn’t this exactly what Holden does in his story, and perhaps has been doing ever since his younger brother died? Failing out of schools, avoiding going directly home, and roaming around New York City are Holden’s versions of gathering flowers, although his pleasure-seeking seems far more desperate and full of grief.

In the last chapter of Catcher, Holden is  in some sort of hospital setting; its unclear whether his condition is physical, or mental, or both. Is he still in the belly of the beast? Is he still stopping to gather flowers? Or is he finally on the path he’s supposed to be on in the first place, and becoming an adult — whatever that means?  I mean, I’m an adult and I’m still considering adult literature in terms of children’s fairy tales. Maybe that means there’s not much of a difference between them.

If you’re interested in yet another version of Little Red’s story, and like a feminist twist added, check out Angela Carter’s fantastic The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories.

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