J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye: The Symbolism Behind the Book
- Length: 1471 words (4.2 double-spaced pages)
- Rating: Excellent
The Catcher in the Rye is written by J.D. Salinger. This book in particular is closely based on the life of Salinger. The symbols in this book are very highly developed and have a lot to do with the development of Holden's character and also explain how he feels about certain things in his life. The three most important symbols in this book are ducks in the pond in Central Park, the speech and discussion about digression at Mr. Antolini's house, and, of course, the symbolism behind the title, the catcher in the rye. The following will be an in-depth analysis of the symbolism behind the book, the Catcher in the Rye.
The first symbolic event I would like to discuss is the conversation that Holden has with his old English teacher, Mr. Antolini. This certain event happens in chapter 24. They started talking about the classes that Holden failed. One in particular was the class called Oral Expression. Holden told Antolini about how much he hated that class. He said he hated it so much because of something called digression.' He told Antolini that the oral expression was a class where you would get up in front of the class and make a speech on a selected topic. The point was to not go off topic. Every time someone did off topic, the whole class was supposed to yell digression!' at them. Holden was one of the guys who often got yelled digression to. He got so frustrated that he would just give up. Holden explains to Mr. Antolini about a classmate named Richard Kinsella. He also went off topic a lot, but Holden said it was better when he did go off topic because it was always more interesting. He says " I mean it's dirty to keep yelling Digression!' at him when he's all nice and excited ' " This quote is very significant to the understanding of Holden. When he says it is dirty to yell digression at someone when they are getting excited about something, he is really relating it to his personal life. He probably thinks it is rude for people to be judging him and to be telling him what to do when his life goes off track a little bit.
This digression conversation proves how messed up Holden's life really is.
Right now, Holden is jumping from prep school to prep school and really keeps changing what he's doing with his life. He is never able to finish what he starts. Up until now, he has thought that it is ok for him to do this. Before Antolini made him second-guess himself, Holden thought that it was ok to go off track once in a while. There are always special circumstances that make it ok for people to go off track and he thinks that he is one of those people. Nobody really understands that he needs to digress once in a while. Mr. Antolini, however, doesn't agree with this. He thinks that if a person started on one topic, he should stay with it.
" One short, faintly stuffy, pedagogical question. Don't you think there's a time and a place for everything? Don't you think if someone starts out to tell you about his father's farm, he should stick to his guns, then get around to telling you about his uncle's brace? Or if his uncle's brace is such a provocative subject, shouldn't he have selected it in the first place as his subject-not the farm?' "
This criticism, I think, hits Holden hard because it is almost as if Mr. Antolini is saying that Holden's way of life is wrong and when he starts something he should finish it. This discussion represents something else. It represents the fact that Holden will go nowhere if he keeps going off topic and the fact that he failed the course, perhaps, means that if he doesn't turn his life around, he will fail in life too.
Another important symbol in the Catcher in the Rye is about the ducks in the pond in Central Park. Holden poses the question about what happens to the ducks in Central Park. This conversation with the cabbie, Horwitz, begins on page 81. It reads,
" Hey, Horwitz,' I said. You ever pass by the lagoon in Central
Park? Down by Central Park South?'
The lagoon. That little lake, like, there. Where the ducks are. You
Yeah, what about it?'
Well you know the ducks that swim around in it? In the
springtime and all? Do you happen to know where they go in the
wintertime, by any chance?' "
First of all, this question is kind of a silly question for a teenager of 16 years to ask. Most people figure out that bird fly south in the winter when they are ten or eleven years old. The innocent curiosity that Holden is portraying in this question suggests that he is still a child inside. The way he is unsure of where the ducks go show his innocence. The ducks in the lagoon symbolize change. The fact that Holden is unsure about the change that the ducks go through, symbolizes that Holden is unsure about the changes that he is going through. Holden is also concerned about the ducks and this could mean that he, himself, is afraid of change. Considering the question he asked was childlike, I think that Holden could be afraid of growing up and changing into an adult. He wants to stay a kid forever and the way he idealizes people like his little brother Allie and his little sister Phoebe show that he wished he could be like them.
The fact that he thinks the ducks disappear and that this might upset him means that Holden is afraid that he will disappear. This is something that he is most afraid of. He is afraid that he will disappear. This is further supported on page 198 when he prays to Allie (his dead brother) not to let him disappear. The ducks in the pond kind of symbolize his fear of change. Also, the fish that also associate with the ducks symbolize Holden wanting to be frozen as a kid forever and he wants to stay a child forever.
Probably the most important symbol of the whole book is the significance of the title Catcher in the Rye. Holden talks to Phoebe about what he wants to be. This is described in chapter 22.
" I thought it was if a body catch a body,' I said. Anyway, I keep
picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of kids, and nobody's around-nobody big, I mean-except for 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.' "
This, of course, is a very unrealistic dream. I mean, you can't get paid for catching kids going over a cliff. To Holden though, this is a metaphor for what he really wants to do. Holden wants to be able to protect children from what he has gone through. He wants to protect the children from the phonies and the perverts that he has encountered in his life. Holden's dream of catching kids from falling over a cliff is really his dream of protecting children from the real world. What he really wants, above everything else, is to protect Phoebe from HIS hates and HIS problems and HIS fears. He thinks that by doing things like trying to erase the graffiti and running away from the phonies he will be able to be a kid and save the people he respects and idealizes the most (meaning children). I think he gives Phoebe the hunting hat to kind of protect her when he's gone. He wishes he could be the catcher in the rye and be the protector of the innocence to find out what the real world can be like.
In conclusion, I think that all of these symbols in the book help us realize what kind of person Holden is. Holden is the kind of person who can't accept the real world. He wants to run away from it and yet try to protect younger people from finding out what it is really like; dirty, judgmental, full of phonies and perverts, and unfair. This book is based on symbols that show us how Holden is afraid of change, the real world, and his longing to protect others from the cruel world.