The Use of Symbolism in “Catcher in the Rye”

Category: Literature
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“ I’d just be the Catcher in the Rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.” The hat, mitt, the museum displays, and the little noted details will all be broken down and taken into depth of the title. The title of the story is the most important symbol of Catcher in the Rye, it symbolizes Holden’s intentions and gives a visual on why he functioned the way he did.

Holden pictures himself wearing a giant mitt, ready to catch kids as they fall off a cliff while playing in the rye. The kids represent childhood. He chooses to describe his younger brother’s baseball mitt, covered in poems, for the composition he writes for his roommate, Stradlater. Allie had died several years earlier and his death made a lasting impression on Holden. It represents innocence and goodness. Stradlater’s anger at the description and Holden’s subsequent ripping up of the composition serves as a reminder of Holden’s isolation and his loss of childhood innocence.

Holden’s red hunting hat symbolizes his independence. The red hunting hat is one of the most recognizable symbols from twentieth-century American literature. It is inseparable from our image of Holden, with good reason: it is a symbol of his uniqueness and individuality. The hat is outlandish, and it shows that Holden desires 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 presence of the hat, therefore, mirrors the central conflict in the book: Holden’s need for isolation versus his need for companionship. It’s no coincidence that the hat is the same color as Phoebe and Allie’s hair. Perhaps Holden associates it with the innocence and purity he believes these characters represent and wears it as a way to connect to them. He never explicitly comments on the hat’s significance other than to mention its unusual appearance.

Holden tells us the symbolic meaning of the museum’s displays, they appeal to him because they are frozen and unchanging. He also mentions that he is troubled by the fact that he has changed every time he returns to them. The museum represents the world Holden wishes he could live in: it’s the world of his “catcher in the rye” fantasy, a world where nothing ever changes, where everything is simple, understandable, and infinite. Holden is terrified by the unpredictable challenges of the world, he hates conflict, he is confused by Allie’s senseless death, and he fears interaction with other people.

Holden’s curiosity about where the ducks in the Central Park Lagoon go during the winter reveals a genuine, more youthful side to his character. For most of the book, he sounds like a grumpy old man who is angry at the world, but his search for the ducks represents the curiosity of youth and a joyful willingness to encounter the mysteries of the world. It is a memorable moment, because Holden clearly lacks such willingness in other aspects of his life. The ducks and their pond are symbolic in several ways. Their mysterious perseverance in the face of an inhospitable environment resonates with Holden’s understanding of his own situation. In addition, the ducks prove that some vanishings are only temporary.

Traumatized and made acutely aware of the fragility of life by his brother Allie’s death, Holden is terrified by the idea of change and disappearance. The ducks vanish every winter, but they return every spring, thus symbolizing change that isn’t permanent, but cyclical. Finally, the pond itself becomes a minor metaphor for the world as Holden sees it, because it is “partly frozen and partly not frozen.” The pond is in transition between two states, just as Holden is in transition between childhood and adulthood.

The symbol is ironic. Holden mistakes the words in the song, much in the same way he mistakes the cause of his torment, it comes from himself, not from others. He thinks the words are “if a body catch a body comin’ through the rye.” The actual words are “if a body meet a body comin’ through the rye” and is a justification for casual sex. It is ironic, too, that Holden’s avoidance of adulthood and his resistance to the “phony” adult world is setting himself up for a fall, as pointed out by Mr. Antolini.

Reading this at a young age, it would be difficult to understand the symbolic meaning behind every detailed symbol, simile, metaphor, etc. Looking at the background of the author- J.D. Salinger, he had PTSD. Salinger wrote a story about an aimless young man named Holden Caulfield on a mission to find himself after being expelled from a private school. The Catcher in the Rye released in a new era of philosophical literature, becoming a staple across the country. Holden was simply a made up character that Salinger used to express his own mental frustrations in an attempt to normalize his life. This conclusion does not refer to my thesis but to enable yourself to fully comprehend the major symbols in this story, you must understand the author’s point of view.    

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The Use of Symbolism in "Catcher in the Rye". (2021, Apr 19). Retrieved from

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