A Reading Response submitted to English 112B by Mr. Richard Cartoni
Study Question: Disappearance and erasure are two terms which crop up throughout the book. Trace a few of the meanings and incidents where these occur.
There are at least four pattens of disappearance and/or erasure in the book. The first occurs early on when Holden explains:
After I got across the road, I felt like I was sort of disappearing. It was that kind of a crazy afternoon, terrifically cold, and no sun out or anything, and you felt like you were disappearing every time you crossed a road. (5)
Given the psychological insight offered by Holden during Part I of his narrative, we can gather that disappearance in this instance is not only related to his being outdoors on a snowy day, but also signifies his mental engulfment by what he perceives to be a cold and colorless climatge. Indeed, Holden has been expelled from Pency Prep. for not adhering to its "phony" rules and regulations, and had been ostracized by his teachers (note "old Spenser’s haranguing of Holden shortly after he crosses the road) and his companions (the fencing team and, later, his roomate Ward Stradlator). The result of this climate, moreover, is a feeling of loneliness and depression in Holden and a desire to be dead, or disappear (48).
The next pattern of disappearance for Holden involves his running away from Pencey (under cover of night) to spend a few days in New York City "incognito" before returning home to face his parents. This pattern creates a dual impression. On the one hand, Holden wants to escape his humdrum life at just another cruel and "phony" prep school and, perhaps, even more compelling for him, he wants to assume the identity of a free-wheeling adult. Thus, most of Holden’s disappearance into NYC involves the erasure of his adolescent identity: his heavy smoking, bar-hopping, drinking, and flirting with older women, the fabrication of innumerable lies and false identities (Rudolf Schmidt on the train into NYC (56), and Jim Steele to the "three witches" in the bar (73) and Sunny the prostitute (94). Ironically, however, in his lying and assuming of false identities, Holden becomes what he despises most, i.e., a phony, which constitutes the second impression made by this pattern of erasure: the disappearance or submersion of a still naive youth into a world of deceptions and corruption, and the evewn grater psychological turmoil that it fosters. Indeed, at this point Holden is in danger of losing himself completely, a consequence which is underscored by the closing in of his environment–from the city as a whole to Central Part (153-57) to Pheobe’s closet (176) to the mummy room (tomb) at the Museum of Natural History (204).
The third pattern of disappearance relates Holden’s "collapse" to the erasure, or premature death, of his younger brother Allie three years earlier. Obviously Holden is still deeply troubled by this, so much so that it presents a psychological impasse for him–notice how the name Allie connotes alley, or a dead-end street, going nowhere, just ending, just as Holden’s name suggests "holding." Evidently there is still a part of Holden that does not want to disappear or become erased, his youth, that, in other words, is desperately afraid of becoming older, phony, corrupt, and dying both spiritually and physically: "Allie, don’t let me disappear. Allie, don’t let me disappear" (198). It is important to note here that Holden’s plea to Allie occurs while he is crossing the busy streets of NYC which seems to symbolize a hazard to children–for Holden, his own childhood–with their cars whizzing dangerously by as blurs of steal, an avenue of movement and progress and change, and, as a result, something that Holden is unbearably afraid of. Indeed, Holdenb seems to be paralyzed by Allie’s death and faced with an inner struggle over what disappearance and erasure really mean–that is, whether they are positive (change and maturity) or negative (annihilation). [Growing and changing does represent a mini death as modern psychologists note. jep]
The final pattern of disappearance involves Holden’s frantic desire to erase all the "Fuck you"s scrawled throughout the city and around the world. This desire is related to Holden’s fear of becoming an adult, his disgust with the vulgarity of the "real" world, and his need to protect the innocence of those younger than him (like his little sister Phoebe). What Holden ultimately learns, however, is that one can neither escape nor protect others from vulgarity, disappearance, or erasure. Rather, they are simply facets of life that must be faced and endured by all at some point. Thus, Holden concludes as he watches Phoebe go round and round on the carousel in Central Part:
All the kids kept trying to grab for the gold ring, and so was old Phoebe, and I was sort of afraid she’d fall of the goddam horse, but I didn’t say anything or do anything. The thing with kids is, if they want to grab for the gold ring, you to let them do it, and not say anything. If they fall off, they fall off, but it’s bad if you anything to them. (211)