Home Research PapersYoung life. As the Colonel observes, ‘it’s like you

Young life. As the Colonel observes, ‘it’s like you

Young Adult literature is a literary genre that emerged
in the 1950s after the publication of several books1 that focused on the
adolescent experience. Many Young Adult novels are considered Bildungsroman2
as they follow the psychological journey of a young protagonist towards maturity.

This genre has evolved through the years, but the in-depth examination of
teenage behavior and emotion as they experience love, loss and self-discovery remains
a core feature. Through comparing the characters of Miles Halter in Looking for Alaska (2005) and Holden
Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye
(1951), this essay will explore how teenage protagonists in different eras
of Young Adult literature embody the quintessence of adolescent dissatisfaction,
sexual struggles, rebellion, emotional maturity and identity, with reference to
the language and diction.

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Miles and Holden are the archetypes of dissatisfied
and depressed teenagers. Before going to Culver Creek, Miles is completely
unmotivated and loathes his mundane life. For instance, regarding his birthday
party, he says that simply stating he has low expectations would be an
understatement. Going to boarding school even worsens his circumstances, and after
being thrown into the lake by his peers, Miles dully notes the ‘fear…of living in a place where you never
know what’s going to happen.’ Miles regains pleasure and exhilaration during
his brief friendship with Alaska, and he enjoys skipping class and smoking with
‘the world’s hottest girl’. However, this
only emphasizes Miles’ dissatisfaction, because he irrationally romanticizes
Alaska as perfect to make up for the imperfection of his life. As the Colonel
observes, ‘it’s like you only care about
the Alaska you made up’. However, Miles’ happiness in life vanishes when
Alaska 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’. He
feels like he is within a ‘labyrinth of
suffering’, and he spends the rest of the novel trying to reconcile himself
with his suffering and coming out of his depression. Alaska’s death allows Miles
to openly express his pain and sadness, dramatizing the theme of depression.

In Catcher, Holden
also exudes a general air of discontent and enmity towards the world. His little
sister Phoebe accurately points out that he ‘doesn’t
like a million things’—nothing brings him joy. Instead, the phoniness of the world disturbs Holden, and he
criticizes everyone. It is important to note that Holden only calls people who
reject him phonies—such as his ex-girlfriend Sally, his schoolmates, and the
condescending adult circle, so his discontent is biased and cynical. Because
Holden gets rejected again and again during his three days in New York, he also
becomes extremely sensitive to anything that goes against his liking. When
Holden drops and breaks Phoebe’s present, he ‘damn near cried, it made him feel so terrible’. When he gets
punched by Maurice, his pessimism compels him picture himself ‘bleeding and all’. Even when nothing
unsatisfactory happens to him, Holden still feels ‘sort of lousy’. The excessive use of the words ‘depressing’ and ‘lonesome’3 in
the 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 declaring
that he wanted to ‘jump out the window’ and
commit suicide. Constant references to death hints at Holden’s unstable and
depressed mental state. Both Miles
and Holden have a cynically negative view of the world, and this truthfully
reflects the discontented or depressed attitude of teenagers.

Adolescents are not only aroused by emotions, but also
by 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 attempt
oral sex, but are intimidated by their inexperience; when Miles watches
pornography with Alaska, he is excited yet supremely embarrassed. On a less provocative level, Miles still
admits that he is baffled when it comes to the ‘glittering ambiguity of a
girl’s smile’, and these awkward scenes all underscore the theme of sexual
struggle. However, Miles displays maturity when he finally grows to love
Alaska emotionally and sleeps with her, saying ‘we didn’t have sex. We never
got naked…it didn’t matter.’ As in other Bildungsroman, Miles
experiences maturity when he learns to enjoy relationships based on emotional
connection, not on sex.

Holden is less mature in this area and proclaims
outright that ‘sex is something I just don’t understand’. Nevertheless,
he is interested in women, fantasizing about those he thinks have ‘quite a
lot of sex appeal’. He is titillated by the sexual rituals he sees through
his hotel window and admits curiosity as he says he’s ‘probably the biggest
sex maniac you ever saw’. Later,
Holden daringly pays for a prostitute to ‘practice on’, but when
the prostitute arrives, he is too nervous and concocts various excuses to avoid
having sex. Holden’s childish perception can also be seen when he asks for sex
advice from Carl Luce, declaring unconvincingly that he ‘regards sex as a
wuddayacallit—a physical and spiritual experience’ and immediately
afterwards saying ‘my sex life stinks’. His engrossment in this area
reflects the distinctive attitude of teenagers. Holden’s immaturity differs
little from Miles’ initial curiosity, establishing struggles with sexuality as
a ubiquitous theme in both eras of YA literature.

Teenage rebellion is yet another prevalent theme in
all Young Adult literature of the past century. Although Alaska and Catcher were
written fifty years apart, Miles and Holden express their defiance in the same
way—through alcohol and tobacco. Miles tries smoking under his roommate’s
invitation, and begins wielding cigarettes and alcohol as weapons against conformity.

As Miles himself says, they drink because ‘it
was just fun, particularly because we were risking expulsion’; his friends have
a ‘smoking hole’ where they skip class
and smoke. Later, the concept of smoking becomes sinister as Miles realizes
that cigarettes are a way to bring self-destruction. As Alaska ominously remarks,
‘Y’all smoke to enjoy it. I smoke to
die.’ Miles empathizes with Alaska for smoking even though she is clearly abusing
tobacco, showing naïve defiance.

As for Catcher,
the leitmotif of alcohol is unmissable. Holden flaunts it as a symbol of
his sophistication. When he orders a
Scotch and soda at Ernie’s, he complains that ‘if you were only around six years old, you could get liquor’, revealing
that his purpose of drinking is to act older than his age. At the Wicker Bar,
Holden ‘stood up while he ordered
Scotch and sodas so they could see how tall I was and not think I was a
goddam minor.’ The next night, Holden ‘sat
at that goddam bar till one o’clock or so, getting drunk as hell’. As Holden drinks for appearances, he
portrays the standard adolescent character who rebels for self-centered reasons.

Holden’s use of cigarettes is similarly destructive. He smokes as a getaway
from life, smoking the night he is expelled and again as soon as he arrives at
his hotel. In both novels, it is evident that alcohol and tobacco are used
primarily to appear mature and resist conformity, exemplifying the rebellious
nature of teenagers.

The theme of rebellion extends to challenging
authority. At school, Alaska initially disregards Miles and treats him ‘like he was ten’. Clamoring for
Alaska’s attention, Miles mutinies against figures of authority to prove that
he could fit in. When his father explicitly tells him ‘No drinking. No cigarettes’, Miles does the opposite. In a wilder
act of defiance, Miles hires a stripper to be the speaker at a school event because
he wanted to commemorate Alaska’s death by imitating her recklessness. On the
other hand, Holden’s relationships with adults are more nuanced. Holden loathes
grown-ups because he thinks they damage children’s innocence. When he saw that
someone had scrawled curse words on Phoebe’s school’s walls, he wanted to kill
the ‘peverty bum that wrote it’. His distrust
of adults also derives from his own narrow-mindedness. He calls his teachers ‘phonies’ because they use meaningless
words like ‘grand’, and when Spencer tries to give him advice, he discriminates
against his appearance, saying that he doesn’t ‘much like to see old guys in their pajamas and bathrobes’. Holden
most deliberately defies authority by using vulgar language in the somewhat
conservative fifties society, such as ‘goddam’
and ‘half-assed’. Miles’ and
Holden’s dismissive attitudes towards authority are classic examples of immature,
self-entitled adolescents in YA fiction.

However, a Bildungsroman
is incomplete without the emotional maturity of the protagonist, and in Alaska, Miles matures under the death of
Alaska. Initially, Miles is idealistic. His fascination with last words reveals
a shallow mindset as he focuses on the glamour of legacies and neglects the ugliness
of death. When Alaska’s car crash brings death close to home, Miles thinks it
is ‘all his fault’ and cannot process
his guilt. Miles’ new obsession becomes
uncovering why and how Alaska died, since he blamed himself for not stopping
her from drunk-driving that night. He becomes depressed and his grades
deteriorate as he ‘didn’t really care
much anymore’. A turning point occurs when Miles realizes that Alaska’s
death was an accident. He cries against the Colonel without fear of appearing
vulnerable because he understands that ‘it
doesn’t matter when you realize that you are still alive’.  More importantly, Miles trusts that Alaska
forgives him ‘just as he forgives her’ and
he comes to terms with her death, saying that where she is ‘is somewhere, and I hope it’s beautiful’. Thus, Miles maturity
emerges in the face of death and his search for self-forgiveness.

Many critics contend that Holden is a static
character and doesn’t change in the course of the book4, but it can be argued that
his growth happens subtly in the last chapter. Initially, Holden’s resistance
to change is apparent in his narration. Holden loves looking at the Indians in
the museum because ‘everything stayed
right where it was’. When he thinks about Phoebe growing up, he feels sad
because he thought ‘certain things, they
should 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 watches
Phoebe on the carousel, he feels ‘so damn
happy…the way old Phoebe kept going around and around’. The continuous
motion of the carousel symbolizes change and growth, all while preserving the
innocent joy of the children on board. Holden’s unexpected happiness in this
scene shows that he learns to accept that change is not always corrupt. Afterwards,
Holden even admits that he ‘misses the
people he told about’. He no longer harbors cynicism, but has a newfound
affinity for life. Therefore, while both teenagers experience a transformation
in mindset, Miles’ maturity is obvious while Holden’s epiphany is subtly shown
through symbols.

The theme of maturity further manifests in the
protagonist’s search of identity. Miles embarks on a literal quest to discover greatness.

He goes to boarding school to look for ‘a
Great Perhaps, real friends, and a more-than-minor life’. In meeting
Alaska, Miles believes that Alaska embodies greatness so he finds his identity
in her, saying that he was the ‘drizzle’ to
her ‘hurricane’. When Alaska dies,
Miles begins reconstructing his perception of her, and he eventually
understands that Alaska was not just a beautiful girl but a flawed human who
was selfish and impulsive. In accepting Alaska’s identity, Miles grows closer
to his friends and forgives himself for being imperfect as he writes ‘we need never be hopeless, because we can
never be irreparably broken’. Alaska’s death propels Miles’ understanding
of his broken yet forgiven identity.

Since the beginning, Holden establishes himself as
the ‘catcher in the rye’. He aspires
to ‘catch everybody if they start to go
over the cliff’—a metaphorical way of expressing that he wants to protect
people from losing their innocence. His self-appointed identity manifests in
his actions, for example he tries to rub off
curse words scribbled on the walls of Phoebe’s school. His perception of
himself is also muddled because he wants to stop himself from aging, such as
his ironic description that he ‘has
gray hair’ but still ‘acts about
twelve’. A change occurs when Phoebe almost falls by grabbing the gold ring
on the carousel, and Holden ‘didn’t say
anything’ because ‘if they fall off,
they fall off, but it’s wrong to say anything’. He realizes that even the
innocent should be free to make their own choices, and forgoes his identity as
the protector of innocence. There is almost a reversal of identity when Phoebe
kisses Holden and places his cap on his head. In interacting with Phoebe,
Holden forgets to be the ‘catcher in the
rye’ and instead allows himself to be protected, showing a reversal of
identity.

Language and diction is masterfully employed in
both texts to emphasize the protagonist’s maturity and identity. In Alaska, the immature diction creates a
stark contrast with the mature emotions that Miles has to go through. Informal
language permeates the narration, for example a fried burrito is called a ‘bufriedo’ and the Dean is nicknamed ‘the Eagle’. This characterizes Miles as
a childish teenager, but despite his immaturity, Miles is forced to go through
the adult emotions of guilt and grief when Alaska dies. The diction used is
heavily ironic as it makes Miles’ emotional maturity more dramatic and obvious.

In Catcher, diction serves a similar
purpose. Holden’s frequent use of his own terminology, such as ‘flitty’, ‘whory-looking’, ‘pimpy’, establishes his character as a
pariah in society who cannot communicate effectively, while his catchphrases, including
the hyperbolic ‘that killed me’ and
the infamous ‘phony’, reveal his
cynicism. Holden’s grammar is sometimes faulty, painting the image of a high
school drop-out, such as the reversed word order in ‘it has a very good academic rating, Pencey’. The childish language
highlights 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 damn
nice’. Thus, although Alaska uses
modern vernacular while Catcher overflows
with fifties slangs, the purpose of diction—to emphasize the eventual maturity
of 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 Green
himself acknowledged the similarities between his character of Miles Halter and
Salinger’s Holden Caulfield. As he commented, ‘anybody who writes about
teenagers does so in the shadows of Salinger’5. Although written fifty
years apart, Alaska and Catcher truthfully manifest the timeless
essence of adolescence, and prove to us that no matter how much hopelessness
teenagers go through, they will always come out of it and continue on in a
better version of themselves.

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