Symbolism in the Catcher in the Rye
The Catcher in the Rye is a novel full of symbols that signify different aspects. Symbols actually refer to characters, objects and figures that are used to represent abstract concepts or ideas. We actually understand the meaning of a particular novel or what the author intended through symbols. Symbols carry the themes in a literary work. The Catcher in the Rye is a novel about Holden, a sixteen-year-old boy. Holden narrates his story from a hospital bed between Christmas and the end of the school fall term. Holden has fallen out of three schools before joining his current Pencey Prep School. At his new school, he has received a notice of being expelled after failing to attend four out of five of his classes. Holden gets annoyed after his school history teacher tries to advise him on academic matters. Holden is irritated by his neighbor Ackley, and his roommate Stradlater is spending time with the girl he used to date and still admires. Stradlater attacks Holden and bloodies his nose (Harold 9).
The title The Catcher in the Rye is a symbol itself. Rye actually is somekind of a crop field, located at the top of a cliff, and it means the children’s innocent world. Holden who happens to be the main character in the novel wants to be the sole protector of children before the fall out of their innocent world. He wants to protect their innocence of lack of adult knowledge in matters associated with sexuality (Harold 39). The symbol is first seen in Chapter 16 when the main character Holden is walking in the street instead of using the sidewalk as he sings coming through rye a son by Robert Burns. In Chapter 22, Phoebe asked Holden what he plans to do with his life. He replied that he images himself in the same song, as the protector of the children’s innocence. He plans to be the catcher of the children’s innocence before they fall over the cliff’s edge. The symbol represents his personality of trying to avoid the harshness of adult life, as he tries to shelter the children from becoming grown-ups. The symbol is quiet ironic by itself. According to Phoebe’s words this is a misinterpretation of the actual lyrics. The lyrics actually say “if a body meets a body coming through the rye,” while Holden’s interpretation is “if a body catches a body coming through the rye” (Harold 45). According to the song coming through the rye, the question if it is wrong or right for two people to have romantic meetings out there in the field, even if they have no plans of being committed to each other. The song’s words are justifications for casual sex. The symbol is also ironic as Holden himself tries to avoid adulthood and his opposition to the sham adult world is setting himself up to the fall that he is trying to protect children from (Harold 19).
Holden’s red hunting hat is another significant symbol in the novel; it brings out the meanings employed by the author. This symbol is very identifiable in American literature of the twentieth century. The hat gives us a good inseparable image of Holden. The hat symbolizes Holden’s unique character and his individuality. Holden wants to be different from everyone around him. The hat fits his aspirations as it is quite outstanding. Holden is very self-conscious about the hat. He never wears it when around close acquaintances, and when he wears it he always remembers to mention it (Harold 49). The hat in the novel portrays the central point of conflict within the main character, his need for companionship against his need for segregation. The hat’s unique red color is same as Phoebe’s hair and Allie’s hair. Holden wears the hat to connect himself to these two characters as he associates the hat with their purity and innocence. The hat represents Holden’s independency. To Holden the hat doesn’t have a great significance other than its actual appearance (Harold 39).
Museum of national history is also a symbol in the novel. The symbol represents Holden’s world of fantasy in his world as the catcher in the rye. In Holden’s world, nothing ever changes and everything remains the same. Things are simple and quite understandable. Holden hates conflicts and fears complexity of things. Holden has intentions of showing the children how things are kept in museums. To him, things in the museum are unchanging and this makes them appealing. Holden fears close interaction with people; he doesn’t understand Allie’s death and finds it hard to understand why every time he returns he has changed. To Holden the world is quiet unpredictable thus the museums serves as a close representation of his fantasy world (Harold 56).
Ducks in the central park lagoon are significant symbols in the novel. Holden’s curiosity as to where these ducks go during winter portrays his candid boyish personality. Throughout the entire novel we find him acting like some old sullen individual who lets out his frustrations to the world. His curiosity and boyish eagerness to such for the ducks portray his willingness to encounter the world and its mysteries. This is quite remarkable as Holden clearly lacked the willingness. The lagoon and the ducks are symbolic (Harold 55). Their ability to survive in the inhospitable environment and their mysteries reflect Holden’s understanding of his own character. Through the ducks symbolism we understand that some vanishings are quite temporal. Holden is traumatized by the death of his brother Allie but is also aware of how life is fragile. He develops the fear for changes and disappearance. Change is not ultimately permanent, this is symbolized by the fact that the ducks disappear during winter and return soon as the period is over. Holden is in a transition between two states. He wants to shift from childhood to adulthood although he is trying to fight this transition. The fact that the pond is in an unfrozen and frozen state symbolizes the transition. According to Holden this is quite metaphoric (Harold 69).
The profane graffiti on the wall in Phoebe’s school is also symbolic. Holden rubs off the graffiti on the walls because they are vulgar. He does not want the children in the school to see it, and be exposed to its meaning. Holden then finds the inscription on another part of the school and again in the museum. The writings symbolize Holden’s inability to protect and shelter others from losing their innocence (Harold, 59). The fact that these writings reappear everywhere he goes, prove his incapacity and lack of power to protect himself from the temptations of adulthood. Allie’s baseball mitt serves also as a significant symbol in the novel. Allie, who was Holden’s younger brother, died several years earlier and his death left Holden traumatized. Holden writes poems for his roommate Stradlater, describing Allie’s baseball mitt. His death left Holden with great hollowness. The baseball mitt represents goodness and innocence. It serves as a reminder of Holden’s loss of his childhood innocence and isolation (Harold 69).
In conclusion, the symbols in the novel are the key to the motifs and themes in the novel. Holden uses these symbols to shed some light on issues affecting society, the exposure of minors to the adult word. Holden tries to inform readers of aspects in the novel by alliteration, which is a form of self-protection, the painfulness of growing up and the phoniness of the adult world through the symbols employed in the novel. Through Holden we understand that the world is not as simple as it looks (Harold 70).