The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger is a novel about trauma, losing your innocence too quickly, and the uncertainty of the future. The main character Holden, experiences traumatic events during the story, and as the story unfolds, Holden’s life falls apart. Symbolism plays a huge role in the story by helping advance the plot, develop Holden’s character, and reveal the theme of the story. There are countless miniature symbols placed in unnoticeable spots, but some are more pronounced that others. Throughout the novel, three symbols are repeatedly interlaced in the writing: the ducks and the pond, the Museum of Natural History, and the rye field. The ducks and the pond represent Holden’s youth, his fear of disappearance, and his quest for innocence. The Museum of Natural History symbolizes his affixation for living a clear and unchanging life. And the rye field exhibits his urge to protect children from going through what he went through.
In The Catcher in the Rye, the ducks and the pond symbolize the idea that change and disappearance is only temporary; rather, it is cyclical. According to Steven Brickmore and Kate Youngblood of Luisiana State University, the ducks lend to the idea that “vanishings are not permanent,” (Brickmore 7). Holden is deathly afraid of change and disappearance. The ducks reinforce the idea that it isn’t permanent by vanishing every winter and returning every spring. The ducks keep Holden grasping at the thought of Allie’s return, and cause him to try and find the answer to where Allie is. The pond is also symbolic. J. D. Salinger describes the pond as “partly frozen and partly not frozen,” (Salinger 81), which symbolizes Holden’s position in between childhood and adulthood, and how Holden wants to stay frozen in childhood forever. As said by Jonathan Baumbach, the pond is a “transition between two states,” (Baumbach 3). The pond symbolizes the uncertainty Holden feels for his future and childhood, and he continues to reach for answers that are never given to him. Lastly, the ducks are symbolic because they represent the curiosity of youth. Despite Holden being stuck between adulthood and childhood, the ducks create a feeling of youth for him. The ducks show Holden’s joyful willingness to discover mysteries of the world. At the youth of Holden’s life, when Allie was alive, the ducks were at the pond. Once Holden was living the life of an adult in New York, the ducks disappeared. Finally, when he returned to the pond with Phoebe, the ducks returned also. Allie and Phoebe are the only connection Holden has to innocence, and they are directly coherent with the ducks in the pond. In a novel about losing your innocence too quickly, the ducks show some innocence in Holden, which is something the reader is not able to experience often. The ducks are so memorable in the novel because they are one of the few things Holden seems to cares about.
The Museum of Natural History is a symbolic reference to Holden’s urge to be still and complacent. In the novel The Catcher in the Rye, Holden’s life in New York flashes by rapidly, and he can hardly keep up. He attempts to live lavishly in a hotel, smoking and drinking, but that causes him to fall into a pit of depression from his life is passing by to quickly. Holden is forced to experience things a teenager shouldn’t, and has to try to understand them all. His trip in New York causes him to admire greatly the simplicity and stillness of the Museum of Natural History. According the Xiomei Han, the museum represents “the world Holden wishes he could live in,” (Han 1). The museum appeals to Holden because the displays appear to be frozen and unchanging. As shown also by the symbolism of the pond, Holden is very troubled with the idea of change, and because the museum never changes, he adores it. The museum represents the fantasy world Holden would love to live in: a world where “nothing changes, where everything is simple, understandable, and infinite,” states SparkNotes.com (SparkNotes Writers 1). Holden is afraid of the unpredictability of the world, and the museum seems to be never unpredictable. When Holden is in the museum, he describes it as “so nice and peaceful,” (Salinger 204), until he notices obscene graffiti. This transports him back into the world he really lives him, and causes him to despise it. Xiomei Han describes the museum as Holden’s “last harmonious place,” (Han 1), and states that even the museum can’t escape the dirty outside world. Holden’s final attempt to be alone in silence to think, gets ruined by other people, this causes him to go insane. The incident proves to Holden that he can’t avoid adulthood, that he has no other choice but to enter it. It is a “symbolic death of a child and rebirth as an adult,” (Han 1).
The Catcher in the Rye’s main symbol involves Holden’s dream of being the “catcher in the rye.” The rye symbolizes innocence, and falling off the cliff represents the loss of innocence and the jump into adulthood. Holden wants to be the person who stands at the cliff, preventing kids from falling off the it and losing their childhood to quickly. This is a very unrealistic dream to have, but Holden longs for it. It is a metaphor for what Holden really wants to do. Holden, as stated from an article titled J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye: The symbolism Behind the Bookby 123helpme.com, “wants to prevent children from experiencing what he has gone through,” (123HelpMe Authors 1). Holden’s dream of catching kids from falling off a cliff is his version of protecting kids from the real, adult world. He wants to protect children from the so-called perverts, phonies, and from adulthood. Holden doesn’t want any child to experience what he has experienced, especially Phoebe. Holden shows his quest to save other children at many points in the novel. When Holden arrives at Phoebe’s school and sees graffiti on the walls, he desperately tries to erase it. An average 16-year-old kid wouldn’t care about some graffiti on the wall, but Holden does. Holden cares to an enormous extent because it symbolizes losing your childhood too quickly, and he wants to protect other children from that. Another point in the novel where Holden attempts to save children from falling into the “rye,” is when he gives Phoebe his red hunting hat. Up until that point in the novel, the hunting hat has been Holden’s protection from witnessing too many adult things. The hunting hat was a symbol for his lost innocence, and he gives it to Phoebe, to protect her from witnessing anything she shouldn’t witness. It’s his way of saying “this helped me, so I’m going to give it to you so it can help you now.” At the end of the day, what Holden really wants is to protect Phoebe from everything that killed his childhood. He wants to protect her form his hates, problems, and fears. And he believes erasing the graffiti and giving Phoebe the hunting hat, is saving children and her, from what he went through. In the final two chapters of The Catcher and the Rye Holden finally realizes what he did wrong with Phoebe, and how to be the real catcher in the rye for her. Until the last two chapters, Holden had all the right intentions in protecting Phoebe, but he didn’t know how to. For example: Holden didn’t believe taking Phoebe’s Christmas fund meant much, but it did. Holden accepting her money made her take a gigantic leap into the adult world, the world Holden is trying to protect her from. Holden coming in the middle of the night to talk to her as if she was his therapist pushed her faster into adulthood. And Holden giving her his hunting hat taught her to run away from her problems, rather than face them. All three of those things are very detrimental to Phoebe staying in the rye, and Holden finally noticed while watching her go in circles in the carousel. At the end of the novel, Holden did the right thing. He protected Phoebe from falling off the cliff into adulthood.
The ducks in the pond, the Museum of Natural History, and the rye field are all very prominent symbols that take place throughout the novel. They reveal the theme of the story, and help the reader in understanding Holden’s perspective. The three symbols directly contribute to overall message of the story, which is to not lose your innocence too quickly.
Bickmore, Steven T., and Kate Youngblood. “‘It’s The Catcher In The Rye… He Said It Was The Kind Of Book You Made Your Own’: Finding Holden In Contemporary YA Literature.” English In Education 48.3 (2014): 250-263. Education Research Complete. Web. 6 Mar. 2016.
Baumbach, Jonathan. “The Saint As A Young Man: A Reappraisal Of The Catcher In The Rye.” Modern Language Quarterly 25.4 (1964): 461. Education Research Complete. Web. 6 Mar. 2016.
Orăşanu, Brînduşa. “Impasse In Working-Through And The Psychoanalyst’s Ethics.” Romanian Journal Of Psychoanalysis / Revue Roumain De Psychanalyse 8.2 (2015): 21-34. Academic Search Complete. Web. 6 Mar. 2016.
123HelpMe Writers. “J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye: The Symbolism Behind the Book.” 123HelpMe.com. 06 Mar 2016
Han, Xiaomei. “A study on the painful transition of adolescent in J. D. Salinger’s writing.” Theory and Practice in Language Studies4.11 (2014): 2384+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 6 Mar. 2016.
SparkNotes Editors. “SparkNote on The Catcher in the Rye.” SparkNotes.com. SparkNotes LLC. 2007. Web. 4 Mar. 2016.
Salinger, J. D. The Catcher in the Rye. N.p.: n.p., 1951. Print.