The transition from childhood to adulthood is a tumultuous and life defining phase of anyone’s life. This naturally proceeds with a person making mistakes, hurting, learning and eventually maturing - but this is not always the case. J. D. Salinger and Tennessee Williams both write enigmatic characters that have had their innocence snatched away from them before they were ready. Both “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “The Catcher in the Rye” show how Blanche DuBois and Holden Caulfield, respectively, attempt to cope with this sudden loss and how their world responds to them. Whilst Williams uses cinematic and dramatic techniques to depict the changing world, with which Blanche can not keep up, Salinger uses the eccentric voice of Holden to highlight the lack of authenticity and the need for conformity in postwar America, as well as the little hope it holds for marginalised youths.
From the onset, both writers make it clear that their characters have experienced trauma that shattered their childhood illusions about life. In a “Streetcar Named Desire”, Blanche has been brought up in the traditional South with unrealistic notions of romance, chivalry and “tenderer feelings”. Williams’ use of expressionism in the stage directions “the headlight of the locomotive glares into the room as it thunders past” visualises to the audience how Allan’s secret destroyed Blanche’s every childhood perception in one sudden moment. To Blanche, Allan’s suicide was as if “the searchlight which had been turned on the world was turned off”. Shirley Galloway suggests that Blanche is “haunted by her inability to help or understand her young, troubled husband and that she has tortured herself for it ever since”, as Blanche feels like she “had failed him in some mysterious way”. Williams’ choice to affiliate Polka music with her memories of Allan, further emphasise to the audience that Blanche is still stuck in the memory of that night and struggles to cope with her loss. The idyllic and innocent notion of love Blanche had as a child is taken away from her at such a young age, perhaps Williams’ way of reflecting on a growing angst, at the time of the play, as the New America moved away from the high and cultivated society of the South. Similarly, Salinger writes a voice that is nursing the effects of early trauma. Holden says in a matter-of-fact voice that “[Allie’s] dead now”, his tone of voice implying an indifference to Allie’s death. Yet, on the brink of his mental breakdown, Holden repeatedly thinks “Allie, don’t let me disappear”, clearly indicating his attachment to his late brother; his obsession with death and dependency on Allie, and his refusal to accept this obsession, only further emphasises his own psychic fragility. Holden’s attempt to move on and become an adult clashes with his inability to let go of his brother; a world that allows innocent eleven year old boys to die is hardly a world one willingly wants to be part of. Denis Jonnes suggests that Holden’s trauma represents trauma that Salinger experienced himself. We could argue this is true as, like many others at the time, Salinger was enthusiastic about the war and sought to enlist in the army in the 1940s. However, the horrors and tragedy that Salinger witnessed in the war changed his perspective forever. Jonnes writes “Given the psychic disabilities suffered by Salinger’s fictional combatants, I would identify the experience of trauma as key to any reading of Salinger’s work”. Perhaps Holden’s distrust of the adult world mirrors Salinger’s own disgust at the misplaced patriotism he faced during World War II. On one hand, Williams’ protagonist appears to blame herself for Allan’s death; perhaps Williams is commenting on how trauma can leave individuals with feelings of self-deprecation and guilt. On the other hand, Holden appears to blame society for the trauma of his youth. Salinger appears to be reflecting a new set of ideals in post-war America in which many people have lost faith in humanity, following the devastation of nuclear bombs and the Holocaust.
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