Here’s another big, easy-to-get with example of emotional insight from J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye.” Holden Caulfield is trying to find his little sister Phoebe at her school:
I went down by a different staircase, and I saw another “Fuck you” on the wall. I tried to rub it off with my hand again, but this one was scratched on, with a knife or something. It wouldn’t come off. It’s hopeless, anyway. If you had a million years to do it in, you couldn’t rub out even half the “Fuck you” signs in the world. It’s impossible.
A short time later Holden is waiting to meet his sister. He’s looking at the exhibit of mummies in the Museum of Natural History in New York.
I was the only one left in the tomb then. I sort of liked it, in a way. It was so nice and peaceful. Then, all of a sudden, you’d never guess what I saw on the wall. Another “Fuck you.” It was written with a red crayon or something, right under the glass part of the wall, under the stones.
That’s the whole trouble. You can’t ever find a place that’s nice and peaceful, because there isn’t any. You may think there is, but once you get there, when you’re not looking, somebody’ll sneak up and write “Fuck you” right under your nose. Try it sometime. I think, even, if I ever die, and they stick me in a cemetery, and I have a tombstone and all, it’ll say “Holden Caulfield” on it, and then what year I was born and what year I died, and then right under that it’ll say “Fuck you.” I’m positive, in fact.
One thing I’m noticing more and more lately is that there are cases where intellectually it may not be at all apparent what the emotional insight is referring to; and there are other cases where there’s no doubt about it. This example from “Catcher” is an example in which the author is putting the literal thing he’s having the emotional insight about right in front of you — all the FU’s he sees written on walls in places they should never be.
What Salinger is conveying here more than the literal fact of those FU’s — it’s the emotional impact they have on him; it’s how Holden feels about them and the meaning of those emotions. If you read the passage you’ll feel the emotional insight Salinger is communicating. It can’t be expressed in any other words. That’s why we need works of art!
On a related topic, here are some thoughts about the theme of “Catcher in the Rye.” I think it’s Salinger’s take on the theme of Hamlet: “To be or not to be.”
Holden talks throughout the book about his disdain for people who are, in his word, “phony.” Holden feels that many people aren’t acting like themselves. They aren’t being who they really are. They haven’t found a way “to be.”
But Holden hasn’t found a way to be himself yet either, and it’s driving him crazy. He’s trying desperately to be himself, and he doesn’t have a clue yet where to start.
And in the end, through his love for his little sister Phoebe, and hers for him, he does find a way to start.