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A contemporary perspective by Owen R. (English 11)

picture of Looking for Alaska book cover

This contrast essay was produced in English 11 comparing the novels, The Catcher in the Rye and Looking for Alaska and the relationship to teenagers of today. picture of The Catcher in the Rye book cover


Owen - 2/21/2020

The novels, The Catcher in the Rye, and, Looking for Alaska, dive into the inner struggles of teenagers adapting to the harsh reality of the looming adult world. After reading both novels, I also noticed that themes such as mental illness, post-traumatic stress, and grief shape the characters and the plot of both novels. Despite the sixty-year gap between the publication of The Catcher in the Rye and Looking for Alaska, they remain relevant coming of age stories.

The Catcher in the Rye, written by J.D. Salinger, presents the personal account of a sixteen-year-old named Holden Caufield. Early on, it is quite noticeable that the only traditional aspect of the novel is the chapter formatting. Through his sarcastic, informal writing style, J.D. Salinger presents Holden’s first-person account of a series of many events that occurred during the holiday season. Immediately after reading the first sentence of the novel, it is quite clear that Holden Caulfield is not your average teenager. Born into a wealthy, Upper East Side family, Holden constantly rejects the phoniness of the society he is forced into. During the novel, Salinger subtle hints at Holden’s deteriorating mental state. Holden constantly states how he is “depressed as hell”, as well as how he feels like a “madman”. These details become more apparent through his interactions with others around him, ultimately ending with Holden’s admission into a mental hospital. Like Holden, J.D. Salinger spent a notable period of time in a mental hospital, according to the historical drama, Rebel in the Rye.

Similarly to Salinger, John Green, the author of Looking for Alaska, implements similar themes throughout his novel. Unlike The Catcher in the Rye, Looking for Alaska takes place at Culver Creek, a boarding school in Alabama. The story is written from the perspective of Miles, a sixteen-year-old social hermit who is struggling to find fulfilling relationships with others. Miles refers to this need for human connection as his “Great Perhaps”. Like J.D. Salinger, John Green uses an abundance of sarcasm to shape Miles’s personal account. However, his style of writing is generally more formal in terms of grammar and sentence structure. However, unlike J.D. Salinger, John Green does not use formal chapters throughout his novel. Instead, it is broken into two sections, ominously named Before and After. I believe John Green formatted his novel this way in order to build suspense towards the climax of the novel.

Both novels shed light on mental illness, specifically how it hampers their characters’ ability to function in society. Two characters that come to mind for this particular theme are Holden Caufield and Alaska Young. Both characters struggled through extreme mood swings, going through numerous manic episodes that pushed away from the people closest to them. Also, Alaska and Holden constantly struggled to deal with trauma from their past. While Holden had struggled to let go of his late brother, Allie, who died from Leukemia, Alaska had struggled to move on from her mother’s sudden passing. Finally, both Holden and Alaska turn to alcohol and cigarettes to cope with their depression and mood swings. In Alaska’s case, her binge drinking became out of control during the weeks leading up to her untimely death. Similarly, Holden frequently drank his problems away into the early morning hours as the novel progressed. However, unlike Alaska, he was sent to a mental hospital before his risky behavior got him killed. In her death, Alaska left Miles and Chip to pick up the pieces.

Also,  I noticed that Alaska and Holden both mention how they feel trapped in an endless depression. For Alaska, she refers to this as “the labyrinth”; and endless maze of guilt and sadness that she desperately wants to escape. Throughout Looking For Alaska, John Green hints at the warning signs Alaska displays. Her mood swings become more frequent and her binge drinking becomes more severe throughout the Before section, particularly during the weeks leading up to her death.

After reading both novels, I also came to the conclusion that the three main characters in Looking For Alaska, Miles, Alaska, and Chip, were splinters of Holden’s personality. In my opinion, Miles represents Holden’s isolation. However, unlike Holden, Miles was able to make strong relationships by the end of the novel. Secondly, Alaska represents Holden’s mental illness and past trauma. However, unlike Holden, Alaska never received the help she needed. Finally, Chip represents Holden’s disdain towards the materialism and privilege of the social elites of society. Ironically,  Holden came from a wealthy, socially elite family. Unlike Holden, Chip came from poverty, as he and his mother live in a trailer park in Alabama. Despite their socioeconomic differences, they both have similar views on society, which is quite rare.

I truly enjoyed reading both novels. However, I would personally choose Looking for Alaska over The Catcher in the Rye. At times, I found The Catcher in the Rye to be a little crass for my taste, and I found the main characters less likable than the main characters in Looking for Alaska. Despite this, I respect the focus on mental health throughout the novel. Considering it was published in 1959, mental health was considered a taboo subject, constantly being swept under the rug. Furthermore, The Catcher in the Rye was quite a unique and shocking novel when it was published. Never before had an author based a novel off of themes of mental illness and contempt towards the social normalities of the time. Due to  The Catcher in the Rye’s radical principals, it was censored in many schools across the country for decades to come.  Personally, I believed J.D. Salinger paved the way for future authors, such as John Green.

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