Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Meaning of the Title

The first time the reader sees the phrase “catcher in the rye” in the novel is in chapter 16, when Holden passes a boy on the street who is singing “If a body catch a body coming through the rye.” At this point in the novel, it is not clear what this symbol means yet, however, it does come into focus in chapter 22. Phoebe asks him what he’d like to do when he grows up, and all that comes to mind is the song that he had heard earlier that day “if a body catch a body coming through the rye.” His response to Phoebe’s question is as follows:
"Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody's around—nobody big, I mean—except 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 and all. I know it's crazy, but that's the only thing I'd really like to be. I know it's crazy."
In an earlier journal post, I explained that this also represents Holden’s anxiety about growing up. However, it also represents Holden’s desire to save innocent children from the phoniness of the real world. The cliff they jump off represents the real world, and his job is to save them from it. His preservation of the innocence of children is also shown when he is enraged from seeing the words “f**k you” written on the wall of Phoebe’s school. This “drives him crazy” because he imagines all of the kids (including Phoebe) wondering what it means and then finding out. He gets very angry at this because this would jeopardize their innocence and would give them a small glimpse of the corruption of the real world.

Near the end of the novel, Holden begins to see that children (notably Phoebe) will inevitably become more like adults as time goes by. This is shown symbolically by Phoebe’s return of the red hat that Holden gives her (see previous post). Also, at the end when Holden brings Phoebe to the carrousel, he says,
All the kids kept trying to grab for the gold ring, and so was old Phoebe, and I was sort of afraid she'd fall off the goddam horse, but I didn't say anything or do anything. The thing with kids is, if they want to grab the gold ring, you have to let them do it, and not say anything. If they fall off they fall off, but it's bad if you say anything to them.
This is clearly a metaphor for growing up and seeing the real world, because Salinger even uses the same idea of “falling”—except instead of falling off a cliff, this time, the children are falling off the horse on a carrousel. At the end of the novel, you see that Holden has become more welcome to change and less hostile to “phoniness,” as you can see from this example.

The Catcher in the Rye is a title that perplexed me at first, however, when you get to know the book, you understand that it represents Holden’s desire to safeguard the innocence of children who are na├»ve and innocent because they have not been exposed to the “game of life.”


  1. Thanks for the explanation. Me and my friend were talking about this. She said that she read a Mandarin translation of the book when she was about 16 in China. She asked me what it meant, the title I mean, and the only thing I could offer is 'rye' is like 'wheat'. She said that she thinks that the 'catcher' is someone positive or helpful. By the way, if anybody is interested in reading a recent novel, I wrote a book called 'El Nido' and it's available on eKindle and can be read on pretty much any device. Here's the link: http://www.amazon.com/El-Nido-Peter-D-Towney-ebook/dp/B00CH2J15O/ref=sr_1_4?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1397271880&sr=1-4&keywords=towney