There are many different interpretations of what a hero is. In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell describes the hero through his adventures “from the world of common day into supernatural wonder” (Campbell 30). The hero encounters “fabulous forces” and has a victory (30). The hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man” (30). The classic hero goes on a quest, struggling with dangers and defeating mystical monsters. During the hero’s quest, a transformation occurs in which the hero reaches a critical turning point in his life. Throughout his journey, the hero is being tested. The classic hero, marked from birth, passes these tests to reach his goal. All the adventures, tests, transformations create the classic hero. The Epic of Gilgamesh is a piece of literature that shows the classic male hero. Gilgamesh is a classic hero because of what he goes through; he goes on adventures and has transformations. In The Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger actively engages in classical representations of the male hero, in which Holden Caulfield, the main character, creates a new relationship among the roles of a hero. While Gilgamesh is a classic example of the hero, Holden is an interesting representation of the classic hero by going on a quest to find himself in a world corrupted by “phonies.” Gilgamesh represents the classical hero faced with perilous adventures, and with the help of the gods, he overcomes them, while Holden represents the modern hero who struggles to understand the adult world. Salinger services the representations of ancient literary cultures, while providing a modern and colorful rendition of the classic hero.
The classic hero has something which distinguishes him from all the other “common” people, marked from birth. Gilgamesh was born endowed with beauty, courage, and a perfect body, in fact “the great gods made his beauty perfect, surpassing all others” (Epic of Gilgamesh 61). Gilgamesh is different than the regular man because he is “two thirds god and one third man” (61). Just like Gilgamesh, Holden is a very unique and special boy. Holden is “six foot two and a half and [he has] gray hair” (Salinger 9). It is very strange to be that tall and to have gray hair at the age of seventeen. In fact, he’s “had [gray hair] ever since [he] was a kid” (9). Salinger creates a character that is different than the usual teenage boy, where Holden’s outward appearance is old, while sometimes he acts a lot younger than his age. Holden and Gilgamesh are ostracized because of their distinguishing characteristics, which reflect the traits of a classical hero. Salinger continues to reinterpret the classical hero as a model for Holden.
The classic hero goes on a quest, a quest that leads to self-discovery. Gilgamesh’s quest to find immortality leads him through mystical unexplored worlds. While Gilgamesh courageously enters unknown lands, Holden journeys through the streets of New York City, unsure of where he is going and what he’s doing. Unlike Gilgamesh, Holden is in a more familiar place, which complicates the idea that the classic hero’s journey must be through dangerous and unexplored areas. Salinger uses the classical representation of the hero’s quest to expand Holden’s world, in which the hero’s quest becomes an inner struggle. Holden’s journey through the adult world makes him cope with adulthood, while Gilgamesh’s epic makes Gilgamesh confront death.
Throughout the quest, the hero is faced with dangers and trials, which lead him deeper in the journey. Gilgamesh encounters the classic battle and wins. Gilgamesh fights with a strange magical creature named Humbaba, who lives in a mystical forest. Holden has a different conflict, and he doesn’t necessarily win in certain aspects of it. Holden confronts the adult world of sex, scandals, and money when a prostitute tries to “chisel” him out of five bucks (Salinger 101). He confronts a “big fat hairy stomached” pimp, Maurice, who punches him and takes his money (102). Although he didn’t sleep with the prostitute, he confronts the adult world of sex and suffers the repercussions. Holden believes he is dying from Maurice’s punch, because he imagines “blood leaking all over the place” (104). While Gilgamesh has defeated Humbaba, Holden feels defeated. Holden often imagines himself as a martyr, dying from the adult world filled with “phonies.” Gilgamesh confronts and faces life, while Holden rejects the world and imagines his death. There is a major difference between the conflicts that Gilgamesh goes through, and the confrontations Holden must accept. Both characters struggle with the world and themselves to continue further on their search for the self. Holden’s confrontations with sexuality, money, and the adult world lead him to confront his ideals, “the catcher in the rye.” Gilgamesh also is led deeper in his journey, because his fight with Humbaba triggers a reaction in which his best friend, Enkidu, dies. The death of Enkidu makes Gilgamesh confront his mortality, fearing death. While Holden struggles with the adult world, Gilgamesh struggles for immortality. Each hero has an obstacle in which he tries to overcome, but realizes he must live with.
The classic hero confronts his fears, which leads him to accept the world. In the same way that Gilgamesh struggles to gain immortality, Holden tries to save children from falling into adulthood like he has. Holden has to confront the adult world when he rejects the adolescent world. Before leaving Pency, Holden rejects the adolescent world when he says “sleep tight ya morons,” then he literally falls down a flight of steps (Salinger 52). Gilgamesh journeys into darkness in order to try and find immortality. Each hero holds an ideal which they try to achieve, but realize that they must face reality. Gilgamesh fights to become immortal, but the gods insist that he “will never find that life for which [he] is looking for [because] the gods created man [and] allotted him death, but life they retained in their own keeping” (Epic 102). While Gilgamesh confronts mortality, Holden confronts the ideal image of “the catcher in the rye” in which he “bridges the gap between childhood and adulthood” by catching the children as they fall from childhood (“Theme Analysis” para.4). Holden realizes that if kids “want to grab for the gold ring, [he has] to let them do it” (Salinger 211). “If they fall off, they fall off,” but Holden can’t “catch” them from falling because each kid has to confront adulthood by themselves (211). Holden and Gilgamesh represent the classical hero when they must accept the world with all its turmoil and hardships.
While the hero struggles to accept the world, there is also a shift of consciousness that the classical hero goes through called “the belly of the whale” (Campbell 90). The belly of the whale is when the hero doesn’t conquer his struggle, but is swallowed into the unknown (90). Gilgamesh enters the belly of the whale when he is faced with his own mortality, because his brother and best friend Enkidu dies. As he laments his friend, there are significant changes inward and outward. He “lets [his] hair grow long… [and] wander[s] through the wilderness in the skin of a lion” (Epic 96). He also “strays through the wilderness and cannot rest” (101). This transformation leads Gilgamesh further on his journey when he is enveloped in darkness trying to find immortality. Holden also goes through the belly of the whale when he sees the words FU written in red crayon on the wall of a museum. The FU symbolizes what is wrong with the adult world, while the museum gives Holden an inner peace. When these two worlds crash into each other, Holden realizes that he cannot change the world. He will never get the idealistic peace he wants, even in death because on his tombstone there will be another FU. This shift in consciousness is physically present when he passes out, falling into the darkness because he can’t erase all the FU’s in the world. As Holden is “reborn” from passing out, he begins to stop being critical and starts to accept the world “in spite of its imperfections” (Towbridge 42). Salinger uses the classical confrontations a classical hero must undergo when Holden passes out, because it mirrors the transformation Gilgamesh went through centuries earlier.
Throughout the journey, each hero undergoes trials and confrontations, but doesn’t realize that the goal he tries to achieve isn’t as important as the journey there. Gilgamesh overcomes his fear of death throughout his journey as he faces mortal dangers, like crossing the river of death. In the end, Gilgamesh’s journeys are engraved on stone in which people read to learn about Gilgamesh’s life. Although Gilgamesh died, he achieved immortality through his adventures and stories. Without realizing it, the fantastic adventures of Gilgamesh become more important than finding immortality. The god, Siduri, gave good advice to Gilgamesh because living is more important than worrying about death; Gilgamesh must “fill [his] belly[,] dance and be merry” (Epic 102). Gilgamesh seizes life, living every moment on the edge, making his story exciting to read. Holden’s journey doesn’t end, because he still is faced with the dilemma of accepting the world and letting go of his criticism. Although the journey helped him to confront some of the issues of the adult world, he is still unsure of what to do. He “thinks” that he will apply himself in school but isn’t positive. The journey doesn’t end with Salinger’s book, but continues, just like the modern world. Holden’s journey is more important than just accepting the world without struggling to understand it. Gilgamesh and Holden never find what they have searched for, yet the classical tale of the hero is an important quest. In the search of knowledge, the road is all and the end is nothing. Salinger adds to the heroic quest by leaving the reader to decide what Holden has learned from his quest and what Holden will do with his life. Salinger actively engages in the classic representations of the hero, and leaves the reader unsure of what Holden has learned.
Because the journey is more important than the goal, it would be unusual if Gilgamesh and Holden were to switch places. Although Salinger explores the idea of the classic hero, if Gilgamesh were to step into Holden’s hunting cap, the tale would be different. The role of Gilgamesh as the hero would be changed because the evils of the modern world aren’t present in physical form, but in the characteristics of people. Although Gilgamesh has the strength of the gods, he wouldn’t be able to combat all the “phonies” in the world. Morally, Gilgamesh wouldn’t have any problems growing up because he would have done what he was told, and would have been faithful to his family. All the problems Holden confronts would disappear because Gilgamesh doesn’t criticize the world but accepts what the gods decreed to the world. Likewise, if Holden were to be placed in Gilgamesh’s shoes, there might not be any role the hero participates in. Holden would try to run away from his confrontations with death, like when he wanted to live out west and “get a job on a ranch” (Salinger 165). Holden would be unable to accept the gods, because they created the imperfect man. He would lead the life of a recluse, unable to cope with the constant lament for his brother Enkidu, and never fulfill his destiny. Holden might even commit suicide in the stillness of nature, because there would be no “bunch of stupid rubbernecks looking at [him] when [he] was all gory” (104). These changes reveal that each journey is specifically tailored to each hero. These complications expose the cultures in which they were written in, while also universally understood because of the reference to the classical hero’s struggle.
The Catcher in the Rye and The Epic of Gilgamesh explicate the role of the hero, while also differing in moral content and symbols. Both heroes have been marked from childhood and go on a quest, whether they realize it or not. Each hero goes through his or her own unique confrontations and transitions in which a change occurs. Although Gilgamesh’s transformation spurs on to another adventure, he begins a journey that has no end, the search for immortality. While Gilgamesh gains knowledge, Holden has troubles with the world and is unsure of his place in it. These conflicts weave a tale that complicates the “classic” tale of the hero on a quest. Although Holden has learned a lot about the world, he still cannot confront some parts of himself and adulthood. The modern hero diverges from the classical hero, in which Holden represents a type of hero, like Gilgamesh, while he struggles to come to terms with the world. Gilgamesh represents the ideal hero; the noble figure that overcomes many dangers. Although Gilgamesh is a brave hero, the tale of the hero in modern society strays from the ideal image of the courageous hero to the understanding of individual struggles. Holden is a modern representation of the classic hero, where there is no resolution and happy endings, but the problems he faces are unlike that of Gilgamesh. Holden can’t fight mystical creatures or journey across strange magical lands, but the struggles with himself are a very real and substantial. Salinger adds his own perspective on the classical representation of the role of the hero, where the portrayal of heroes “meet, clash, and grapple with each other” (Pratt 584).
➢ Campbell, Joseph The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Princeton University Press 1973
➢ Salinger, J. D. The Catcher in the Rye, Little Brown and Company 1951
➢ Sandars, N. K.(translator) The Epic of Gilgamesh, Penguin Books 1972
➢ Bartholomae, David and Petrosky, Anthony Ways of Reading, Mary Louise Pratt “Arts of the Contact Zone” Fifth edition Bedford/St. Martin’s 1999
➢ Towbridge, Clinton Literary Companion to American Literature: The Catcher in the Rye, The Greenhaven Press 1998
➢ Novel Guide “Metaphor Analysis” 1999
➢ Novel Guide “Theme Analysis” 1999
➢ Hainley, Kathryn “Gilgamesh Epic” 1997