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. This image is symbolic of his desire to save both himself and other children from having to experience the various hardships and perils of the adult world. In the same way that he himself doesn’t want to grow up, he wants to help preserve youthful innocence by saving other people—like his younger sister Phoebe, for instance—from the inevitable changes that come along with aging. The fact that Holden bases this image of himself as the “catcher in the rye” in “Comin’ Thro’ the Rye,” a song he overhears, is significant because he actually misremembers the lyrics. Although he thinks that the song (which is based on a poem by the 18th-century poet Robert Burns) goes, “If a body catch a body coming through the rye,” it actually reads, “If a body meet a body coming through the rye.” To that end, the lyrics are ironically about promiscuous sexual encounters, as Burns is writing about having clandestine but casual sex in a field. Holden’s naïve misinterpretation of these lyrics, then, underscores both his desire to shield children from the adult world and just how innocent he himself is when it comes to adult matters.
The Catcher in the Rye Quotes in The Catcher in the Rye
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.
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.
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... I think, even, if I ever die, and they stick me in a cemetery, and I have 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.
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.