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The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger is a unique book. The main character Holden is telling his story from a mental facility about his life and how he got there. Throughout the book, you see Holden’s perspective of innocence. He values it very much and does not want any child to be robbed from their innocence too early. Salinger uses symbolism throughout the book to communicate Holden’s perspective on innocence.
The title “The Catcher in the Rye” is a very big part of symbolism in this book. Holden comes up with an image in his head because he mishears a song based on Robert Burns poem, Coming Thro the Rye. “The words are ‘if a body meet a body comin’ through the rye’ referring to sexual encounters when there are no ties or wedding bells to be heard. Holden interprets the very opposite. He thinks the words are “if a body catch a body comin’ through the rye’” (Jess 2011). Holden imagines seeing himself standing on the edge of a cliff in a rye field. His job is to catch all of the children who are running through the rye field to stop them from adulthood and losing their innocence. “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” (Salinger 173). Holden’s misinterpretation symbolizes his desire to keep the children from losing their innocence.
Another symbol that Salinger uses is the museum. In the book, Holden is very fond of the museum. He likes it because it never changes. “The Museum of Natural History represents childhood in the novel. Like the museum, Holden does not want to change. He wants to be just like the displays found throughout the building” (Krista 2011). Holden show this by saying, “The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move. You could go there a hundred thousand times, and that Eskimo would still be just finished catching those two fish, the birds would still be on their way south, the deers would still be drinking out of that water hole… Nobody’d be different. The only thing that would be different would be you. Not that you’d be so much older or anything. It wouldn’t be that exactly. You’d just be different, that’s all” (Salinger 121). The museum not only symbolizes Holden’s desire to not change, but for everyone else in the world to stay the same as well. He does not want children, and especially Phoebe, to change from being innocent kids. He wants them to hold on to their innocence forever. Holden says, “…and I kept thinking about old Pheobe going to that museum on Saturdays the way I used to, I thought how she’d see the same stuff that I went to see, and how she’d be different every time she saw it” (Salinger 122).
The carousel scene in the book is a turning point in the novel. Holden takes his sister Phoebe to Central Park. Holden watches from a park bench when Phoebe decides to ride the carousel. “Then the carousel started, and I watched her go round and round…All the kids tried to grab for the gold ring, and so was old Phoebe, and I was sort of afraid she’s fall off the goddam horse, but I didn’t say or do anything. The thing with kids is, if they want to grab for 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” (Salinger 211). He realizes that Phoebe and other children are going to face challenges and dangers in their lives and he can’t save them from everything. He understands that children will eventually change and grow up no matter how hard he tries to stop time. “Holden realizes that no matter how hard he tries to stop Phoebe from falling off the carousel and how hard he tries to keep her going around in circles, they eventually will fall and there is nothing you can do about it” (Enotes.com 2010). After Holden realizes this, he feels genuinely happy for the first time in the book. He realizes that time must go on and we must grow up.
Salinger communicates how Holden feels through symbolism very effectively. The title Catcher in the Rye and the museum both symbolize Holden’s views on innocence and how he doesn’t want children or himself to lose it. We also know that Holden’s thoughts change throughout the book solely to the fact of the symbolism of the carousel. He realizes that no matter how hard he tries, time goes on and children grow up. It’s just a part of life just as many things are and you cannot stop time.
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