The Catcher in the Rye

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The Catcher in the Rye Symbol Analysis

The Catcher in the Rye Symbol Icon
What Holden most wants to be in life is someone who stands on the edge of a cliff in a rye field catching children before they fall. The image is symbolic of Holden's desire to save both himself and other children from having to grow up into an adult world he sees as "phony." The image is even more symbolic because it is based on Holden mishearing a song based on Robert Burns (1759-1796) poem "Coming Thro the Rye," which is about two bodies meeting in the rye to have sex. Holden's misinterpretation underscores both his desire to shield children from the adult world, and his misunderstanding about just how innocent the world of children is.

The Catcher in the Rye Quotes in The Catcher in the Rye

The The Catcher in the Rye quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Catcher in the Rye. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Phoniness Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Little, Brown edition of The Catcher in the Rye published in 2001.
Chapter 16 Quotes
I got up close so I could hear what he was singing. He was singing that song, "If a body catch a body coming through the rye." He had a pretty little voice, too. He was just singing for the hell of it, you could tell. The cars zoomed by, brakes screeched all over the place, his parents paid no attention to him, and he kept on walking next to the curb and singing "If a body catch a body coming through the rye." It made me feel better. It made me feel not so depressed any more.
Related Characters: Holden Caulfield (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Catcher in the Rye
Page Number: 150
Explanation and Analysis:

As Holden walks by a church, he hears a boy singing the tune from which the novel’s title will be taken. He finds in this moment a source of endearing and heartening purity that contrasts with his otherwise disheartening existence.

When Holden refers to the tune as “that song,” he shows himself to be already familiar with it—indicating that it has a nostalgic effect. Though the meaning of the song’s image is not yet clear, we can already see in the image of “catch a body” that it describes one “body” supporting another. “Through the rye” summons a rural environment that opposes the harsh city, while the hypothetical “If” gives the tune a dreamy quality. It seems to exist in an idyllic alternative universe, one that brings Holden a sense of real peace.

What Holden finds particularly moving, however, is less the content of the song than the way in which the boy sings it. Specifically, he does so “for the hell of it”: entirely for himself and with no regard to the indifference of “cars,” “brakes,” or even “his parents.” The boy, then, would epitomize the kind of earnest poetics that Holden identifies with Allie—and also opposes the phony adult society that acts solely based on social recognition. It is no coincidence that Holden has this spiritual moment near a church, for the catcher symbol will act like a psalm or incantation for the lost Holden.

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Chapter 22 Quotes
Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody's around — nobody big, I mean — except me. And I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff — I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That's all I'd do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all.
Related Characters: Holden Caulfield (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Catcher in the Rye
Page Number: 224
Explanation and Analysis:

When Phoebe asks Holden what he would like to be, he returns to the tune he heard earlier about the catcher in the rye. Holden says he would like to be the catcher in the song, one who would prevent the kids from falling to harm.

Holden’s answer strikes Phoebe—and likely the reader—as relatively nonsensical. Catching children in the rye is not an actual profession, but perhaps this is why Holden finds it genuine as compared to the phony work done by his parents. Indeed, the way Holden introduces the phrase “Anyway, I keep picturing” indicates that his profession is not based on logical consideration but rather an idealized image of what he would life to look like. This response, then, verifies that Holden sees his life through a cinematic eye and makes choices according to the aesthetics and earnestness of this imagined film.

Through this filmic image, Holden wishes to be a savior for younger children. He does not himself wish to remain in a state of childhood, explicitly saying “nobody big, I mean — except me,” thus showing that he does value maturation. That merit comes from how Holden would be able to assist the “thousands of little kids,” demonstrating that he finds real value in acts of altruism. This imagined profession speaks to a genuine sense of goodness within Holden, but it also reveals his own wish to be saved from falling over the metaphorical cliff of adolescent despair. Holden may want to be the catcher in the rye, but he simultaneously wants to be caught by someone—and thus Salinger’s title refers to the protagonist as both catcher and caught, both thoughtful adult and astray youth.

Chapter 25 Quotes
All the kids kept trying to grab for the gold ring, and so was old Phoebe, and I was sort of afraid she'd fall off the goddam horse, but I didn't say anything or do anything. The thing with kids is, if they want to grab for the gold ring, you have to let them do it, and not say anything. If they fall off, they fall off, but it's bad if you say anything to them.
Related Characters: Holden Caulfield (speaker), Phoebe Caulfield
Related Symbols: The Catcher in the Rye
Page Number: 273
Explanation and Analysis:

Holden watches Phoebe on the carousel and reflects on the way she and many others will make mistakes. He believes that intervention must have a limit and that children should be allowed to make errors and suffer the consequences.

This point of view marks a striking inversion in Holden’s character. Before, he praised the role of the catcher in the rye: a figure who would have prevented any children from falling. Yet here, despite the fear “she’d fall off the goddamn horse,” Holden believes that his inaction is actually preferable. He implies that being overly protective actually serves children badly and that they must be allowed to make their own mistakes.

Again, Holden has adopted an oddly mature perspective on children. The line “The thing with kids is” marks him as a wizened adult offering advice, whereas in just the previous chapter he has been receiving advice from Mr. Antolini. Salinger stresses the way Holden’s identity continues to shift based on his social context—becoming at times the wise sage, at others the uneducated, rebellious teenager. And as with the image of the catcher in the rye, his comment invariably reflects back on what Holden himself requires: at the novel’s end, perhaps, he no longer wants just to be caught by others, but rather seems to have recognized that the process of falling itself has merit. Thus the poetic moment of the carousel expresses his maturation both in the way he looks from a distance at the state of childhood, and in the way that he himself no longer craves being saved by another.

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The Catcher in the Rye Symbol Timeline in The Catcher in the Rye

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Catcher in the Rye appears in The Catcher in the Rye. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 22
Alienation and Meltdown Theme Icon
Childhood and Growing Up Theme Icon
Madness, Depression, Suicide Theme Icon
...catch a body coming through the rye," and says he'd like most to be a catcher in the rye who rescues children from falling off a cliff while playing in a rye field. (full context)