Ok this is much more serious than the kind of stuff I usually post. This is my final paper for my AP Lit class; I got a 9 on it, which is the highest score you can get on an AP-based rubric and it's pretty rare so I'm really fucking stoked. The prompt was to compare Holden Caulfield with Hamlet in 3-5 pages, and tbh I actually just did like 90% of it the night before it was due. Anyway yeah enjoy I guess??
In a world filled with tragedy, suffering, and deception, it can be difficult to find a rational solution to one’s issues, and even more difficult to find a solution that will ensure lasting happiness. Striking such a balance of logic and fulfillment in problem solving requires the ability to assess a situation from several different angles, but when one is too emotionally involved in such a situation they tend to look at even more factors than are necessary, and some that may even be fabricated by overthinking, which ultimately clouds one’s judgment rather than clarifying it. Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of The Catcher in the Rye, as well as the iconic hero Hamlet both experience intense challenges in coping with the death of a loved one while seeking liberation from the many people around them who are not what they appear. Both are intelligent and cunning, but their overly critical view of their every action, as well as their obsession with finding the truth regardless of its implications, often have the effect of pushing away the people who truly care for them. Thus, the pursuit of knowledge and peace of mind often seems to demand the sacrifice of that which we love.
In Shakespeare’s eminent play Hamlet, the titular character finds himself torn between his desire for revenge and his own conscience. Early on, he discovers that his father, the king of Denmark, was slain by his own brother in a desperate grab for power. Losing his father is cause enough for emotional distress, but to make matters worse “Hamlet's tremendous grief is intensified by [the] lack of feeling by those around him, and more significantly, by the cold-hearted actions of his mother, who married her brother-in-law within a month of her husband's death” (Mabillard). Hamlet’s relationship with his mother is quite complex, characterized mostly by the former’s repeated claims that she has suffered a sort of falling from grace. He feels that she, a once kind and revered queen, has betrayed her late husband and, by extension, the integrity of the entire state. Furthermore, despite Hamlet’s vow to avenge the king and vanquish the treacherous Claudius, most of his aggression toward the immoral union is directed at the queen. This is especially apparent in Act III, when he compares her marriage vows to “dicers’ oaths” (Shakespeare 106) and declares her a shameless traitor, slandering the image of the former king with her unfaithful behavior. Certainly, Hamlet knows that Claudius, not Gertrude, is responsible for his father’s death, but because his relationship with his mother is closer than that with his uncle, and because he had always known her to be so virtuous, her perceived disrespect toward the elder Hamlet’s memory produces a harsher effect in her son. Not only this, but Hamlet has been specifically directed by his father’s spirit to take revenge on Claudius, and yet still he acts much more passively toward the usurper than toward his mother. While Hamlet loathes his uncle for the crime he has committed, he is conflicted by the moral implications of murdering his own blood, and tends to avoid confrontation with him altogether:
...Hamlet's arguments for not killing Claudius at prayers are both subtle and logical -- too subtle, in fact, considering the enormity of Claudius' deed and the virtual certainty that Hamlet possesses of his guilt. Yet he holds back his sword--his heart does not seem to lie in its blade. (Evans 35)
Hamlet makes his view on his family’s actions very clear, and detests the “ulcerous” corruption that now plagues his surroundings. However, he also renounces hypocrisy, and to kill his uncle, while perhaps justified, would still be the murder of his own kin.
Holden Caulfield, meanwhile, is not involved with such grandiose schemes. He is not royalty, he has no involvement with political treachery or murderous intent, but, like Hamlet, his angst-fueled story begins with the demise of a dear relative: his younger brother Allie. Though this occurs some three years before the point at which the narrative begins, Holden is still deeply troubled by the loss, so much that it could be said that “life stopped for Holden on… the day his brother died of leukemia. Holden was then thirteen, and… he is emotionally still at the same age” (Miller 61). But what does this mean for Holden? As is the case with almost any teenager, he is cynical, hormonal, and often makes sweeping generalizations, but beneath his rebellious surface is a youthful idealism symbolic of his brother’s memory. After all, Allie died young, and thus was left with a sense of childlike innocence intact, which Holden simultaneously envies and admires. He and Hamlet are both disgusted with the “phonies” around them - lying, lecherous, selfish – and only wish that everyone could see the world with the doe-eyed naiveté of a “terrifically intelligent… nice kid” (Salinger 38) like Allie. It is this desire for honesty and purity that leads to Holden’s dissatisfaction with society and his peers. And yet, also like Hamlet, he has difficulty placing blame on any particular figure in his life. He refrains from stating that his parents are responsible for his depression and solitude, as “they’re nice and all” (Salinger 1), and he frequently criticizes his fellow students at the prep schools he has attended only to voice how he misses them later on. Just as Hamlet cannot seem to decide whether he is more upset with Claudius, Gertrude, or himself, Holden cycles through several inconsistent phases of both internal and external criticism.
It is abundantly clear that Hamlet and Holden are extremely disillusioned with the corrupt and hypocritical state of society, when in actuality they too are hypocrites. But how does this affect their characterization on a deeper level, and how does it shape their relationships with others? Both are desperate for sympathy, but push it away when it is offered. They “hate [themselves] as [they] scream for attention” (Miller 68), because they covet some nurturing, benevolent figure to fill the role that they feel has been deprived with the passing of their closest relatives, and at the same time they trust no one enough to allow anyone to even attempt to do so. Holden and Hamlet come closest to finding a shoulder to cry on with Phoebe and Ophelia, respectively. Both reflect shades of Allie in their personalities, the former still being relatively young and innocent and the latter being highly sheltered by her well-to-do family; regardless of the circumstances, it is the empathetic and affectionate qualities of these characters that draw the tormented protagonists to them. Fortunately and unfortunately, however, said protagonists are cursed with sharp, innately analytical minds, as well as an uncomfortable degree of self-awareness. This allows each of them to spot dishonesty and injustice easily, but in some cases causes them to substantiate such qualities where there are none, even in themselves. This, of course, makes it all the more unnerving when the two young men set themselves up to fail, as phrased by James Bryan in his analysis of Holden: “…He provokes fights in which he will be beaten, makes sexual advances he cannot carry through, and… alienates himself from many of the people he encounters” (33). It is so unsettling to observe because they are fully aware of their actions, they realize they are lashing out at those who truly care for them, but they do so anyway so that they will receive the hatred and suffering that they feel they deserve, and thus have justification for hating themselves.
Hamlet and Holden are legendarily complex characters, who over the years have grown beyond mere fictional creations and into subjects for intensive historical and psychological analysis. Perhaps what makes them so fascinating to readers is their somewhat reluctantly relatable qualities; no one wishes to become a Hamlet or a Holden, but almost anyone can find glimpses of themselves even in the darkest and most self-derogatory of narratives. Anyone who is no longer in the wistful years of childhood knows that the world can be cruel, and anyone who has experienced tragedy knows that the ensuing bitterness will cause others to appear callous and inconsiderate, however harmless their intentions may be. Hamlet and Holden have become symbolic of the hopeful desire within all of us for a more honest, less selfish world, and the crushing loss we feel when that world seems out of reach. But despite all the pain and the lies, there comes a time when one must stop grieving, stop brooding, stop thinking, and learn to accept a helping hand when it is offered.
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