The Catcher In The Rye and Life Is Strange

Sunday 12 January 2020

J.D. Salinger's masterpiece novel The Catcher In The Rye has inspired several themes in Dontnod's brilliant games of the Life Is Strange series and their universe. The book is narrated in first person by Holden Caulfield, a 17-year-old boy who is currently in an institution in California. A few days before, he had been expelled from his prestigious college in Pennsylvania due to bad performance and got back to New York where his home was, intending to spend a few days wandering here and there until his return for the Christmas holidays, as he did not want his parents to find out about the expulsion. He talks about himself, his family, his college, his schoolmates, his friends, in a form of consecutive abrupt confessions, while he several times refers to his three siblings - his older brother, D.B. a careless, successful author with whom he intends to live from now on, his younger sister Phoebe, a smart and intuitive girl, and his little brother, Allie, with whom he obviously had a strong connection and who died sometime ago. During his wanderings, he encounters several people, recalls memories and visits bars and hotels, while regularly going back in his mind to things that cannot leave him in peace. The novel is a unique piece of literature, written in a very distinct style, and is one of those stories that require very careful reading in order to become fully clear.

Max, the lead character from Life Is Strange 1, shares the same surname with Holden - they are both called Caulfield. Another notable reference is of course the boarding high school where Max is studying, nodding to the similar albeit much more elite school that Holden attends. There is also a direct easter egg, paying homage to the book and his hero. At some point, Max spots a red hunting hat, similar to the one that Holden is wearing for most part of his story, hanging from a rack in a corridor, and makes a comment referencing him.

Holden is notorious for his seemingly misanthropic attitude; and you got to love him for calling everyone and everything phony in any given instance. So there you have it, Holden; Max thinks your red hunting hat is phony. I bet that if he knew about this, he would definitely called her phony for calling him phony. There is also another major easter egg, spotted in Max's room in the school - there is a poster on a wall, probably of a movie called The Winger and the Cow. Both the title and the style of the poster resemble the cover of the original edition of The Catcher In the Rye.

But it is not only with tangible stuff that Life Is Strange 1 is conversing with The Catcher In The Rye. Major themes in the game's story, as well as character traits of its heroes, bring Salinger's iconic novel to mind.

In one alternate reality, Chloe, Max's friend, is severely injured in a car accident and later Max pulls her plug, helping her to rest in peace. Assuming that this alternate reality is what actually happened and that what we see in the game as taking place in present time is in fact an alternate reality, we are able to see Max under a different light: arriving back to her hometown, Max is overwhelmed by memories of her friend and her passing away, facts which she obviously, and naturally, cannot get over. Unable to come to terms with reality and move on somehow, she resorts to what possibly every single human being on earth has said or thought of at least once in their lives. She wishes that she could turn back time so as to change Chloe's fate. She probably wished this so many times that one day all of a sudden she made it happen. Because it would be impossible for her to go on with her life having experienced such a tragic loss, in which she also had a share, the only way to deal with it was to manipulate time and change the events. So it's a dream come true for Max, who is able to rewind time, keep whatever she wants from her peculiar flashbacks and then prepare a present and a future of her liking. But can it be that simple? Of course not. Since Max is not living alone on this planet, and since her actions affect not only herself and Chloe but also several other people, things are destined to escalate sooner or later.

In a similar way, Holden is trying to cover up his real anxieties and fears by dressing them up as contempt for people and society and constantly pretending to be something that he is not. He wants to pass as a bad student but in fact he is very smart and educated. He is supposed to be a misanthropist, but he constantly seeks the human presence around him. Holden's story is generally viewed as one of teenage rebellion, but in fact it is something completely different; reading between the lines, this becomes rather obvious to the trained reader, and it is intensified by the knowledge that Salinger was very protective of his hero and did not allow any adaptation of his novel, probably fearing there would be lots of misinterpretations - which indeed was and still is the case with this genuinely unique story.

Holden narrates his story from a bizarre point of view. We do not know from the start where he is or what he is doing, as he starts revealing fragments of his life that sometimes do not seem coherent. But there is a constant in his story: recurring phrases that appear regularly in several variations, but always in the same spirit: People always think something's all true, people never notice anything, people never believe you, people never give your message to anybody. Not only these phrases are spoken like a mantra, but they also sound as though Holden is trying, through them, to say something about himself using hints, because he may be too scared to talk about it directly. His recurring nightmare about trying to catch the children that are running in the rye field and are about to fall off a cliff symbolizes his inability to get over his little brother's death and his secret wish to be able to turn back time and save him somehow - which again brings us back to Max and her super power. It also hints at his desire to protect innocence, since he couldn't do it with his own.

In a most revealing scene, which is full of hints and innuendos that are mistakenly taken literally, Holden visits a professor of his, Mr Antolini, and, having nowhere else to go since it is very late, decides to stay the night in his apartment. Mr Antolini is an intelligent and educated man, but obviously leads a somewhat strange lifestyle: he is married to a much older and rather unattractive woman, with whom he seems to have no real emotional connection. Still the couple throws parties regularly, as if trying to convince society of their marital happiness. The lady offers Holden some coffee and disappears in another room, leaving him alone with her husband. Moments later, Holden begins to feel dizzy, as Mr Antolini starts a bizarre lecture about intellectuality and how Holden should not resist it and embrace it. His words are carefully chosen so as to hint at his real subject matter which, of course, is far from being educational. Still feeling inexplicably dizzy, the young boy falls asleep only to wake up in the middle of the night to see that Mr Antolini is sitting right next to him, admiring his long legs and stroking his hair. Holden leaves the apartment in panic and, once out on the street, he realizes that his vision is blurred and that he cannot walk straight. Obviously that coffee was not that innocent after all. He manages to collect himself somehow by sort of summoning his dead brother in his thoughts. 

Mr Antolini brings to mind the perverted Mr Jefferson from Life Is Strange 1, the charismatic but twisted professor of photography who was obsessed with capturing the loss of innocence with his camera. Mr Antolini looks and sounds like a toned-down version of Mr Jefferson - toned-down only because back in the times when he lived, he could not freely express his secret desires. But just like Mr Antolini attempts to seduce Holden, Mr Jefferson leads Max to his lair and ties her down, planning to turn her into one of his themes and, subsequently, victims. Unlike Max, however, Holden cannot rewind time so as to change reality. Max manages to effectively have Mr Jefferson arrested by using her super power to plan her moves, while Holden ends up in a mental institute, trying to come to terms with himself and all the secrets that he feels forced to keep.

Life Is Strange 2 moves in a different path story-wise, but again focuses on themes that were explored in the first game. This time the lead characters are two young brothers, Sean and Daniel Diaz, who are forced to abandon their normal life after their father is shot dead and the two of them are accused of murder. They embark on a journey from Seattle to Mexico in a race against time, while having to deal with Daniel's telekinesis, a new-found power which can potentially destroy them or save their lives. Brotherhood, trust, friendship and loyalty are among the cornerstones of the story, but the motifs of the loss of innocence, unavoidable change and maturity, both physical and emotional, play a major role in the game.

So it is no surprise that Holden Caulfield is present in this game too, albeit in a more elaborate and complex way. You may not be able to automatically connect Sean with him, as the overall setting of the story, Sean's background and the odyssey he has to go through with his brother look like they have no common ground with Holden's story or his character, but there is a key chapter in the game, the third one which is titled Wastelands, that is, in reality, a story inside the story: an epic tale of struggling with adolescence, adulthood, love and sexuality, centered around a tumultulous but powerful brotherly bond, which marks Sean and Daniel's coming of age in the form of a painful rite of passage. This chapter has a very special atmosphere and development that is pretty similar to Salinger's novel, although again this may not be that obvious on first look or if you play the game in a haste or read the book superficially. The Life Is Strange games are very much alike with Salinger's stories: they have so many layers that each scene, each phrase, each word even, may mean many different things.

Like in Life Is Strange 1, here too there are references to the Catcher In The Rye that are more or less direct. For example, Sean can be seen very early in the game wearing a red beanie and smoking a cigarette, reminding the most common depiction of Salinger's hero, that shows him with his red hunting hat and a cigarette in his mouth.

There is also a mural outside the garage at the basement of Sean's home, made by him, that depicts a kraken. The overall drawing style and colours again look similar to the original cover of The Catcher in the Rye, just like Max's poster did.

In the first pages of Sean's sketchbook, there is a drawing that he made depicting a baseball glove with a ball. This too nods to Holden, who used to carry with him a baseball glove that belonged to his deceased brother, Allie.
Another easter egg referencing Salinger's novel that may pass unnoticed because it is somehow hidden can be found in the house of Sean and Daniel's grandparents. In there, Sean watches the aquarium and comments that he has not seen any fish yet. He asks Daniel to lift a log that is blocking the bed of the tank and reveal the goldfish that had been hiding behind it.

D. B., Holden's brother, is a writer who became successful with a book that he wrote, titled The Secret Goldfish.

But the references that are contextual and have to do with the essence of the story are the most important. There is a recurring theme that shows up in the second chapter, Rules. In a segment in The Catcher In The Rye, Holden is sitting on the backseat of a taxi that drives through New York on a cold winter day. He keeps wondering what happens in winter to the ducks that swim in the Central Park lagoon in the spring; where do the ducks go when the lake freezes. Of course it is a question that no one can answer, because no one cares about the ducks; but for Holden, it is essential that he knows about them, as they stand for several things in his mind. The cycle that the ducks follow, appearing in spring then somehow disappearing in winter, is like the circle of life and the inevitable changes that come as time passes. As Holden sees the lake frozen with no ducks, he fears that maybe a spring will arrive one year, when they will not appear again. In other words, he has lost his innocence already, and he is afraid to grow up and accept himself for what he is, come to terms with his bad experiences and proceed to adult life and maturity. Another parameter has to do with his grief for the death of Allie, his little brother, which he obviously has never gotten over. There are also the incidents from the past years that never stop haunting him: the murder or forced suicide of a fellow student who was obviously gay, the confession of a close friend who was probably sexually abused by her stepfather; and of course Allie's death.

In Life Is Strange 2, in the second chapter, Rules, Sean and Daniel find shelter in an abandoned house in a forest in Oregon. It is December, the heart of winter, and there is snow everywhere. There are several interesting things in the house, but the most intriguing one is the picture of a duck hanging on the wall above the makeshift bed where the two brothers sleep. Not so coincidentally, there are flying ducks depicted on Daniel's sweater in this section.

Later on, in their grandparents' house, where Sean and Daniel find refuge for a while, in one of the rooms there is a wooden box with a duck painted on it, and on the box sits a red cap.

And there are three sculpted flying ducks decorating the wall near the glass door which leads to the backyard of the house.

Of course the duck images are not randomly placed there. The second one is much more direct, as it is accompanied by the red cap which nods to Holden's hunting hat. But both of them are there as a reference to Salinger's novel and as a symbol in the game, in connection to their original symbolism in the book. And maybe it is also an inside joke that answers Holden's question: the ducks that disappear from Central Park in winter, are kept in Oregon.

Just like Holden, Sean and Daniel are in the process of moving extremely fast from childhood/adolescence to adulthood. Like Holden, they too have lost their innocence, and acceptance of themselves and maturity await for them around the corner. The first duck, the one in the abandoned house, has pale colors, while the second one is bright red; they may very well stand for the "winter" ducks and the "spring" ducks respectively, in Holden's ramblings, while Sean and Daniel get closer to breaking free and moving on. The cabin in the woods and the grandparents' house in Rules, the two places where the ducks can be seen, are like passages, leading to the next major step that Sean and Daniel will eventually make when they hop on a train headed to California. Which brings us to Wastelands, the aforementioned chapter, where essential changes begin to happen, affecting both themselves and those around them.

Like Holden grieves over his brother's death, Sean has a constant fear of losing Daniel: at first, he is afraid that they will get separated, then he is worried all the time about him maybe not being able to control his power, therefore putting himself in danger. This fear inevitably becomes reality in episode 4, Faith, when Sean loses Daniel after a dramatic incident, and subsequently risks everything, including his life, until they are reunited.

This development is foreshadowed in an ominous dream that Sean has at the start of the fourth episode, where he sees himself sitting with Daniel at the top of a cliff, and suddenly Daniel tells him that he is alone and falls off, in a sequence that is one more vivid reference to The Catcher In The Rye, as it is connected to Holden's dream about being in a rye field, trying to catch the little children as they are about to fall off the cliff so as to keep them safe, and hence the innocence that he lost, and his inability to deal with Allie's death.

In this specific context, Sean identifies with Holden, as he himself becomes the "Catcher" who is desperately trying to save little Daniel from falling off the cliff. In the same context, Daniel has his literal identity as Sean's brother, symbolizing the blood link that connects them and that Sean fears of losing, but he also represents the lost innocence for both himself and Sean, identifying with the allegory of the children in Holden's dream.

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