Young Adult literature is a literary genre that emergedin the 1950s after the publication of several books1 that focused on theadolescent experience. Many Young Adult novels are considered Bildungsroman2as they follow the psychological journey of a young protagonist towards maturity.This genre has evolved through the years, but the in-depth examination ofteenage behavior and emotion as they experience love, loss and self-discovery remainsa core feature. Through comparing the characters of Miles Halter in Looking for Alaska (2005) and HoldenCaulfield in The Catcher in the Rye(1951), this essay will explore how teenage protagonists in different erasof Young Adult literature embody the quintessence of adolescent dissatisfaction,sexual struggles, rebellion, emotional maturity and identity, with reference tothe language and diction.
Miles and Holden are the archetypes of dissatisfiedand depressed teenagers. Before going to Culver Creek, Miles is completelyunmotivated and loathes his mundane life. For instance, regarding his birthdayparty, he says that simply stating he has low expectations would be anunderstatement. Going to boarding school even worsens his circumstances, and afterbeing thrown into the lake by his peers, Miles dully notes the ‘fear…of living in a place where you neverknow what’s going to happen.
‘ Miles regains pleasure and exhilaration duringhis brief friendship with Alaska, and he enjoys skipping class and smoking with’the world’s hottest girl’. However, thisonly emphasizes Miles’ dissatisfaction, because he irrationally romanticizesAlaska as perfect to make up for the imperfection of his life. As the Colonelobserves, ‘it’s like you only care aboutthe Alaska you made up’. However, Miles’ happiness in life vanishes whenAlaska dies in a car accident. Miles muses that Alaska’s death was not ‘sadness so much as pain’ and that ‘it hurt…it hurt like a beating’. Hefeels like he is within a ‘labyrinth ofsuffering’, and he spends the rest of the novel trying to reconcile himselfwith his suffering and coming out of his depression. Alaska’s death allows Milesto openly express his pain and sadness, dramatizing the theme of depression. In Catcher, Holdenalso exudes a general air of discontent and enmity towards the world.
His littlesister Phoebe accurately points out that he ‘doesn’tlike a million things’—nothing brings him joy. Instead, the phoniness of the world disturbs Holden, and hecriticizes everyone. It is important to note that Holden only calls people whoreject him phonies—such as his ex-girlfriend Sally, his schoolmates, and thecondescending adult circle, so his discontent is biased and cynical. BecauseHolden gets rejected again and again during his three days in New York, he alsobecomes extremely sensitive to anything that goes against his liking. WhenHolden drops and breaks Phoebe’s present, he ‘damn near cried, it made him feel so terrible’. When he getspunched by Maurice, his pessimism compels him picture himself ‘bleeding and all’.
Even when nothingunsatisfactory happens to him, Holden still feels ‘sort of lousy’. The excessive use of the words ‘depressing’ and ‘lonesome’3 inthe narrative proves that Holden was an emotionally wounded adolescent. Besides,Holden frequently refers to his own death, from casually saying ‘it killed me’ when entertained to declaringthat he wanted to ‘jump out the window’ andcommit suicide. Constant references to death hints at Holden’s unstable anddepressed mental state. Both Milesand Holden have a cynically negative view of the world, and this truthfullyreflects the discontented or depressed attitude of teenagers. Adolescents are not only aroused by emotions, but alsoby sex, and both novels touch on the protagonist’s struggle with sexuality.
Paradoxically,Miles and Holden feel both curiosity and repulsion towards sexual behavior. In Alaska, Miles and Lara want to attemptoral sex, but are intimidated by their inexperience; when Miles watchespornography with Alaska, he is excited yet supremely embarrassed. On a less provocative level, Miles stilladmits that he is baffled when it comes to the ‘glittering ambiguity of agirl’s smile’, and these awkward scenes all underscore the theme of sexualstruggle. However, Miles displays maturity when he finally grows to loveAlaska emotionally and sleeps with her, saying ‘we didn’t have sex. We nevergot naked…it didn’t matter.’ As in other Bildungsroman, Milesexperiences maturity when he learns to enjoy relationships based on emotionalconnection, not on sex.Holden is less mature in this area and proclaimsoutright that ‘sex is something I just don’t understand’.
Nevertheless,he is interested in women, fantasizing about those he thinks have ‘quite alot of sex appeal’. He is titillated by the sexual rituals he sees throughhis hotel window and admits curiosity as he says he’s ‘probably the biggestsex maniac you ever saw’. Later,Holden daringly pays for a prostitute to ‘practice on’, but whenthe prostitute arrives, he is too nervous and concocts various excuses to avoidhaving sex. Holden’s childish perception can also be seen when he asks for sexadvice from Carl Luce, declaring unconvincingly that he ‘regards sex as awuddayacallit—a physical and spiritual experience’ and immediatelyafterwards saying ‘my sex life stinks’. His engrossment in this areareflects the distinctive attitude of teenagers. Holden’s immaturity differslittle from Miles’ initial curiosity, establishing struggles with sexuality asa ubiquitous theme in both eras of YA literature.
Teenage rebellion is yet another prevalent theme inall Young Adult literature of the past century. Although Alaska and Catcher werewritten fifty years apart, Miles and Holden express their defiance in the sameway—through alcohol and tobacco. Miles tries smoking under his roommate’sinvitation, and begins wielding cigarettes and alcohol as weapons against conformity.As Miles himself says, they drink because ‘itwas just fun, particularly because we were risking expulsion’; his friends havea ‘smoking hole’ where they skip classand smoke. Later, the concept of smoking becomes sinister as Miles realizesthat cigarettes are a way to bring self-destruction. As Alaska ominously remarks,’Y’all smoke to enjoy it. I smoke todie.
‘ Miles empathizes with Alaska for smoking even though she is clearly abusingtobacco, showing naïve defiance.As for Catcher,the leitmotif of alcohol is unmissable. Holden flaunts it as a symbol ofhis sophistication. When he orders aScotch and soda at Ernie’s, he complains that ‘if you were only around six years old, you could get liquor’, revealingthat his purpose of drinking is to act older than his age.
At the Wicker Bar,Holden ‘stood up while he orderedScotch and sodas so they could see how tall I was and not think I was agoddam minor.’ The next night, Holden ‘satat that goddam bar till one o’clock or so, getting drunk as hell’. As Holden drinks for appearances, heportrays the standard adolescent character who rebels for self-centered reasons.Holden’s use of cigarettes is similarly destructive. He smokes as a getawayfrom life, smoking the night he is expelled and again as soon as he arrives athis hotel. In both novels, it is evident that alcohol and tobacco are usedprimarily to appear mature and resist conformity, exemplifying the rebelliousnature of teenagers.
The theme of rebellion extends to challengingauthority. At school, Alaska initially disregards Miles and treats him ‘like he was ten’. Clamoring forAlaska’s attention, Miles mutinies against figures of authority to prove thathe could fit in. When his father explicitly tells him ‘No drinking. No cigarettes’, Miles does the opposite. In a wilderact of defiance, Miles hires a stripper to be the speaker at a school event becausehe wanted to commemorate Alaska’s death by imitating her recklessness. On theother hand, Holden’s relationships with adults are more nuanced.
Holden loathesgrown-ups because he thinks they damage children’s innocence. When he saw thatsomeone had scrawled curse words on Phoebe’s school’s walls, he wanted to killthe ‘peverty bum that wrote it’. His distrustof adults also derives from his own narrow-mindedness.
He calls his teachers ‘phonies’ because they use meaninglesswords like ‘grand’, and when Spencer tries to give him advice, he discriminatesagainst his appearance, saying that he doesn’t ‘much like to see old guys in their pajamas and bathrobes’. Holdenmost deliberately defies authority by using vulgar language in the somewhatconservative fifties society, such as ‘goddam’and ‘half-assed’. Miles’ andHolden’s dismissive attitudes towards authority are classic examples of immature,self-entitled adolescents in YA fiction.
However, a Bildungsromanis incomplete without the emotional maturity of the protagonist, and in Alaska, Miles matures under the death ofAlaska. Initially, Miles is idealistic. His fascination with last words revealsa shallow mindset as he focuses on the glamour of legacies and neglects the uglinessof death. When Alaska’s car crash brings death close to home, Miles thinks itis ‘all his fault’ and cannot processhis guilt. Miles’ new obsession becomesuncovering why and how Alaska died, since he blamed himself for not stoppingher from drunk-driving that night. He becomes depressed and his gradesdeteriorate as he ‘didn’t really caremuch anymore’. A turning point occurs when Miles realizes that Alaska’sdeath was an accident. He cries against the Colonel without fear of appearingvulnerable because he understands that ‘itdoesn’t matter when you realize that you are still alive’.
More importantly, Miles trusts that Alaskaforgives him ‘just as he forgives her’ andhe comes to terms with her death, saying that where she is ‘is somewhere, and I hope it’s beautiful’. Thus, Miles maturityemerges in the face of death and his search for self-forgiveness.Many critics contend that Holden is a staticcharacter and doesn’t change in the course of the book4, but it can be argued thathis growth happens subtly in the last chapter. Initially, Holden’s resistanceto change is apparent in his narration. Holden loves looking at the Indians inthe museum because ‘everything stayedright where it was’. When he thinks about Phoebe growing up, he feels sadbecause he thought ‘certain things, theyshould stay the way they are’, including the innocence of children.However, at the end of the book, Holden experiences a subtle transformation,and this is portrayed through the symbol of the carousel. When he watchesPhoebe on the carousel, he feels ‘so damnhappy…the way old Phoebe kept going around and around’.
The continuousmotion of the carousel symbolizes change and growth, all while preserving theinnocent joy of the children on board. Holden’s unexpected happiness in thisscene shows that he learns to accept that change is not always corrupt. Afterwards,Holden even admits that he ‘misses thepeople he told about’. He no longer harbors cynicism, but has a newfoundaffinity for life. Therefore, while both teenagers experience a transformationin mindset, Miles’ maturity is obvious while Holden’s epiphany is subtly shownthrough symbols.
The theme of maturity further manifests in theprotagonist’s search of identity. Miles embarks on a literal quest to discover greatness.He goes to boarding school to look for ‘aGreat Perhaps, real friends, and a more-than-minor life’. In meetingAlaska, Miles believes that Alaska embodies greatness so he finds his identityin her, saying that he was the ‘drizzle’ toher ‘hurricane’.
When Alaska dies,Miles begins reconstructing his perception of her, and he eventuallyunderstands that Alaska was not just a beautiful girl but a flawed human whowas selfish and impulsive. In accepting Alaska’s identity, Miles grows closerto his friends and forgives himself for being imperfect as he writes ‘we need never be hopeless, because we cannever be irreparably broken’. Alaska’s death propels Miles’ understandingof his broken yet forgiven identity.
Since the beginning, Holden establishes himself asthe ‘catcher in the rye’. He aspiresto ‘catch everybody if they start to goover the cliff’—a metaphorical way of expressing that he wants to protectpeople from losing their innocence. His self-appointed identity manifests inhis actions, for example he tries to rub offcurse words scribbled on the walls of Phoebe’s school. His perception ofhimself is also muddled because he wants to stop himself from aging, such ashis ironic description that he ‘hasgray hair’ but still ‘acts abouttwelve’. A change occurs when Phoebe almost falls by grabbing the gold ringon the carousel, and Holden ‘didn’t sayanything’ because ‘if they fall off,they fall off, but it’s wrong to say anything’. He realizes that even theinnocent should be free to make their own choices, and forgoes his identity asthe protector of innocence. There is almost a reversal of identity when Phoebekisses Holden and places his cap on his head. In interacting with Phoebe,Holden forgets to be the ‘catcher in therye’ and instead allows himself to be protected, showing a reversal ofidentity.
Language and diction is masterfully employed inboth texts to emphasize the protagonist’s maturity and identity. In Alaska, the immature diction creates astark contrast with the mature emotions that Miles has to go through. Informallanguage permeates the narration, for example a fried burrito is called a ‘bufriedo’ and the Dean is nicknamed ‘the Eagle’. This characterizes Miles asa childish teenager, but despite his immaturity, Miles is forced to go throughthe adult emotions of guilt and grief when Alaska dies. The diction used isheavily ironic as it makes Miles’ emotional maturity more dramatic and obvious.In Catcher, diction serves a similarpurpose. Holden’s frequent use of his own terminology, such as ‘flitty’, ‘whory-looking’, ‘pimpy’, establishes his character as apariah in society who cannot communicate effectively, while his catchphrases, includingthe hyperbolic ‘that killed me’ andthe infamous ‘phony’, reveal hiscynicism. Holden’s grammar is sometimes faulty, painting the image of a highschool drop-out, such as the reversed word order in ‘it has a very good academic rating, Pencey’.
The childish languagehighlights Holden’s cynical personality and creates a contrast when at last,Holden goes through an immense transformation in mindset. After his epiphany,Holden finally starts using positive adjectives such as ‘so damn happy’ and ‘so damnnice’. Thus, although Alaska usesmodern vernacular while Catcher overflowswith fifties slangs, the purpose of diction—to emphasize the eventual maturityof the protagonist—is achieved in both texts.
A myriad of parallels can be drawn between Looking for Alaska and The Catcher in the Rye, so many that Greenhimself acknowledged the similarities between his character of Miles Halter andSalinger’s Holden Caulfield. As he commented, ‘anybody who writes aboutteenagers does so in the shadows of Salinger’5. Although written fiftyyears apart, Alaska and Catcher truthfully manifest the timelessessence of adolescence, and prove to us that no matter how much hopelessnessteenagers go through, they will always come out of it and continue on in abetter version of themselves.