Hamlet, The Catcher in the Rye, and the Age-Old Story of Teen Angst

Despite what marketers would have you believe, angst is not just a gelled, chiseled, perfectly unkempt product of the Twilight phenomenon. Holden Caulfield is king of twentieth-century angst, and he was kicking around with a buzz cut back in the 1950's. Søren Kierkegaard set the philosophical bar for angst in the nineteenth century and managed to do so while wearing a top hat. And who can forget Prince Hamlet, the skull-carrying, pantaloon-wearing original angst-er of the European canon?

Kierkegaard, of course, looked at angst from a strictly Western, Christian viewpoint, but literary figures like Holden and Hamlet have a much more universal register. (That is, unless you're tired of all the agonizing and hesitancy, in which case you should go read To Kill a Mockingbird for some of Scout's shoot-first-ask-questions-later wisdom.) In fact, despite the potential language barrier (Hamlet: "what / is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me"; Holden: "That guy Morrow was about as sensitive as a goddam toilet seat") the two have a remarkable amount in common.

Both Hamlet and Holden are privileged, lovesick young men scarred by the death of a family member. As a result of their mute suffering, they feel – and make a point of becoming – alienated from their respective communities. (Which is no big loss, considering that they both think the world is full of hypocrites and imposters.) Lashing out through passive aggression, Holden and Hamlet lie to / generally screw with people until their sanity becomes a matter of debate. And if that isn't enough to convince you of their oddly parallel lives, just bear in mind the fact that they can both fence.

The major point of divergence comes when Hamlet subliminates his quiet rage through the death of his uncle… not to mention his mom, his girlfriend, his girlfriend's brother, his girlfriend's father, his two closest friends, and himself. Compare that to The Catcher in the Rye, which ends with Holden apparently having been committed to a mental institution with all his frustrations alive and kicking hard.

If we take into consideration the fact that the prince of Denmark is just a few rungs below, you know, Most Powerful Guy in the Country – at a time when swordfighting and poisoning are still considered fairly run-of-the-mill – the apparent audacity of his act diminishes, especially considering it takes all five acts of Hamlet for him to even work up the nerve to do it. Holden, on the other hand, doesn't hesitate to attack his macho jerk of a roommate "right smack in the toothbrush, so it would split his goddam throat open." Even though the attack fails, this is pretty bold for a 17-year old prep school kid living during the era in US history that coined the term "cooties."

Holden's fighting spirit evaporates over the course of the novel, however, and after losing his second fight, he imagines he's a gangster with a bullet in his belly and his best girl at his side. "The goddam movies," he laments. "They can ruin you." And perhaps he's right, considering that our modern, civilized notion of catharsis usually involves renting movies and letting the scenarios wash over you. Maybe Twilight's onto something after all.