The Catcher in the Rye written by J. D. Salinger illustrates the life of Holden Caulfield a boy who has been expelled from Pencey Prep Boarding School in the street of New York City contemplating the struggle of adulthood and mental health. In the world, children are the only thing that Holden truly loves due to their innocence while adults are considered corrupt in his eyes. He wishes that they would never grow up and over the next three days Holden comes to terms that there is no way to shield children from the cruelty of adulthood. Salinger emphasizes the loss of innocence, through symbols such as Holden’s dream job, profane graffiti, and risk taking.
Salinger’s main theme of losing innocence is shown through what Holden believes is the only job that he would enjoy doing: being the catcher in the rye. After Holden returns to his house to visit Pheobe, he tells her of his dream job. Holden incorrectly remembers the line of a Robert Burns’ poem “Coming thro’ the rye”, that he heard from a boy singing on the streets of New York. Holden believes that the lines say, “If a body catch a body comin’ through the rye”, however, Pheobe quickly corrects him by stating that the lyrics are, “If a body meet a body coming through the rye.” Additionally, Holden responds with, “I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all… I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff… I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff… I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be” (Salinger 173).
The field represents the preservation of the children’s youth and purity. He believes that children should stay in the field, away from the corruption that is brought on by adulthood. Falling off the cliff symbolizes children submitting to the influence and struggles of adulthood so Holden invisions himself protecting them to what he believes is certain doom and dispair. This quote also symbolizes his admiration for their simplicity which serves as a parallel to Holden’s own life where he feels as if he is falling off the cliff of adolescence into the corrupt world of adulthood. His need to protect the children’s naiveté represents how Holden is struggling with the same issue, due to the fact that he is also growing up and facing the changes that come with adulthood. Holden’s dream of metaphorically catching children from falling into the superficiality of adulthood shows how much he hopes to stop children from losing their innocence.
The graffiti written on the walls of Phoebe’s elementary school represents a loss of childhood innocence. Towards the end of the last day, Holden decides to drop off a letter to Pheobe at her school explaining that he has decided to leave his home and go off on his own endeavors. On his way to the school, Holden notices obscene words written on the side of the school walls, the words read: F*** you. Holden soon realizes that these words are written all around the school. This deeply disturbs Holden because school was a very joyful memory back in his youth. He is extremely upset that a place that brought him so much joy would be abused in such a way. It changes his memories of his old school which comes to show just how atrocious the adult world can be by destroying happy and carefree childhood memories. Holden is unable to come to terms with why anyone would put the words in a place where children can see them. Holden explains that, “It’s hopeless, anyway. If you had a million years to do it in, you couldn’t rub out half of the “F*** you” signs in the world. It’s impossible”(Salinger 202).
All Holden wants to accomplish in life is protecting and shielding children from the atrocities of the adult world. He is distressed that children now have to be exposed to immense hatred at such a young age. These words risk the innocence of children and the potential to corrupt them. This reflects back to Holden’s life and tainting some of his favorite memories. Furthermore, he wants to assure children that they would experience a childhood as innocent as his own. Holden wants to prevent Phoebe from potentially possessing the similar characteristics of his lack of motivation and his extreme pessimism. It is shown that he has lost hope in fulfilling his dream. Holden begins to question the feasibility of preventing all children from the problems in the world. This is where Holden acknowledges that there may be no way to prevent children from growing up. Salinger displays the profane language on the wall as a symbol of the loss of innocence.
Another symbol of growth into adulthood is the golden ring at the carousel which represents an acquisition of independence. At the zoo, Holden persuades Phoebe to ride on the carousel. Seeing the children enjoying themselves, free of adversity or the pressures of adult life, pleases Holden. However, after seeing the writing on the wall at Pheobe’s school, Holden is slowly letting go the need to protect children from growing up, understanding that the process can never be prevented. All the children on the carousel are reaching to the outside, trying to obtain the golden rings surrounding the carousel.
After deep reflection, Holden has come to realize that it is okay for children to struggle and face difficulties throughout their life. He watches Phoebe and the other children on the carousel and states, “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 describes the children reaching for the ring as a metaphor to reaching new possibilities with struggles along the way. In order for the children to attain the golden ring, challenge and the possible risk of innocence is a necessary part of life. Since the ring itself represents growing up, Holden has lost his fear of children developing into a stage of their life that requires them to mature quickly under the influence of society. This shows Holden accepting the fact that along with the fun things in life, there needs to be struggle and hardships to maintain balance. Holden comes to the understanding that he alone is unable to prevent children from becoming curious about the surrounding environment.
In conclusion, Salinger uses the power of symbolism in his novel to show the struggles of losing innocence and in turn, facing obstacles and conflicts. He shows that through the character of Holden, who fears for children as they grow into adults. Throughout the novel, Holden slowly comes to the realization that all children have to face challenges, struggles and disappointment in order to grow and succeed in life. The main symbols displayed throughout the novel that show the theme of losing innocence by becoming the “catcher in the rye” and catching the children if they get too close to the edge. Also, the graffiti on the walls of the school which shows the risk taking of a child’s innocence due to the exposure of hatred from the adult world and lastly the symbolic golden ring of adulthood, where Holden comes to realize that children need to test their boundaries and face challenges throughout their life. All of these experiences come to show the hardships of transitioning into adulthood and losing childhood innocence.