EN4394, Dr. Hall
Parents: A Cause for Rebellion
During the 1950s, a number of television shows attempted to depict the “perfect” American family—two parents, a professional working father and a stay-at-home mom, and two children, a boy and a girl, one usually a teenager. Each weekly episode revolved around an issue experienced by one of the children. Invariably, one parent, often the father, offered a solution bringing the episode to a close on a good note. But just as every American family was not perfect, every entertainment medium depicted American family life in different ways.
The movie industry, for example, portrayed families of the 50s more realistically, without the pretentious fantasies of television, the same way that authors had done previously in novels. Nicolas Ray, director of the ultimate teenage rebellion movie, Rebel Without A Cause (1955), presents an American father and mother struggling to resolve their teenage son’s inability to make friends and his frequent bouts with trouble when their attempts fail. Ray introduces the flawed Stark family—a hen-pecked father dominated by an overbearing wife, a doting grandmother more annoying than helpful, and Jim Stark, the teenaged son whose negative attitude toward his parents deepens with each new crisis.
In The Catcher in the Rye (1951), J.D. Salinger writes of a teenage boy always sent-off to an out-of-town school. The novel delves into problems he experiences as a result of his parents never being around. Holden Caulfield, the protagonist, has made friends wherever he goes but alienates them through criticism as a way to pacify his boredom. The reader never meets Holden’s parents; they are only referred to in Holden’s reflections of his past. Unlike Caulfield with a living brother and sister, one brother who has died, and absent parents, Jim Stark is an only child with hovering parents. But Jim Stark and Holden Caulfield share similarities other than just being teenagers.
One such similarity between Jim and Holden is that they both lie. When Stark is asked by Buzz, his short-lived foil school gang leader, if he has ever made a “chickie run,” he answers in the affirmative. Stark isn’t telling the truth. This is made obvious when Jim later asks Plato, a boy he has befriended, what one does in a “chickie run?” Jim, already committed, doesn’t back out, even after Plato tells him how the dangerous game is played. He tells a lie so as not to appear ignorant in front of the gang.
On the other hand, Caulfield enjoys lying all the time. “I’M THE MOST terrific liar you ever saw in your life. It’s awful. If I’m on my way to the store to buy a magazine, even, and somebody asks me where I’m going, I’m liable to say I’m going to the opera” (16). Caulfield doesn’t need a reason to lie; he just does. Salinger would have the reader believe that Holden is just the typical teenager when he tells a lie.
Another similarity shared by Jim and Holden is that each wears a red article of clothing, not exactly a “typical” practice. Stark wears a red jacket that he gives to Plato in the latter part of the movie. Caulfield wears a “red hunting hat, with one of those very, very, long peaks” (17). He likes to wear it with the peak to the back, and explains, “[It’s] very corny, I’ll admit, but I liked it that way” (18). Holden later gives the red hunting hat to the person he most loves, his sister Phoebe.
What do the red articles of clothing symbolize? Perhaps they mean nothing for the main characters, but the reader can conclude that this wearing of red is more than coincidental. Red is the most vibrant of colors, and its wearer is often considered daring and begging for attention. The reader may have decided that both Jim and Holden were not only seeking attention, but also seeking acceptance.
It is conceivable that both the red jacket and hat are used as symbols to signify the loss of innocence or “a rite-of-passage” into adulthood (Chris Wood 7). In support of this theory, one may consider the scene when Jim drapes his jacket over Plato’s body, felled by a policeman’s bullet. One senses Jim’s metamorphosis into an adult as his father hugs him, saying, “Let’s go home.” Jim finally received the attention he craved.
The color red also symbolizes anger. After all, Jim is angry at the world in general and at his family in particular. By giving his beloved red jacket to Plato, Jim is letting go of this. Holden, too, is angry at the world. Perhaps he gives his red hat to Phoebe because he knows she will be a teenager in three short years and like him, will soon be angry at the world.
“She’s ten now, and not such a tiny little kid anymore” (68). When Holden refuses to take Phoebe out West with him, she becomes angry. Salinger describes Phoebe’s anger with Holden’s words, “[She] took off my red hunting hat—the one I gave her—and practically chucked it right in my face” (207). Phoebe seems to have inherited not only the red hat, but also her brother’s ire.
A revealing similarity between Jim and Holden is their use of an animal to explain how they feel. In the beginning of Rebel Without A Cause, Jim is lying in a gutter, drunk, holding a mechanical toy monkey. The monkey symbolizes Jim’s love for those who don’t judge him. He loves the monkey. Jim may consider himself to be like the monkey—always set to go in the direction others want him to go. At different times during the movie, Jim refers to his only two friends, Judy and Plato, as being monkeys. He loves them, too, and they’re already set to go in the same direction he is going.
At one point in Catcher in the Rye, Holden explains, “I pulled the old peak of my hunting hat around to the front, then pulled it way down over my eyes. Then I started horsing around a little bit. Sometimes I horse around quite a lot” (21). Holden was feigning blindness. Bernd Wahlbrinck, Webmaster of The Catcher in the Rye and Related Matters, thinks “horsing around” and acting blind symbolizes that Holden “cannot see where he is going in life.” Wahlbrinck says that “[Holden] needs a guiding hand.” This reference of an animal (horse) to symbolize a person who “cannot see” and who “needs a guiding hand” can be compared positively to the use of another animal (monkey) to symbolize a person who needs to be mechanically set to walk in a certain direction.
Although Jim Stark and Holden Caulfield had similarities in character, they displayed more differences. Perhaps the three similarities speak more of Nicolas Ray and J.D. Salinger than of Jim Stark or Holden Caulfield. Either way, one should not only consider similarities and dissimilarities when it comes to addressing teenage issues. Each teenager must be judged on his individual merits. It’s the parents who should be judged collectively. Why not? Jim Stark and Holden Caulfield did!
Rebel Without a Cause. Dir. Nicolas Ray. Perf. James Dean, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo,
Jim Backus, Ann Doran, and Corey Allan. WarnerBros, 1955.
Salinger, J.D. The Catcher in the Rye. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1951.
Wahlbrinck, Bernd. The Catcher in the Rye and Related Matters. Online. Available:
HYPERLINK "http://Mitglied.lycos.de/BerndWahlbrinck/index.htm" http://Mitglied.lycos.de/BerndWahlbrinck/index.htm. Accessed: 28 March 2002.
Wood, Chris. “Finding the Father: A Psychoanalytic Study of Rebel Without A Cause.”
Senses of Cinema. 01 March 2002 [last update]. Online. Available: HYPERLINK "http://www" http://www.
Sensesofcinema.com/contents/oo/5/finding.html. Accessed: 28 March 2002.