Holden, Charlie, and the Fight for the Coming of Age

In human development adolescence bestows upon us a unique phase of the lifespan. It is a chapter that is painted in both highly charged intensity, awkwardness and discovery. It is a metamorphosis where individuals long to further shape who they are, and often feel confident they have already figured out how life works and certain they are ready to jump into their adult selves. All too often, they find out there actually remains a lot to learn in regards to fully emerging into maturity. Adolescence becomes a time where vital lessons are obtained, whether one consciously realizes this at that time or not. The adolescent phase is somewhat of an idiosyncratic middle ground that can feel like so many things all at once when one is presently wading through it.

Adolescence is an uncertain purgatory, a crossroads, and an in between. This is because it is a time of life where childhood has ended, and yet early adulthood is not yet fully attained. Teenagers typically are more vulnerable to reactivity and impulsivity, they grow weary easy, they are reactive, and deep down they clamor to learn more about who they really are.

No matter how much further into the lifespan one goes past their adolescence, or what period of time they grew up in, I believe that people typically share the common ground of possessing one-of-a-kind carved, etched memories of the time of their adolescence to reflect upon, and the lessons they learned from it, and they carry it with them as their life evolves. Reasons such as these justify why this topic can serve as a muse that inspires an array of excellent written subject matter in the world of fiction and creative written expression.

I feel as though this serves for complete justification explaining why the literary fiction novels: The Catcher in The Rye by J.D. Salinger and The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky are highly acclaimed, respected novels. The authors of these novels immerse their audience into the themes that stem from enduring one’s adolescence, and the value of the lessons attained within personal coming of age, and identity discovery. Regardless of the fact that the novels were written decades apart from one another, they share the unfiltered, accessible glimpse of delving into the minds of two male teenage protagonists who are searching for meaning, longing to comprehend their rightful place in the world, Chbosky’s Charlie, and Salinger’sHolden Caulfield.

 Throughout the classic novel, The Catcher in the Rye, Salinger touches on the occurrence of several life events that have affected Holden in one way or another. Some of these are more common teenage angst issues, such as expressing his irritation with the types of people in the world whom he believes are ridiculous, or as he refers to them, in Holden fashion, as “phonies” (Salinger). Also, Holden’s struggles are explored in his attempts to be involved with girls, yet continuing to come across as misunderstood by them. However, there are some other childhood events that are revealed to the reader which are traumatic in nature. These tragic circumstances also emit an understanding for the impact in the causation behind why Holden has begun to sink further into the chains of mental despair.

For example, Holden’s disruptive behavior pattern that have caused him to get expelled from several different schools have created a lot of devastation upon his relationship with his family members, his father in particular is heavily mentioned. Also, readers soon understand that the whole family is grieving once Holden begins discussing the premature death of his brother Allie, who passed away from leukemia. Holden had a deeply rooted attachment to his brother, the way he misses him is a highly intense subject that has crushed him as he is forced to go through grief at a young age. Also, there is another event later on where Holden hints at the likelihood that a teacher is crossing inappropriate boundaries with him as well. 

The novel’s narrative structure is designed in such a way that the reader is able to recall, revisit and link all of these significant events together as the plot continues to unfold and they get to know Holden more. Through Holden’s rapid, unfiltered thoughts as a stream of consciousness narrative, these tragic and provoking events all prove useful in helping to build tension and momentum for the story as all of the events can be strung together to further assist in peeling away the many layers exposing the novel’s central conflict where the reader has a concise understanding of what caused Holden to spiral into a mental break down.

The novel reaches a climactic zenith in unison with providing a powerful explanation for the book’s namesake. This moment also reveals so much clarity for Holden as well as his audience. In a conversation with his little sister, Phoebe, Holden passionately goes on about how he aspires more than anything to be what he considers: The Catcher in The Rye. This was derived from a poem by Robert Burns, however Holden mixed up a line, yet the metaphor he personally attached crafted a significance that is as profound as it is chilling. Holden explained that he longed to be the one who holds the responsibility of saving children from losing their innocence. Significantly, this realization clearly exposes any remaining unblurred components about Holden’s personality and causes a dramatic shift into how he is perceived as a character. Suddenly, the reader’s understanding of who Holden Caulfield is actually becomes further magnified. Suddenly, readers grasp that there is far more to Holden than simply a rebellious teenager who is refusing to conform and keeps getting expelled from schools like Pencey Prep Academy.

Extending into Salinger’s surging metaphorical success, once readers obtain the knowledge that Holden longs to be The Catcher in the Rye, readers are capable to connect to Holden with more honesty and transparency than ever before. Now, the causation as to why Holden fled from Mr. Antolini’s home in a panic makes more sense, we understand why he became obsessively distressed at the sight of vulgar curse words scribbled on the walls of his little sister’s elementary school bathroom walls, and why he was overwhelmed with a mixture of both euphoria and crestfallen emotions as he watched Phoebe carefree, riding a carousel in the rain. Suddenly, Holden’s chaotic thought process does not seem so cluttered, it is entirely understood why he thinks the way he does along with the reasons he ended up needed to go to the hospital for a while as mentioned in the beginning of the story. Holden’s resolution is both bittersweet and real. Moreover, without a doubt it successfully pulls at the reader’s heartstrings as the story reaches it’s end.

Above all, readers learn how much more there was behind Holden than just the mask he wore of a defiant, teenage boy who did not want to conform. Holden’s struggle is so much deeper and complex. Holden’s true struggle is the raw affliction of coming to grips with what the experience of losing one’s own innocence feels like. Holden felt like he had to face painful tribulations far too early in life forcing him to grow up way too fast. As a reader, it feels entirely understandable that Holden feels like his youth was stolen from him by a cruel thief known as loss: the loss far too soon of a brother he adored, the loss of purity as he was made to feel uncomfortable by an authority figure, the list goes on.

 Truly, as a teenage boy who had endured such circumstances that surrounded him, I pondered how could Holden not feel as though he was the embodiment of living a life that was fractured and pulled out from under him? How could he not begin to identify with a sense of corrosion that caused him to have an underlying belief system adorned with his corrupted youth? On that note, this could also serve as justification for his enmeshment towards alienation, his vexation with other peers could easily stem from all of this as well. Perhaps, Holden felt envy deep down that other kids his age did not have to face such taxing hardships growing up. Perhaps a combination of these things played a role in forcing him to feel like a misunderstood heretic.

Optimistically, the end of the story does include a short, but tender epilogue in which Holden states that he is beginning to miss his classmates while he has been staying in hospital. Even though it is a bit of a cliffhanger, I have always felt the epilogue offers just enough closure for the sparkle of hope to glimmer for Holden. There is clear indication that he has received help for what was wrong, and he desires to resume a more normal teenage life. Even though he cannot erase the chain of the past’s events, he can figuratively pick up the pieces he believes were stolen from him with this chance to hit the reset button on his life, and move forward. Furthermore, he can continue to unveil where he belongs in the world, surging to exist beyond just identified by the misfortunate tragedies that eclipsed him.

Salinger’s novel succeeds in being entertaining, thought provoking and gripping. Holden is a character with his own expressive thoughts, sarcastic humor and particular oddities he presents himself with. Even when he goes on random tangents, it is an essential element of who he is. What better way to genuinely grasp the way many human minds process thought than through a stream of conscious thoughts? All things considered, there is no doubt to me as to how and why this novel became a beloved treasure in the world of fiction, I fully believe that it will remain that way for many years to come and withstand the test of time for many more years to come.

Nearly fifty years after The Catcher in the Rye was written, Stephen Chbosky wrote his 1999 compelling novel entitled The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Chbosky’s novel glows as a riveting and refreshing, modernized fiction story. Like Catcher, The Perks draws a parallel in a similar coming of age flair and an adolescent boy’s desperate need for validation and self-discovery. Through Chbosky’s novel, readers meet and quickly feel an attachment for the protagonist Charlie. Charlie is a quirky, protagonist struggling to claim his rightful place in high school. Readers can quickly grasp that Charlie is adorned with a set of complex, interpersonal issues and the sense of being lonely and highly misunderstood as he touches on some of the dysfunction within his family life at home, and the suicide of his friend a year ago, and several other unfortunate events. With his eloquent and eye-opening writing style, Stephen Chbosky quickly compels his readers to want to understand Charlie and perhaps reflect on their own emotions towards the ways they too have felt vulnerable and awkward during this confusing time of the lifespan.

The Perks of Being A Wallflower is not simply just told in a first-person narrative, or homodiegetic narration, rather, Chbosky allows his protagonist’s story to be told in the format of written letters to an undisclosed, anonymous person. Charlie also wishes to have the people he talks about from his life remain anonymous. For that reason, he has changed their names to protect their privacy. Chbosky’s fascinatingly, unique narrative style of carrying out a structured plot through the use of letter writing remains constant throughout the duration of the novel. I feel that it is a highly successful tactic employed by the author in reeling in the audience because it promotes a pleasant duality of both curiosity and wonder.

In his earliest Charlie Letters, the topic and plot points quickly shift to the start of Charlie’s anxiety ridden fears concerning the beginning of his freshman year of high school. At first, Charlie is retracted and alienated with his rapid and accelerated thought patterns. However, the conflict is primarily introduced through Charlie’s Advanced English teacher, Bill. As mutual avid lovers of a wide range of fiction novels, Charlie makes a meaningful connection with this teacher. Bill not only gives Charlie a special list of books to read but he also encourages him to try to participate more in life. Interestingly enough, these conversations with Bill set up a life changing course of events for Charlie. Shortly thereafter, Charlie stumbles across a somewhat unlikely group of new friends who are all seniors, and far more experienced with the bits of life that Charlie has been closed off from. As unlikely as the bonds he forges with these friends seems at first, they are exactly what Charlie needed all along.

His letters are highly personal and sometimes read like a diary, however the reader is fully aware they are intended for the welcomed eyes of another person. For someone who became far too comfortable existing in a disconnected state, Charlie is bestowed with brand new feelings through his attachment towards his friends, Sam and Patrick. Furthermore, his new found emotions segue into his family relationships as well. Even though his friends are not aware of this right away, they hold dear significance to Charlie, as they begin to unconsciously assist him in participating in a multitude of profound new ways, both internally and externally. Readers can quickly grasp the more obvious intentions that seethe within Chbosky’s novel, as it is a brilliant, dazzling example encompassing the themes of evolving through the hurdles of growing up, coming of age, confusion, angst, seeking to belong, and developing trust in others through human connectivity.

Irrevocably, through every letter we observe Charlie’s insight through all kinds of experiences, from both his darkest hours of despair and his triumphant euphoria’s. In Charlie’s happiest moments with his friends, for example, he states: “I swear we were infinite” (39). I felt like it was a very memorable quote from the novel, proving how impactful a few words can be to describe such deep feelings.  Whether Charlie evolves from the result of a good or bad high from experimenting with drug and alcohol use at parties, creating a sense of camaraderie with conversations and inside jokes at the Big Boy Diner, driving his sister and supporting her through the aftermath of ending an unwanted pregnancy and swearing to keep it a secret from their parents, discovering the haunting yet lovely music of The Smiths (who are one of my personal favorite bands of all time!) or taking part in live performances of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (which is one of my all-time favorite movies as well!) Rapidly Charlie emerges from the shadows, starts letting down his walls. The recipient of his letters is witnessing a fascinating transformation from one who only knew how to observe into one who fully participates.

Provided the way The Perks of Being A Wallflower holds nothing back and creatively tells Charlie’s story, Chbosky’s novel masterfully displays a captivating and inspiringly forward look at authentic, raw emotions one experiences going through the coming of age journey in adolescence as they searching for the security of acceptance, meaning, and place to belong. A theme that was not as immediately obvious in the novel was the courage to overcome the devastation of psychological and sexual trauma. The post literary techniques assist in the full immersion for the reader to directly experience Charlie’s inner secrets and thoughts. Furthermore, Chbosky’s creativity allows his novel the opportunity to be a personal, trustworthy experience because the reader could easily feel as though Charlie’s letters were written for them personally. Notably, another one of the core themes of this novel is learning how to trust others and the aftermath of doing so. This is another remarkable example of how profoundly Stephen Chbosky succeeded in reflecting upon the idea of human connectivity. As the reader, Charlie vicariously trusts you (the reader) in particular with the lifeline of his personal, and candid bundle of letters.

As a reader, I fully believe that Charlie’s initial conscious desire was to have friendship and feel like he fit in somewhere.  And yet, once he is successful at that, he ends up receiving so much more than simply the experience of where he belongs within a high school clique. I believe in the big picture that Charlie’s unconscious desire was to find himself again. Above all, the introverted protagonist fought to become his own hero with heralding courage. Through this and becoming an active participant in life, Charlie discovered the gift of liberation and furthermore, the ability to experience life’s pure, unaffected moments that he harmoniously described as infinite.

Each of these novels are ablaze with the flair of coming of age, identity discovery, and adolescent validation. However, there is always more, as many fans of literature also know and understand. Once I delved a bit deeper, it was as clearer to me. There is also the incorporation of the theme of psychological healing, particularly from emotional and sexual trauma. Indeed, both novels fearlessly shed a blunt light upon the courage to embark on the quest for retribution and the audience is witness to the process of transformation. Readers get to watch two protagonists fight for their deserved release from the prison cell of mental anguish and cheer them on.

Although Holden and Charlie are fighting a similar battle of feeling misunderstood and have both dealt with trauma, they are like night and day in the ways this impacts them, the downward spirals in how they reach their breaking points are designed differently from one another. Also, their individual needs to attain homeostasis again are also unique to them on an individual level. To clarify, through the process of analyzing both of these novels, it became apparent to me just how differently the minds of Holden and Charlie each are wired. They are a shining example of two different types of teenage boys who are dealing with a similar bracket of issues. Holden is the more restrained, outspoken type that outwardly displays his viewpoints and opposition, whereas Charlie is the type to turn everything inward, severing his mind’s thoughts from his physical body’s experience. Charlie copes with things in the defense mechanism of shutting down, almost enough for him to completely dissolve with his pain until he is almost non-existent. That is, until he is gifted with the sense of connection through others. It is accurate that the long-term aftermath of a traumatic event impacts all individuals in different ways, shapes and forms. Finally, I can’t help but include how entertaining it was to revisit my undergraduate days of studying psychology through this essay. I feel like I did a case study and assessment on both of these memorable protagonists, per say. Although I am by no means an expert in the field of psychology as a working career, I am a writer who will always find it to be a fascinating field, and will continue to use my knowledge of it as a tool that I enjoy weaving into my love for literature and creative writing.

Furthermore, holding true to my keen interest in personality and the reasons for human behavior, Holden and Charlie, through the vessel of highly realistic fiction novels, serve as a duo that glistens vital evidence upon this hypothesis: No matter how similar the stage for abnormality is set, no two human being’s psychological struggle should be expected to respond in the same way, nor do they follow a planned course of predictability. I cannot say enough about how both protagonists serve as empowering examples of how differently all human minds work and how each of us are prone to having our own observations, thoughts, desires, and needs.

One literary technique that stood out as particular interest to me was the enriching ways both authors used the blending of intertextuality to connect to communicate concepts to their target audiences. Both Salinger and Chbosky were able to strengthen and shape their story with the weaving in references to other works of literature, movie stars, musicians and other mediums of expression that are relevant for the time period in which they were written. This was an ingenious and clever tactic that allowed both of the authors to bridge connectivity with their target audiences aligning with the shared themed of adolescent identity discovery and seeking a sense of belonging and validity. I personally appreciated the inclusion of this because it unwound my own personal teenage nostalgia when the lyrics of my favorite bands and the words of the great poets I cherished were my favorite solace and my haven of belonging when I felt void from it in all other areas of my life.

In conclusion, I feel elated with satisfaction spending the time I have reflecting on these two tremendous coming of age novels in this essay.  Whether I was reading Salinger’s stream of consciousness narrative of Holden in 1950’s New York astonished with his signature rabbit hole of thoughts and ideas that bounce off of one another, or Chbosky’s contemporary novel set in the late 90’s as I soaked up every bit of emotion that coursed through Charlie’s letters, I was equally entertained as much as I was moved. I cannot rave enough about how much I regarded these novels to be remarkable, heart-stirring, and emotionally thrilling rides in the world of fiction from cover to cover. Both of the novels carry another particular message that holds a lustrous truth that endlessly rings no matter what events occurred in either story, no matter the decade it was written in, and no matter one’s thoughts towards the personalities or the decisions made by either Charlie or Holden.

Many people understand adolescence to be a time where individuals are particularly vulnerable to discovering how they can best cope with the unpredictable up and down roller coaster known as life. It is no secret that life generally is full of challenges and hardships, however adolescence is also a sensitive, confusing time where the realization of what remains left of youth surges with more intensity as well.  Both of these novels that can easily appeal to more than just an audience of teenagers in my opinion because they both deliver us the ability to feel empathy for a fictional character as we read, and they segue us back to our own adolescence and our own coming of age. It is also vital to absorb how these authors express this underscored idea: within every human mind, no matter who you are, there exists as a complex yet fascinating puzzle that processes information, organizes our thoughts as we perceive the world around us, and formulates the chemistry of our emotions. Thus, our minds play an immense part in the outcome of making us who we are. Without our emotions we would be vacant, empty shells.

Undoubtedly, in the lifespan, even if our adolescence is a chaotic struggle, it can enlighten us and teach us how to cope with things we may face later in life. Fortunately, the time of our adolescence leaves us a portal we need to finish growing up as our identities become stronger, our maturity becomes more engrained, and we learn to better manage the overload of data that our minds process. Just like Holden and Charlie, we are all gifted with minds that can learn to reconcile our shattered pieces. Like Holden and Charlie, we can all learn to withstand the influx of life’s ambiguities, even in our darkest moments. Regardless of the most flawed or difficult times we face in our lives, these memories can become a part of who we are without damaging us when we persevere.  We can incorporate all of the events of life as chapters of our life’s story as we embark on our journey through the lifespan, and continue learning more and more about who we are as our identity continues to evolve with us. Essentially, Charlie and Holden remind me that all of our experiences, good and bad, are an integral component towards understanding what it means to be a feeling, sensing, and perceiving human being.


Chbosky, Stephen. The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Pocket Books, 1999.

Salinger, J.D. The Catcher in The Rye. Little, Brown and Company, 1945.


Photo by Ben Hershey on Unsplash

Ally Campanozzi

Ally Campanozzi has been writing fiction and short stories since she was in elementary school, as well as poetry and essays since she was a teenager. To her, writing is like an invisible Siamese twin that has grown up with her through the years. As a self proclaimed word nerd, she is currently pursuing her Master's Degree in Creative Writing to expand her passion and allow more doors to open for her on a professional level, along with applying new techniques to her favorite passion and hobby. She also holds a bachelor's degree in Psychology, and a minor in Sociology from Southern New Hampshire University. Ally typically enjoys blending her knowledge of human behavior and emotion into her writing content and subject matter. She is also an avid RPG gamer, and loves animals and nature. She currently resides near Denver, Colorado with her husband and best friend of 13 years and their three cat children: Riku, Dani Finn, Kya Quinn.