Use protect himself but he wants to protect

Use of Literary Symbols in

The Catcher in the Rye

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Symbols are used throughout literature
to add complexity to characters and their story arcs. A good author knows to
use symbolism in many aspects of their stories. At first glance, The Catcher
in the Rye seems to be a boring book about a teenager running off to New
York and goofing around for a few days before having a mental breakdown.
However, once the reader digs below the surface, it becomes clear that J.D.
Salinger has incorporated many symbols into the story of The Catcher in the
Rye, each revealing more of Holden’s character and his fear of becoming an
adult. Holden’s signature red hunting hat is symbolic of his desire to be
unique. His interest in the ducks in Central Park and the Museum of Natural
History show his fear of change.  Most
importantly, his desire to become a catcher in the rye shows us he is not only
determined to protect himself but he wants to protect every child from


Holden sports his red hunting hat to be
unique. However, Holden admits the hat is “very corny,” even though he thinks
he “looked good in it that way.” Despite its unusual appearance, it makes
Holden stand out from all the adult phonies of the world. Holden uses isolation
as a defense mechanism to distant himself from the adult world. Unfortunately
for Holden, he also craves companionship. He puts the hat on because he is
alone or because he “knew he wouldn’t meet anyone that knew him” and hides
it “so as not to look suspicious” when in public. Holden makes multiple
attempts to not be alone. He orders a prostitute, calls Jane and a girl he’s
never met before and hits on girls at bars, but his natural instinct always
tells him to be alone. The hunting hat mirrors Holden switching between wanting
to be different and alone to being accepted and with someone.


Holden shows us multiple times that he
is afraid of change. Two of the most important examples of this fear are
represented by the Museum of Natural History and where the ducks of Central
Park go to during the winter. Holden tells his taxi drivers he enjoys visiting
the ducks in Central Park and asks where the ducks go after they leave their
pond in the winter. The pond is described as “partly frozen and partly not
frozen,” providing a symbol of how Holden feels about the transition between
childhood and adulthood. It also hints at his fear of change, even if it is not
permanent. His visit to the Museum of Natural History reflects his desire to
live in a stable, predictable and “frozen” version of the world, demonstrating
his fear of change. He acknowledges, however, that while the museum might stay
the same, he changes each time he visits. Holden believes “the best thing,
though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was.
Nobody’d move. . . . Nobody’d be different. The only thing that would be
different would be you.”


Holden admits to Phoebe that his dream
job is to watch over a field of rye, standing at the edge of a cliff and
stopping children from falling off the edge. He wants to be a catcher in the
rye. Holden’s desire to be the catcher in the rye parallels his desire to stop
other children from falling of the cliff into adulthood. The idea for this job
comes from the misheard lyric, “If a body catch a body comin’ thro the rye” from
Robert Burns’ “Comin’ Thro The Rye”. The real lyric is “Gin a body meet a body,
comin thro’ the rye.” The poem describes a casual, intimate relationship in a
field of rye that is far less innocent than Holden’s version. The fact that
Holden keeps this more innocent version in his head, as opposed to researching
the real lyrics, show us that he prefers to see the good in the world rather
than the cynical view of adults like Robert Burns.


J.D. Salinger effectively weaves
symbols such as Holden’s hunting hat, the ducks, the museum, and Holden’s
fantasy job into the plot of The Catcher in the Rye which work together
to reveal Holden’s anxiety toward growing up. These symbols are not always
visible at first glance, making the reader think about what they have read.
This is why this book is still being read almost seven decades after it was
first published. Symbols are most effective when they are placed beneath the
surface and subtly enhance the story for those willing to look.


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