Southeast Missouri State University

Did you ever have a sister?": Salinger's Holden Caulfield and Faulkner's Quentin Compson

Robert W. Hamblin, Southeast Missouri State University

 J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, as the title suggests, is a novel built on literary parallels and allusions; as a result, its hero, Holden Caulfield, has been compared to a host of other characters, from both American and world literature.1 The closest of Holden's blood brothers, as even a cursory survey of the criticism of Salinger's novel will reveal, is generally thought to be Huckleberry Finn.2 And certainly there are notable likenesses between Huck and Holden: both are troubled adolescents on the run--psychologically, linguistically, and geographically--from an adult world that they find pretentious, hypocritical, shallow, cruel, and dangerous. But the most significant details of Holden Caulfield's characterization --his paralyzing fear of sexuality, his overly protective attitude toward his sister, and his unhealthy preoccupation with death--are missing in Twain's portrait of Huck.3 Interestingly, though, these anxieties and obsessions are precisely the ones exhibited by William Faulkner's Quentin Compson, one of the protagonists of The Sound and the Fury. The key to the neurotic behavior of both characters can be found in the Freudian theory of anality, particularly as that theory has been amplified and reinterpreted by such later psychologists as Norman O. Brown and Ernest Becker. Both Holden and Quentin exhibit character traits that are associated with individuals whose development has been arrested at the anal stage. 
The surface similarities between the two characters are easily established, and striking. Both are intelligent, sensitive, introspective, well-informed young men: Holden is a seventeen-year-old prep school student who reads "a lot" (18) and whose best subject is English (110); Quentin is an eighteen-year-old freshman at Harvard who knows Latin and quotes St. Francis. Both have highly ambivalent feelings about sex: while they talk or think about sex almost constantly, and even boast to others about their sexual knowledge and experience, both are actually fearful of sex, indeed are self-confessed virgins.4 Moreover, both Holden and Quentin project their sexual anxiety onto their sisters, adopting a defensive, "big brother" attitude and seeking to bar the sisters' entrance into carnal knowledge. Finally, their confused and disturbed mental states lead both Holden and Quentin to contemplate suicide.5 Quentin, of course, unlike Holden, actually follows through on his death wish, purchasing a pair of flat-irons for body weights and then hurling himself from a bridge into the Charles River.

As suggested earlier, the unifying psychological factor underlying both Holden and Quentin's anxieties regarding sexuality, females, and death is to be found in the Freudian theory of anality. According to Freud, the explanation of all adult neurosis is to be found in the repressed sexual desires of childhood. Freud posited three stages of infantile sexual development: the oral (birth to twelve months), involving the activities of sucking and biting; the anal (one to three years), focusing on the child's fascination with the anus and feces; and the phallic (two and a half to six years), centering on the child's discovery of the genitals. If the child's passage through each of these phases is not negotiated successfully and happily, the repressed drives will resurface in adulthood in the form of various neuroses. According to Freud, the adult character traits that are associated with denial and repression during the anal stage are orderliness (including neatness), obstinacy, and parsimony (or possessiveness).6

For Freud, anal curiosity and play, like the child's actions during the other phases of infantile development, are primarily assertions of the pleasure principle over the reality and morality principles--what can be viewed in retrospect as the futile attempts of the child to cling to an Edenic world of innocent freedom and play in the face of impending exile into the adult world of work and responsibility. But later psychologists such as Norman O. Brown and Ernest Becker have helped us to understand that the issue is somewhat more complicated than even Freud had recognized. In his insightful and influential book, Life Against Death, Brown argues that what is really being stamped on the consciousness of each of us during the anal stage is nothing less than "the conflict between our animal body, appropriately epitomized in the anal function, and our pretentious sublimations, more specifically the pretensions of sublimated or romantic-Platonic love" (186). In other words, the anal condition represents the child's first encounter with mortality and decay. As Becker notes, echoing Brown, "With anal play the child is already becoming a philosopher of the human condition. But like all philosophers he is still bound by it, and his main task in life becomes the denial of what the anus represents: that in fact, he is nothing but body where nature is concerned. Nature's values are bodily values, human values are mental values, and though they take the loftiest flights they are built upon excrement, impossible without it, always brought back to it" (31). The conflict experienced by the child at the anal stage, therefore, is that of the body versus the mind or spirit, the real versus the ideal.

Sometimes, as Brown demonstrates in his brilliant analysis of "The Excremental Vision" of Jonathan Swift, the repugnance that one comes to feel for the anus and its foul-smelling product is displaced onto other parts of the body, particularly the genitals. Such displacement, Brown argues, explains Lemuel Gulliver's rejection of the body after observing the "strange Disposition to Nastiness and Dirt" of the Yahoos, as well as the madness of the lover in one of Swift's poems, who explains to his friend: "Nor wonder how I lost my wits; / Oh! Caelia, Caelia, Caelia shits." Such passages have led a number of biographers to suspect that Swift was sexually dysfunctional in his personal life. As one of those biographers has written, "One gets the impression that the anal fixation was intense and binding, and the genital demands so impaired or limited at best that there was a total retreat from genital sexuality in his early adult life . . . " (Greenacre, qtd. in Brown 182).

Swift, of course, is not the only one to associate the anus with genitalia. Freud, too, was horrified that "we are born between urine and feces" (Freud, Civilization 43, qtd. in Becker 33); and William Butler Yeats's character Crazy Jane, echoing Swift's young lover, complains that "Love has pitched his mansion in / The place of excrement" (Collected Poems 254). Two others who are obsessed with this paradoxical condition, as I shall now seek to demonstrate, are Holden Caulfield and Quentin Compson.

Holden Caulfield's attitudes and actions clearly fit the above description of the anal character. Like Swift's Gulliver, he is both fascinated and repulsed by "Nastiness and Dirt," particularly any that is associated with body parts and functions. This attitude is seen not only in the degree to which his vocabulary is characterized by such words as "crap" (1, 11, 56, 57), "manure" (3), "vomity" (81), "snot" (103), and "puke" (128, 139), but also in his specific descriptions of his classmates Ackley and Stradlater. Of Ackley, Holden observes: "His teeth were always mossy-looking, and his ears were always dirty as hell, but he was always cleaning his fingernails. I guess he thought that made him a very neat guy" [Holden's emphasis] (22). When Ackley picks up a knee supporter and asks, "Who belongsa this?" Holden notes: "That guy Ackley'd pick up anything. He'd even pick up your jock strap or something" (22). Later Holden says, "That guy had just about everything. Sinus trouble, pimples, lousy teeth, halitosis, crumby fingernails" (39). While conversing with Stradlater in the bathroom as Stradlater shaves, Holden observes: "you should've seen the razor he shaved himself with. It was always rusty as hell and full of lather and hairs and crap. He never cleaned it or anything" (27).

Such passages reveal the extreme discomfort and uneasiness that Holden feels toward all things physical. That this repulsiveness embraces sexuality is underscored not only by his own virginity (which is made more revealing by the fact that it is undesired) but also by his overly protective attitude toward females. Holden idealizes women and seeks to protect them from sexual knowledge and experience. Thus he expresses grave concern about Jane's being out on a date with Stradlater. "I kept thinking about Jane, and about Stradlater having a date with her and all. It made me so nervous I nearly went crazy. I already told you what a sexy bastard Stradlater was" (34). Later, when Holden observes the man and woman in the hotel squirting water in each other's faces, he says, "I think if you don't really like a girl, you shouldn't horse around with her at all, and if you do like her, then you're supposed to like her face [emphasis added], and if you like her face, you ought to be careful about doing crumby stuff to it, like squirting water all over it" (62). Consistent with this idealized, unsexed view of women, Holden declines to engage in sex with the hotel prostitute; and when Luce refers to one of his former girlfriends as "the Whore of New Hampshire," Holden objects: "That isn't nice. If she was decent enough to let you get sexy with her all the time, you at least shouldn't talk about her that way" (145).

A similar attitude is evidenced in the interpretation Holden puts upon the Robert Burns poem that provides the title of the novel. As several critics have pointed out, the text of the original poem (and even more the dozens of parodies of Bums's poem) strongly suggests that the bodies meeting in the rye field are there to engage in sex.7 But Holden reshapes what in actuality is a bawdy poem into an idealized story of a chivalric knight who rescues children from the danger of falling over a cliff. To the reader who knows Bums's poem, it is clear that the "cliff' that represents a threat to the children is their "fall" into sexual awareness and experience. Holden's idealized characterization of himself as one who saves the children from falling over the cliff is thus to be understood as an unconscious desire to deny the fact of human sexuality.

This chivalric, unrealistic, and ultimately unhealthy attitude, of course, explains Holden's obsession with the word "fuck." When he visits Phoebe's school, he observes,

Somebody'd written "Fuck you" on the wall. It drove me damn near crazy. I thought Phoebe and all the other little kids would see it, and how they'd wonder what the hell it meant, and then finally some dirty kid would tell them--all cockeyed, naturally--what it meant, and how they'd all think about it and maybe even worry about it for a couple of days. I kept wanting to kill whoever'd written it. I figured it was some perverty bum that'd sneaked in the school late at night to take a leak or something and then wrote it on the wall. I kept picturing myself catching him at it, and how I'd smash his head on the stone steps till he was good and goddam dead and bloody (201).

The overreaction in this scene demonstrates, as perhaps no other scene in the book does so well, the extent of Holden's neurosis regarding sex. Making the act of scribbling an obscenity on a schoolhouse wall into a capital offense, with himself as the happy executioner of the vile offender, is hardly the behavior of an individual who is comfortable with sexuality, whether his own or someone else's.

It is, of course, Holden's subconscious fear of sexuality which explains his overly protective attitude toward children, particularly his sister Phoebe. Ideally, Holden would prefer a world without "fuck," not merely the word but also the act. Thus he erases the obscenity from the wall--only to discover a second one, "scratched on," and hence impossible to remove (202). Becker states: "The upsetting thing about anality is that it reveals that all culture, all man's creative life-ways, are in some basic part of them a fabricated protest against natural reality, a denial of the truth of the human condition, and an attempt to forget the pathetic creature that man is" (33). Holden's version of this idea is just as tragic, and just as universal: "It's hopeless, anyway. If you had a million years to do it in, you couldn't rub out even half the `Fuck you' signs in the world. It's impossible" (202).

Like Holden Caulfield, Faulkner's Quentin Compson represents a classic case of the anal character. He too is repulsed by sexuality because he associates it with "Nastiness and Dirt." This attitude is established in the childhood episode in which Quentin and the other children look at "the muddy bottom of [Caddy's] drawers" (39) as she climbs the pear tree to look through the parlor window to view the wake being held for her grandmother.8 It is hardly coincidental that Faulkner here symbolically links Caddy's stained bottom and death. Not only does the scene foreshadow Caddy's later "fall" into sexual experience, which she identifies with death ("When they touched me I died," she tells Quentin [149]); the stain also symbolizes original sin, which many of the characters of the novel (as indeed many individuals since St. Augustine have done) identify with sexuality. What is important for my purpose here, however, is to note how this scene captures so perfectly the essence of the anal condition. An innocent child, with panties soiled by contact with the physical earth, climbs the Tree of Knowledge in her childhood Eden to become one with the adult gods. Observing, Quentin is already beginning (unconsciously, of course) to develop the neurosis that will characterize his adult attitude toward sexuality.

Quentin's personal identification with Caddy's muddy drawers is made clear in another childhood scene in which Caddy chastises him for "hugging" (137) Natalie. Quentin's embarrassment and guilt over being caught with "a dirty girl like Natalie" (134) is both interesting and revealing: "I jumped hard as I could into the hogwallow and mud yellowed up to my waist stinking I kept on plunging until I fell down and rolled over in it" (136?7). In the quarrel with Caddy which continues, Quentin covers her with mud: "I wiped mud from my legs smeared it on her wet hard turning body" (137). Later, when they wash themselves in the branch, Quentin observes "the sloughed mud stinking surfaceward' (138).

Such passages are typical of the Quentin section. Like Holden's, Quentin's language9 is filled with references to filthiness, and most such phrases relate to sexuality, particularly female. Women are "little dirty sluts" (78), "bitches" (160), and "whore[s]" (159) who "have an affinity for evil" (96) which is symbolized by the menstrual cycle, described as the "Delicate equilibrium of periodical filth between two moons balanced" (128). These last two quotes Quentin recalls from his father, who must bear the primary responsibility for teaching his son that female sexuality is synonymous with all impurity and evil. "Purity is a negative state and therefore contrary to nature," Mr. Compson tells Quentin. "It's nature is hurting you not Caddy" (116). Quentin also remembers that his father's one-word characterization of the human condition was, significantly, "Excrement" (77).

Such negative views of sexuality account for Quentin's desire for castration. "Versh told me about a man who mutilated himself. He went into the woods and did it with a razor, sitting in a ditch" (115?16). But Quentin would prefer a state even more startling and un-natural. "But that's not it. It's not not having them. It's never to have had them then I could say O That That's Chinese I dont know Chinese" (116). In this passage, the reader will soon discover, is to be found the essence of Quentin's character and fate. His self-imposed virginity represents his identification with the eunuch, as his suicide represents his desire to enter a world where sexuality is not even a possibility. Like Holden Caulfield, Quentin Compson would prefer a world without "Fuck."

 Like Holden, too, Quentin exhibits the obsessive concern for neatness and cleanliness that Freud associated with anal retentive behavior. Even on the day that will end in the irrationality of suicide, Quentin bathes, shaves, puts on his new suit, packs his trunk, writes letters to his father and his roommate, and even takes time to clean the watch he has intentionally broken. Observing such fastidiousness, his roommate Shreve asks, "Is it a wedding or a wake?" (82)--not knowing it is both. At the end of the day, following his fight with Gerald Bland, Quentin worries about the shape of his collar, cleans the blood off his vest with gasoline, changes shirts and collars, gets a fresh handkerchief, brushes his hair and teeth, and repacks his bag. Significantly, the last action Faulkner has him perform before leaving his room to drown himself in the river underscores his obsession for neatness and order: "Before I snapped the light out I looked around to see if there was anything else, then I saw that I had forgotten my hat . . . I had forgotten to brush it too, but Shreve had a brush, so I didn't have to open the bag any more" (179).

Also as in the case of Holden, Quentin's sexual anxieties lead him to be overly protective of his sister Caddy. In the stream episode it is Quentin, the oldest child, who feels that he must assume the responsibility for Caddy's muddy drawers, as he also later seeks to take responsibility for her adolescent promiscuity. To characterize Quentin's feelings concerning the latter, one might paraphrase Swift's observation on Caelia: "Poor Quentin! such sad, sad news: / Caddy, Caddy, Caddy screws." Driven to near madness by this discovery, he threatens to kill Dalton Ames to avenge his sister's seduction and disgrace. Quentin's failure in this scene further underscores his sexual impotence. When Ames hands him a gun (an obvious phallic symbol) and invites him to make good on his threat, Quentin faints, "just passed out like a girl" (162), he says. Having thus failed to protect Caddy from Ames, Quentin next seeks to negate Caddy's promiscuity by persuading his father that he has committed incest with his sister. His father knows better, however, and, unfortunately for Quentin's ultimate well-being, responds to his son's "confession" with ridicule and sarcasm.

Quentin's subsequent attempt to rescue the little lost Italian girl, another "little dirty girl" (146), in Cambridge is an obvious attempt to atone for his failure to protect Caddy. To make the parallel umistakable, Faulkner not only has Quentin repeatedly call the little girl "sister" (125ff.) but also repeats in this episode many of the symbols and motifs employed earlier in the Quentin-Caddy scenes: for example, flowers, trees, water, fences, and gates. Ironically, Quentin is no more successful in his chivalric treatment of the little stranger than he was with Caddy: his possessive behavior being misunderstood as attempted child molestation, he is detained for a time by policemen and must himself be rescued by his friends. None of these friends, though--only the reader--understands the disappointment and frustration and rage that Quentin directs toward Caddy and the world she represents when he attacks Gerald Bland while shouting, "Did you ever have a sister? did you?" (166). It is the same disappointment and frustration and rage that Holden Caulfield feels when he wants to murder the individual who wrote "Fuck you" on Phoebe's schoolhouse wall.

Notes


  1. As Carl F. Strauch has noted, Holden, in his alienation from society and his quest for personal identity, "is observed to keep company not only with Huck Finn but also with Ulysses, Aeneas, Ishmael, Alyosha, Stephen Dedalus, and Hans Castrop" (in Salzberg 65). Other critics have found similarities between Holden and David Copperfield, Eugene Gant, Nick Adams, Jay Gatsby, and even an occasional female character such as Carson McCullers' Frankie Addams.
  2. See, for example, Edgar Branch, "Mark Twain and J.D. Salinger: A Study in Literary Continuity," American Quarterly 9 (Summer 1958), 144-158; Charles Kaplan, "Holden and Huck: The Odysseys of Youth," College English 18 (November 1956), 76-80; and John Pilkington, "About This Madman Stuff," University of Mississippi Studies in English 7 (1966), 65-75.
  3. Huck's involvement with death, particularly his faking his own death, is symbolic, not literal.
  4. "The thing is," Holden admits, "most of the time when you're coming pretty close to doing it with a girl . . . she keeps telling you to stop. The trouble with me is, I stop. Most guys don't. I can't help it" (92). "Poor Quentin," his sister Caddy tells him, "you've never done that have you" (151).
  5. "I felt so lonesome, all of a sudden," Holden says atone point. "I almost wished I was dead" (48). This death wish is objectified in Holden's sympathetic viewing of the museum mummies (204), as it is also in the body of James Castle, the classmate who, clad in the turtleneck sweater Holden has lent him (thus making him Holden's alter ego), kills himself by leaping from a dormitory window (170). 6 See Corsini, vol. 3: 143, 247.
  6. See references to the poem in Salzberg.
  7. Significantly, Faulkner identified this scene as the genesis of his novel. See, for example, Faulkner in the University, 31-32. 
  8. Sometimes the disparaging words are spoken by characters other than Quentin, but since they are presented to the reader through Quentin's stream of consciousness, they come to represent his own views as well.

Works Cited


Becker, Ernest. The Denial of Death. New York: Free Press, 1973.

Brown, Norman O. Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytic Meaning of History. Middleton, Conn.: Wesleyan  University Press, 1959.

Corsini, Raymond J., ed. Encyclopedia of Psychology. 2nd ed. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1994.

Faulkner, William. The Sound and the Fury. The Corrected Text. New York: Vintage Books, 1990.

Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. London: Hogarth Press, 1969.

Gwynn, Frederick L., and Joseph L. Blotner, eds. Faulkner in the University: Class Conferences at the    University of Virginia 1957-1958. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1959.

Salinger, J. D. The Catcher in the Rye. Boston: Little, Brown Books, 1991.

Salzberg, Joel, ed. Critical Essays on Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1990.

Yeats, William Butler. Collected Poems. 2nd ed. New York: Macmillan, 1951.

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