A mercurial prince and a pessimistic prep kid


The idea of normalcy is what separates acceptable from unacceptable behavior. It also defines at a subconscious level how individuals value themselves. Teenagers, in particular, suffer from the slings and arrows of skirting conformity.

This article examines the lives of two immortals who refused to be normal: Holden Caulfield and Hamlet. Unlike most compare and contrast essays, though, this piece looks only at these characters’ similarities; namely, their behavior. It explores why they do the things they do.

Hamlet is no teen–estimates place him at about 30. Holden is the poster boy for teenage alienation. But the two characters are remarkably similar in that they share an uncanny ability to see the world for what it is and not for how others would like them to see it. Eventually, every teenager has this epiphany. Some call it the true beginning of a young person’s consciousness.

Normal vs. excessive

On the left are normal teenage behaviors. To the right are behaviors that indicate something more serious is going on in a teenager’s life

  • Moody
  • Physically and verbally abusive
  • Short-tempered
  • Destructive
  • Discontented, restless
  • Repeated incidents of alcohol or drug use
  • Occasionally breaking curfew
  • Staying out all night
  • Minor acts of rebellion
  • Getting arrested

Holden, Hamlet and the enduring appeal of anti-heroes

Holden Caulfield has been called the American Hamlet. Both characters refused to suffer fools lightly. Holden’s skewering of phonies is verbal, sarcastic. The grownups of his world have all sold out. The only true souls left are his dead brother, Allie and his younger sister, Phoebe. Hamlet, the brooding prince, also has had his fill of lackeys, court hangers-on and subservient old fools. Poor Polonius, whose quips have earned him a permanent place in the annals of givers of unsolicited advice, discovered the dangers of being terminally mundane when Hamlet ran him through with his sword.

Modern but morose

After Hamlet’s creation, came Holden Caulfield–anti-hero. Caulfield’s America was 1950s American steel, automobiles and limitless opportunity. Europe lay in ruins but America was a well-oiled machine. In “The Catcher in the Rye,” strong and heroic America stood toe-to-toe with the evil Soviet Union and stared it down. America was Superman and prosperity and unlimited goodness. Who could possibly be unhappy in this cornucopia? Who could have problems?

Holden is 16-years-old and depressed. His brother recently died; he’s estranged from his family — except his baby sister; he’s imprisoned in and flunking out of a prep academy full of rich snobs and phonies. Holden should be happy. He comes from a decent family. They are not poor. He is intelligent. Outwardly, he has everything going for him. Why should such a normal young man be so tortured? Because, not unlike his Danish predecessor, Holden is just a human being. His creator endowed him with a caustic wit and an uncanny ability to verbally parry and thrust with the best of them. But he is grieving his dead brother and he, too, wants a return to happier times. The phonies he encounters everywhere are superficial because, unlike Holden, they are emotionally vapid. The Stradatlers and Ackleys of the world offer no camaraderie to a sensitive soul like Caulfield. That’s why he is so alienated. His only friends are his memories and his ruminations on this lousy world.

Just who is normal?

Perhaps the rub is in the word normal. What is it?  Eric Maisel, Ph.D., writes, “Normal can’t mean and must not mean ‘what we see all the time’ or ‘what we see the most of.’ It must have a different meaning from that for it to mean anything of value to right-thinking people.”

Gen-X men

The phenomenal success of the “X-Men” film series has as much to do with the troubled protagonists as it does with the stunning special effects. Mutants are today’s anti-heroes. Their outward deformities are metaphors for what it means to feel different. “Twilight,” “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent” tell essentially the same story of young people trying not only to survive but to be happy in societies that punish for being different. And since, as Maisel points out, there is no normal per se, the question becomes: why is it so painful just to exist? Why do fictional standards of normalcy exist? Why do so many young men and women torment themselves, trying to attain a pipe dream?

Hope, treatment, happiness

The enduring appeal of “Hamlet” and “Catcher in the Rye” has to do with the painful introspection of their anti-heroes. Hamlet says it best when he says, “I am myself indifferent honest; but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me…” — Act 3, Scene 1. No child should ever feel worthless for just being. One-on-one and group counseling provide a safe and supportive environment where teens can explore and validate who they are.

No teenager ever feels normal. That is what normal means.

White River Academy is a residential boarding school located at the edge of the majestic Great Basin in Delta, Utah. We have a long track record of working with teens who have a number of different disorders and life challenges. We provide a safe haven and a hub with our therapeutic residential treatment center for troubled teen boys to better their lives as they take the path to adulthood. You can rest assured your teen will be receiving the proper attention and assistance he needs. Meetings with parents are scheduled seasonally, so that you can inventory progress your young man is making. Call 866-520-0905 for enrollment details.

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