The Catcher in the Rye

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Themes and Colors
Phoniness Theme Icon
Alienation and Meltdown Theme Icon
Women and Sex Theme Icon
Childhood and Growing Up Theme Icon
Madness, Depression, Suicide Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Catcher in the Rye, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Childhood and Growing Up Theme Icon

In contrast to all adults whom Holden sees as riddled with flaws and phoniness, he sees children as pure, gentle, innocent, and perfect. The characters he speaks most fondly about in the novel are all children: Allie, Phoebe, and the poor boy he hears singing the song about the "catcher in the rye." He constantly dreams up schemes to escape growing up, such as fleeing to a New England cabin or working on a ranch out West. The only role that Holden envisions for himself in life—catching children before they fall off a cliff—is symbolic of his wish to save himself and other children from having to one day grow up.

However, Holden's view of perfect childhood is as incorrect as his view of the adult world as entirely "phony," and just helps Holden hide from the fact that the complex issues ranging from sex, to intimacy, to facing death, all of which he will have to face in growing up, terrify him. Further, this form of delusional self-protection can only last so long. Holden will grow up, whether he likes it or not. Mr. Antolini and Phoebe both make it clear that unless he learns to accept the complexities of adulthood, he will end up, at best, bitter and alone.

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Childhood and Growing Up ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Childhood and Growing Up appears in each chapter of The Catcher in the Rye. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Childhood and Growing Up Quotes in The Catcher in the Rye

Below you will find the important quotes in The Catcher in the Rye related to the theme of Childhood and Growing Up.
Chapter 2 Quotes
"Life is a game, boy. Life is a game that one plays according to the rules."
"Yes, sir. I know it is. I know it."
Game, my ass. Some game. If you get on the side where all the hot-shots are, then it's a game, all right—I'll admit that. But if you get on the other side, where there aren't any hot-shots, then what's a game about it? Nothing. No game.
Related Characters: Holden Caulfield (speaker)
Page Number: 12-13
Explanation and Analysis:

When Mr. Spencer advises Holden to see his life as a game, Holden pretends to affirm the sentiment. But in reality, he believes this worldview is only helpful to those who already hold positions of relative advantage.

The disconnect between Holden’s external speech and his interior monologue marks his distance from adult society. His spoken language is polite and submissive, using the term “sir” and repeating with subservience “I know it is. I know it,” as if he does not have any additional independent thoughts. Yet when the text moves into his mind, we see a very different tone: one that immediately swears—“my ass”—and then goes on to invalidate his previous comment.

Holden’s specific contention with Mr. Spencer’s point is worth considering: he finds the thoughts of empowered adults irrelevant because their advice only applies to those within parallel positions of power—the ones “on the side where all the hot-shots are.” That is to say, the metaphor of the "game" implies a mindset that presumes one can actually dictate the rules. Holden does not simply say that he is disadvantaged in the game, however, but rather denies the entire metaphorical system. With the use of interior monologue, he rejects the worldview hoisted on him by others and sets the stakes of his own game.


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Chapter 5 Quotes
My brother Allie had this left-handed fielder's mitt. He was left-handed. The thing that was descriptive about it, though, was that he had poems written all over the fingers and the pocket and everywhere. In green ink.
Related Characters: Holden Caulfield (speaker), Allie Caulfield
Page Number: 49
Explanation and Analysis:

Holden decides to write the essay for Stradlater about his own brother Allie. He begins the description with this endearing comment on how Allie covered his baseball mitt in poetry.

Salinger presents this passage as an interior, self-correcting monologue inside Holden’s head: After he makes the first comment on the “left-handed fielder’s mitt,” Holden is careful to clarify that this was a pragmatic necessity for his brother because “He was left-handed.” Similarly, he goes on to specify that the left-handedness is not the pertinent feature of the mitt: What is “descriptive”—as the essay is reportedly supposed to be—is how it is covered with poetry. Adding the detail “In green ink” then reinforces the sense that the text is Holden’s process of thinking-through the essay he will write. It is as if he imagines an audience in his head receiving the monologue being transcribed by Salinger.

Beyond making use of unusual stylistic elements, this passage marks the first more humanizing presentation of Holden’s character. Whereas before he has seemed entirely misanthropic, here he shows earnest interest in Allie, and an idealization of his lost younger brother. Thus Holden does not seem to be merely distant from his family, but rather remains at least partially connected to them through this memory. Furthermore, his interest in the “poems” on Allie’s mitt reveals Holden’s attraction to certain forms of art. He does not, in fact, find everything to be phony.

Chapter 9 Quotes
You know those ducks in that lagoon right near Central Park South? That little lake? By any chance, do you happen to know where they go, the ducks, when it gets all frozen over?
Related Characters: Holden Caulfield (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Ducks in the Lagoon in Central Park
Page Number: 78
Explanation and Analysis:

Holden asks his cab driver about the Central Park ducks. Though the question is earnest, the driver does not take him seriously.

On the surface, Holden’s question seems ridiculous, or even sarcastic, thus showing that his occasional earnest statements are rebuffed by a society that expects social acts to be relatively artificial. Here, we get a sense of why Holden sees others as phony—for they demand such a practiced and coded type of social interaction that they do not have direct and meaningful conversations. The inability of a cab driver to answer this straightforward question speaks to such a disconnect.

More specifically, the ducks are a symbol for a helpless animal that has been abandoned in the middle of winter. That Holden wonders about their winter lodgings demonstrates his attention to beings that have been abandoned—and implies that he he has a similar worry for himself. In a sense, Holden is just like the ducks: uncertain of where to go now that he has entered a harsh adult world.

Chapter 16 Quotes
The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody'd move. You could go there a hundred times, and that Eskimo would still be just finished catching those two fish, the birds would still be on their way south, the deers would still be drinking out of that water hole, with their pretty antlers and their pretty, skinny legs, and that squaw with the naked bosom would still be weaving that same blanket. Nobody'd be different. The only thing that would be different would be you.
Related Characters: Holden Caulfield (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Museum of Natural History
Page Number: 157-158
Explanation and Analysis:

As he considers visiting the Museum of Natural History, Holden contemplates the value of the permanent exhibits. He is comforted that they stay the same in the face of his own ever-shifting personality and experiences.

This passage brings up the question of aging and adolescence within the novel: the reader must wonder why Holden would find it meaningful that “everything always stayed right where it was.” His references to “Nobody” in “Nobody’d move” and “Nobody’d be different” indicate that Holden identifies actual people in his life with the inanimate exhibits before him. (Otherwise he would say “Nothing” instead of “Nobody.”) Thus the Museum of Natural History becomes a site of permanence and consistency, both things that Holden values and would likely juxtapose with the ever-changing adult society he has repeatedly deemed “phony.”

In addition to representing stability, the museum also serves as a way for Holden to visualize his own identity formation. In saying “The only thing that would be different would be you,” Holden implies that he values understanding the specificities of this difference. That is to say, a museum becomes a useful thought experiment in assessing one’s maturation and development. Salinger thus shows Holden to have, despite his tendency for rashness, a desire for both stability and introspection.

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.

She was a very nice, polite little kid. God, I love it when a kid's nice and polite when you tighten their skate for them or something. Most kids are. They really are. I asked her if she'd care to have a hot chocolate or something with me, but she said no, thank you. She said she had to meet her friend. Kids always have to meet their friend. That kills me.
Related Characters: Holden Caulfield (speaker)
Page Number: 155
Explanation and Analysis:

Holden asks a girl about Phoebe and, as they part ways, he gives this odd, nostalgic reflection on childhood. He adopts an adult perspective again, observing the actions of kids as pure and admirable.

Earlier, Holden’s critical eye has been primarily oriented toward adult society. By presenting himself as an outsider toward more mature social interactions, Holden maintained his status as an adolescent and marked himself as relatively young. Yet here he adopts the perspective of an adult who gazes from a distance on the behaviors of the young. His repeated invocation of “kid,” particularly in the generalized plural “kids” implies that Holden considers himself outside of this group. Indeed, his ability to make general statements on how “most kids are” implies that he has gathered enough data on their behaviors to make an objective and universal statement.

Holden’s reflection speaks to the earnestness he finds valuable in childhood. When the girl says “she had to meet her friend,” she adopts adult language, which Holden finds quite comical: “That kills me.” Whereas he might find the same behavior artificial were it to come from a peer or an adult, Holden finds it to be entirely genuine coming from the girl. Salinger demonstrates Holden’s soft spot for younger children when he takes on this adult perspective—and clarifies that Holden may be trying to hold onto his own adolescence to preserve this innocent state.

Chapter 17 Quotes
I said no, there wouldn't be marvelous places to go to after I went to college and all. Open your ears. It'd be entirely different. We'd have to go downstairs in elevators with suitcases and stuff. We'd have to phone up everybody and tell 'em good-by and send 'em postcards from hotels and all... It wouldn't be the same at all. You don't see what I mean at all.
Related Characters: Holden Caulfield (speaker), Sally Hayes
Page Number: 172
Explanation and Analysis:

Holden interrupts Sally to further reject the trappings of adult life. He claims that living together when they are older would be horrifying and not at all equivalent to escaping to the woods now.

That Holden denies the existence of “marvelous places” in the future speaks to his deep anxieties about adulthood. Evidently, all experiences after college are held to be banal and phony. They are “entirely different” not because of their physical environment, but rather because of how codified and mechanical his life will become as an adult. Whereas escaping to the woods as an adolescent holds the potential of complete isolation (and perhaps a perpetuation of the "innocence" of childhood), travel as an adult brings baggage both literal and metaphorical. Holden is perturbed by the “suitcases and stuff” that would weigh them down, as well as the social networks that demand goodbyes and “postcards.” He identifies isolation and ease of travel with youth and sees adults as living artificial and ensnared lives. Though this may be an exaggerated image, Salinger once again grants Holden the benefit of a compelling critical eye. Adults, indeed, are weighed down by these concerns, and thus Holden’s wish to hold on to his adolescence is admirable even as it is unreasonable.

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 24 Quotes
Among other things, you'll find that you're not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. You're by no means alone on that score... Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You'll learn from them—if you want to.
Related Characters: Mr. Antolini (speaker), Holden Caulfield
Page Number: 246
Explanation and Analysis:

Mr. Antolini continues to offer Holden advice on his "outsider" mindset. He notes that the experience has been had by many before and that Holden can take solace in their written reflections.

By fitting Holden’s life into a common narrative, Mr. Antolini both validates Holden's frustrations and shows how they are not as unique as he might consider them to be. He thus negates any claim Holden may have to exceptionalism, for he is “not the first person” to have gone through this story. By placing the terms “confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior” in a single sentence, Mr. Antolini implies that Holden’s critical mindset of being “sickened” may, in fact, be the result of the first two qualities: His perceptions are not so much objective interpretations of humanity as they are the results of his own sense of being lost. Adding “many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually,” Mr. Antolini reiterates that even the most abstract worries of Holden are nothing novel.

Though this response might seem to deny the meaning of Holden’s mindset, Mr. Antolini actually interprets this commonality as a sign of hope. Saying, “some of them kept records of their troubles,” he speaks to the wide canon of memoir and fiction that discuss one’s anxiety about and alienation from society. (Indeed, this is one of the more prevalent motivators and subjects of art!) Since others have been moved to engage with these issues, Holden can “learn from them” and thus find solace and advice on how to confront these anxieties. Salinger offers a subtle wink at the reader, here, for this novel is itself one of those “records.” He implies that it may serve a similar source of learning for readers experiencing their own moral and social troubles—and indeed, Catcher in the Rye has become a classic precisely because of this.

Chapter 25 Quotes
[W]hile I was sitting down, I saw something that drove me crazy. Somebody'd written "Fuck you" on the wall. It drove me damn near crazy. I thought how Phoebe and all the other little kids would see it, and how they'd wonder what the hell it meant, and then finally some dirty kid would tell them....I hardly even had the guts to rub it off the wall with my hand, if you want to know the truth. I was afraid some teacher would catch me rubbing it off and would think I'd written it. But I rubbed it out anyway, finally.
Related Characters: Holden Caulfield (speaker), Phoebe Caulfield
Page Number: 260
Explanation and Analysis:

When Holden goes to Phoebe’s school, he sees this note written on the wall. He becomes furious in response and tries desperately to remove the profane language.

Though the reader should be skeptical of Holden’s repeated use of the word “crazy” by now, it is evident that the words move him into a state of intense anger. His anger comes, as usual, from a envisioned scene: the kids reading the words and then learning their significance. For Holden, this moment stands for their corruption and their permanent departure from childhood into adolescence. Holden himself often swears, demonstrating that he has no direct issue with this language as such. Rather, he hates the effect it would have on the kids, reinforcing the way Holden wants to play a protective “catcher” role for younger children.

That Holden hesitates from removing it indicates a continued care in how he is perceived by others—for he does not want to be associated with such profane behavior. Again, Salinger stresses the fact that despite Holden’s misanthropic rejection of society, he is deeply attentive to how others might perceive his actions. Yet in this case, his wish to protect the schoolchildren overwhelms those sensibilities—implying that Holden may have grown a bit more selfless.

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.