Symbolism in “Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger

Subject: Literature
Pages: 9
Words: 2452
Reading time:
9 min
Study level: College


Where do the ducks go when it becomes winter. This is an example of symbolism in this novel, which is filled with many more symbols, about Holden or his view on life. The ducks can be symbolizing Holden’s impulse to run away from the world and its problem and start a new life somewhere else where he doesn’t know anyone. Other issues in the novel such as the red hunting hat, the museum, Allie’s glove, etc are all symbols in the book, which have a symbolic role in explaining and describing Holden’s perspective on an issue.

For example, Holden’s red hat can be interpreted as his refuge, to hide from the rest of the world, or it can be describing his individuality when he still wears it knowing that everyone looks at him as sort of odd. Allie’s baseball glove can mean his mourning and feeling of loss over Allie’s death. All of these things have a symbolic meaning in the book than a literal one.

Symbols in the novel

However, the most important symbol and main idea of the story is the symbolic meaning of the title of the novel, The Catcher In the Rye. The meaning of the title may even be the inspiration of Holden’s character. Catcher in the rye is what Holden describes as saving children from the corruption of adulthood, and throughout the book, the struggle against adulthood is what he conflicts with. The first time the idea of a catcher in the rye was introduced in the book was when Holden was walking along on a New York City block and a young child with his mother and father began singing.

The parents seemed to be completely careless of what the child did, and the child was balancing on the curb very close to the busy city roads. As this child was walking along, he sang, if a body catches a body coming through the rye. (Jones 176) For some reason, this caught the full attention of Holden, and he seemed to like the boy because he was a child of course. It also made him feel a lot better, and he wasn’t so depressed anymore.

However, the first time the book explained what Holden meant by the title of the novel, The Catcher In The Rye, was when he was secretly in his house talking to Phoebe about what he liked and wanted to do. He said he would want to be under the cliff while the children were playing in the rye, and if any one of them fell off the cliff, he would be the one that catches them and sends them back. That’s all Id do all day, he says (page 173). The symbolic meaning of that is something much deeper than that. (Vanderbilt 274) What he means, whether he knows it or not, is that he wants to set himself up as a savior for children, saving them from falling into the corruption of adulthood.

The reason for this is that he has a completely negative and tainted view of adults and the society they live in. He blames them for anything that ever went wrong to him or the world. However, he has a completely innocent and pure view of children. He thinks that they could do no wrong and that they are the victims of adult actions. Even if a child did something wrong, he deceives himself and repudiates the fact that a child did something immoral and adult-like by making up a story to himself making an adult the culprit. An example of this is when he went to the elementary school, where his sister attends school, and during his visit, he sees profanity written on the wall.

He refuses to believe that a child could do something like this so, almost like a reflex, he assumes the children are innocent and makes a far-fetched story about an adult breaking into the school at night and writing it on the wall. To Holden, adults are the cause of all problems, and children are the helpless victims that are influenced and tainted by adulthood. He goes on to say, “Certain things should stay the way they are. You ought to be able to stick them in one of those big black cases and just leave them alone” (p122) Here, he is once again explaining, how he wishes children could just stay children. He thinks they should just be kept in their childhood and left there and therefore, not be affected by adulthood. However, he says this in a regretful tone so he does know that that is not possible.

Out of countless amounts symbols that can be named throughout the novel, one of the most important symbols is the title of the novel. Holden claims he wants to be the catcher in the rye, symbolically meaning, being a savior for children that keeps them falling into the abyss of adulthood, who he sees as the corruption that taints the pure, innocent children. (Strauch 30) To him, children are victims of adulthood, and the rye represents childhood, and falling off means falling into adulthood, so by catching them as they fall, he preserves their childhood. Holden always has negative things to say about adults like the fact that they are phony, but never once, does he have a lasting negative impression upon a child. (Pinsker 56)

Throughout the novel, we can see the many symbols, both subtle and obvious, represented by people and objects. The red hunting hat is one of the most recognizable symbols. It is a symbol of Holden’s uniqueness and individuality. (Rosen 557)The hat is outlandish, and it shows that Holden wants to be different from everyone around him. At the same time, he is very self-conscious about the hat–he always mentions when he is wearing it, and he often doesn’t wear it if he is going to be around people he knows. The hat mirrors the central conflict in the book: Holden’s need for isolation versus his need for companionship.

Holden later gives his hat to his sister Phoebe before leaving to go out west. She has just given him money to protect him on his journey and he offers her something that he feels connected to and that will protect her. (Bryan 1070) In doing so, he emphasizes the constructive defensive qualities of the hunting hat.

The title of the book is a symbol in its self. The song by Rober Burns, “Comin’ Thro’ the Rye” actually is about seeing if it is wrong for two people to have a romantic encounter in a field of rye, away from the public eye. The Ducks in the Central Park Lagoon always bring out the child in Holden. Whenever he inquires about the ducks, he is always happy sounding, compared to the way he acts during most other parts in the book, very grumpy and unhappy at the world.

The ducks are symbolic in several ways. They prove that some disappearances are only temporary. They vanish in the winter but return in the spring. The pond itself becomes a metaphor for the world as Holden sees it. Partially frozen and partially not frozen. (Clinton 688) Just as Holden is partially frozen in his childhood, but he doesn’t know it, and he is trying to be as adult as he can but is confused with the world.

In various types of literature, an author may use different symbols to help emphasize a point to the reader. J.D. Salinger uses symbolism frequently in his novel, The Catcher In The Rye to convey his point. At the very beginning of the novel, J.D. Salinger starts by symbolizing Holden Caulfield’s situation for the rest of the novel when he is speaking to his teacher, Mr. Spencer about flunking out of school. Later on, Holden is playing with a snowball outside his bedroom and abruptly decides not to throw it at anything outside. Finally, towards the end of the novel, Holden starts to think of the cases inside of the museum and how the displays inside them never change. The symbolism in The Catcher In The Rye is very important to understanding the novel.

Possibly the most important symbolic moment in The Catcher In The Rye is when Mr. Spencer is trying to give Holden advice to get through that difficult time and find out why Holden does not care about school. Holden and Mr. Spencer were talking when Holden explains, “All he did was lift the Atlantic Monthly off his lap and try to chuck it on the bed, next to me. He missed. It was only about two inches away, but he missed anyway.”

Mr. Spencer is trying to get through to Holden and keeps failing. He attempts to throw something on the bed next to Holden three times and misses every time. Mr. Spencer missing Holden consistently shows how much he is trying to get his point through to Holden and never does. Holden refers to the distance between him and Mr. Spencer as, “only about two inches away,” this shows how close Mr. Spencer is to reaching Holden, but he never accomplishes his task. Overall Mr. Spencer tried to help Holden and never achieves that goal, which is seen through the magazines missing Holden whenever they are thrown to the bed in which Holden is on. (Bloom 73)

Towards the middle of the novel, Holden is at his window packing a snowball and decides not to throw it at anything outside the window. At first, Holden wants to throw the snowball, “I started to throw it…But I changed my mind. The car looked so nice and white…Finally, I didn’t throw it at anything.” Holden’s reasoning behind not throwing the snowball was that everything looked too peaceful and he did not want to disturb it.

This symbolizes Holden having the power to change his view on life and his view of the people in his life. Holden does not use this power because he likes the way things are. He does not like change. The snow represents purity and innocence. To specify Jane Gallagher, in Holden’s mind, is still innocent and pure. If Holden were to go and see her or call her, he would be disturbing his ultimate image of her. Overall Holden not throwing the snowball at anything reveals his desire to keep things the same. (Goodman 20-21)

Regarding the end of the novel, Holden’s mind starts to wander toward the glass cases inside the museum. He starts to fantasize about the displays inside the cases and how they never change. Holden explains, “The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move.” This further emulates the idea that Holden dislikes things changing. He says that he enjoys the museum for the pure fact that everything stays the same. Holden says later on, “Certain things they should stay the way they are. You ought to be able to just stick them in one of those big glass cases and just leave them alone.” Before Holden says this he was thinking about Pheobe and how she goes to the museum every week like he used to.

He says this because he wants Pheobe to stay the same. In conclusion, Holden enjoys the museum and the cases inside because they never change. The novel, The Catcher In “The Rye” by J.D. Salinger, utilizes symbolism to elucidate the story to the reader. At the very beginning of the novel, Mr. Spencer attempts to give Holden much-needed advice and is never able to get through to him, as seen through the tossing of magazines.

Later on in the novel, Holden is packing a snowball outside his window and decides not to throw it, which ultimately illustrates the fact that Holden does not like change. (Wells 35)Toward the end of the novel, Holden thinks about the cases in the museum and how much he likes the fact that everything in the museum stayed the same, which further accentuates the fact that Holden has an aversion toward change. Symbolism is a much-needed, indispensable part of literature that most stories would be a nonentity without. (Glasser 444)

School is also a symbol that tells us about Holden. It tells us about what will probably happen to Holden in his life. School is a structured system with many steps that must be completed to pass. It is a lot like life where there are many obstacles and challenges one must overcome to succeed. Holden had already failed several schools before he failed Pencey. Holden doesn’t even care if he fails school because his parents don’t care.

Holden tells people about how he failed so many schools like it’s something to be proud of. He tells us about how he failed Whooton School, Elkton Hills, and Pencey like it’s no big deal and he’s proud to talk about it. It’s obvious he even cares about his future. When Mr. Spencer asked Holden, “Do you feel absolutely no concern for your future, boy”, Holden responded, “Oh, I feel some concern for my future, all right. Sure. Sure, I do. I thought about it for a minute. But not too much, I guess. Not too much, I guess.” This shows that Holden hasn’t thought about his future and what failing school will do to it. If Holden fails school it means that he will fail life, which is pretty much what happens to him at the end of the book. (Malcolm 11)

One of the most important symbols about Holden in the Museum in Central Park. Everything in the museum hasn’t changed at all, while Holden has changed a great deal since his childhood. Holden walks through Central Park to the museum, then decides not to go in. “All of a sudden, I wouldn’t have gone inside for a million bucks. If Phoebe had been there, I probably would have, but she wasn’t.” (Page 122). He doesn’t want to face his past alone.

He wants someone to be there to help but doesn’t share his past with anyone, except for one occasion. This was when, while Holden was attending Pencey, he wrote about Allie’s baseball mitt. The mitt brought back a lot of emotions because Allie had died. When Stradlater read the paper about the mitt, he criticized Holden and the paper. Holden got uncomfortable and tore up the paper. This event made him very cautious about going into his past again. The museum shows us Holden’s cautious side. He always does whatever he feels like. He fails school, drinks, smokes, and gets in fights, but he just can’t relive his past. It is one of his largest obstacles.

Works Cited

Bloom, Harold, ed. Holden Caulfield. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1990.

Bryan, James. “The Psychological Structure of The Catcher in the Rye.” In PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association, Vol. 89, no. 5, 1974, pp. 1065-74.

Clinton W. Trowbridge “The Symbolic Structure of The Catcher in the Rye”. Sewanee Review, Vol. 74, no. 3 (1966): The University of the South 681-93.

Glasser, William. ” The Catcher in the Rye.” Michigan Quarterly Review 15 (1976): 432-57.

Goodman, Anne. Review of The Catcher in the Rye, “Mad about Children.” New Republic 125 (1951): 20-21.

Jones, Ernest. Review of The Catcher in the Rye, “Case History of All of Us.” Nation 173, no. 9 (1951): 176.

Malcolm M. Marsden: ed. ‘If You Really Want to Know: A Catcher Casebook, (1963).

Pinsker, Sanford. The Catcher in the Rye: Innocence under Pressure. New York: Twayne, 1993.

Rosen, Gerald. “A Retrospective Look at The Catcher in the Rye.” American Quarterly 29 (1977): 547-62.

Strauch, Carl F. “Kings in the Back Row: Meaning through Structure—A Reading of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.” Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature 2 (1961): 5-30.

Vanderbilt, Kermit. “Symbolic Resolution in The Catcher in the Rye: The Cap, the Carrousel, and the American West.” Western Humanities Review 17 (1963): 271-77.

Wells, Arvin R. “Huck Finn, and Holden Caulfield: The Situation of the Hero.” Ohio University Review 1 (1960): 31-42.