Identity Defined

Throughout this year, I have been trying to define myself as a person. Who am I?  What do I like? What do I want to do? What causes do I support? What do I believe in?


Thankfully, I’m not the only person out there with these kinds of questions. A short snippet of Holden Caulfield’s life, chronicled in the Catcher in the Rye, has supported the idea that language creates identity.

I have heard that people are defined by their actions, but let’s face it, what they say plays an important role in what we see. Holden chooses to let people listen to his worries and thoughts, but his haphazard way of presenting his thoughts often puts a damper on Holden’s conversations. Holden lets on throughout his narrative that he does not wish to grow up. This is most  clearly articulated when he is talking to Phoebe about the song from which his story takes its name from (it’s actually a poem). He expresses his desire to just catch all of the kids running out from the rye, imagining that there is a cliff behind him and he wants to save all the kids he can. This is best understood in his compulsion to erase all of the “fuck you” signs on the walls of his old school (now Phoebe’s school). He wishes to protect children’s innocence, almost to the point of obsession. There is an impression that although Holden is constantly “growing up” physically, he is not growing, or is at least challenged growing mentally.

Holden’s inability to voice these concerns about mentally growing up causes people to brush him off as if he were kidding. Carl Luce, for example, fed up with Holden’s preoccupation with sex, exasperatedly asks, “‘Is this going to be a typical Caulfield conversation? I want to know right now.'” Everyone is constantly brushing off Holden and dismissing his talk as nonsense. If I were to meet Holden, I would probably do the same.  The problem with this is that Holden himself fancies that he’s “horsing around” with these people sometimes, when what he really wants is a serious conversation. Some of Holden’s “horsing around” are manifestations of what he is subconsciously thinking about and looking for answers to, but he doesn’t present them as such.

Additionally, Holden’s attempts to tell people about his concerns, namely Sally, end up in disaster because he is bad at conveying what he means to say. Holden is scared of growing up, but bombarding Sally with his seemingly endless stream of thoughts and fears didn’t help Sally understand him in the slightest.  He exposes his fear of adulthood in his quixotic invitation to Sally to run away and live in a cabin with him as his wife. Sally counters this invitation with reality, voicing concerns that the reader would share: they were too young, how would they live without money? Holden’s suspension of reality mimics that of children’s make-believe play, in which figurines become action heroes and model trains become an impending vessels of doom heading straight for the damsel (or dude) in distress.  Sally doesn’t catch on to this, but really: would anyone? We don’t read into everyday conversation because it is so often literal and meant to be taken at face value.

What I pulled from the Catcher in the Rye, is that we establish identity through our tone and words, but we also do the opposite. Holden Caulfield is intensely focused on disliking people he calls “phonies”, and my verbal idea of a phony that I get from Holden is someone who says trite and polite. He dislikes conversation for the sake of conversation and/ or appearances.  Holden feels suffocated by the restrictions of adult society, but as Mr. Antolini says, there’s a time and place for everything. Holden’s feelings and thoughts, I feel, are less suited for day-to-day dialogue and more suited for topics of a poetry slam.

However, Holden Caulfield is not the only person who we wrong through his command of language. Amy Tan, a regular favorite writer of mine, often explores culture clash; in her essay, “Mother Tongue”, she relays to us her thoughts about what she calls “broken English”.  She talks mostly about the “broken” language that her mother uses.  Tan notices that she speaks differently in front of a crowd and in front of her mother. There’s a stark difference between Tan’s diction and syntax to both groups, and Tan write about her mother’s struggle to be understood with this “broken English”. It’s not simply a matter of communicating, but of feeling as well. Tan mentions a time when her mother had been rather coldly addressed while she was at a hospital. It took Tan’s intervention for the hospital workers to give Tan’s mother the answers that she wanted and an apology for losing her CAT scan.  As a child of immigrant parents myself, I find myself in many similar situations to Tan. When I simply want to speak Vietnamese, there will be people who glare, thinking that I am gossiping about them because I decide to use a different language.  But I’ll leave that to another day.

Firoozeh Dumas, in her essay, “The ‘F Word'”, expounds her eventual acceptance of her name, in spite of the struggles she would face bearing her name.  She contrasts the reactions between her Iranian name, “Firoozeh”, and an American name she adopted in her adolescence, “Julie”. While “Firzooeh” attracted name-calling and misunderstandings, “Julie” radiated an image of American-ness. She speculates that “Julie” demonstrated more solidarity through assimilation; people perceived this homogenization of culture was good.  People showed outwardly better reactions towards Dumas when she was “Julie” because the image that goes along with “Julie” is a comforting, sweet girl next door, definitely not foreign. Dumas mentions that simply adding “Julie” to her resume had attracted many more job offers than simply going by “Firoozeh”.

There’s a lot that goes into what we say, for instance, tone, word choice, and sentence structure. We also unconsciously try and convince people of our points, appealing to logic and emotions.  Each study observed a small aspect of language, but it all comes back to a central idea that words are catalogued into mental filing folders. Through our ears, we receive input for our brain’s database.  If we find the book, great. If we don’t, there are split-second synonyms and related subjects that fire off, providing more detail in hopes of identifying our wanted file. Language helps determine identity because it plays on what we anticipate, the files we have at the ready with which to break down speech, ultimately to communicate ideas.

Here’s a link to more of Rothamel’s work:

Identity Defined

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