In J.D. Sallinger’s novel “The Catcher in the Rye”, the title has a very significant meaning and is relevant to the novel in a number of ways. The title comes from the main character Holden’s misinterpretation of Robert Burns’s poem “Comin Thro’ the Rye”. In the novel, Holden misquotes the poem, believing that the correct line is “If a body catch a body,” when in fact, the original line is “If a body meet a body,”. The poem is about two people meeting each other and casually having intercourse. The poem is important, considering the fact that the fear of adulthood and sex is a major source of moral conflict for Holden. The misquotation gives the reader clues about who Holden is as a character and serves as a means of irony in the novel
The misquotation of the line can be linked to Holden’s outlook towards the people around him. It is evident in the novel that ever since Holden was a child, the adults in his life have never listened to what he says. The adults have always failed to sympathize with Holden. In the novel, the cab driver, the prostitute, and the teachers are always either too self absorbed to listen to Holden or only show interest in him when they have ulterior motives. When Holden realizes his former teacher’s ulterior motives after he wakes up to him petting his head, it is hinted that the other adults in his life have mistreated Holden in the past as well, in the line “That kind of stuff’s happened to me about twenty times as a kid.” (page 213) These kinds of situations may have caused Holden to feel alienated by adults. The only person who really listens to Holden in the end is his younger sister Phoebe who, according to Holden, has not been tainted by adulthood because she is still a child. While reading the novel, the reader can infer that Holden thinks of the adult world as a dangerous place filled with material and sexual desires.
Holden’s negative outlook on the adult world causes him to want to preserve innocence. The first time the song is mentioned is when Holden encounters a child happily singing it. From this alone, the reader can understand that the song is supposed to correlate to the concept of innocence. The poem “Comin Thro’ The Rye” is about sexual advances between two adults while Holden’s misreading of the poem causes him to misinterpret the poem entirely. “I thought it was ‘If a body catch a body,’ I said. (…) 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 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.” (page 191) Holden visualizes the poem as lots of innocent little kids playing in a field. He states that all he wants to do is protect them. Taking Holden’s views on adulthood to consideration, it can be inferred that the children symbolize the innocence that comes with childhood while the cliff Holden is protecting the children from is the irreversible corruption of adulthood. Holden is saying that he wants to be the “catcher in the rye” and preserve innocence for as long as he can.
Holden’s misinterpretation of the poem is also a device the author uses to demonstrate to the reader that Holden has distanced himself from adulthood. The word “meet” in the line “If a body meet a body,” creates a sense of connection. It shows that these two people are communicating and sharing their emotions. On the other hand, the word “catch” in Holden’s misquotation of the line shows that he is trying to distance the things and the people he holds dear to him from the danger. Holden is closing himself and the children off from the world and trying to prevent them from maturing. He thinks that this will rescue them and keep them pure.
The irony in this situation is that Holden uses the poem to communicate his desire to conserve purity while the poem turns out to be about the exact opposite of that fantasy. Holden uses the poem to explain to Phoebe that he wants to be a protector of innocence. However, the poem has nothing to do with preserving purity. In fact, it is about casual sex, which is something Holden cannot understand or bring himself to take part in. “ ‘But what I mean is, you can’t do it with everybody (…) desire for her and all.” (pages 162-163)
Another ironic situation in the novel is that Holden sees children as completely pure and untainted beings which is far from the truth. The young characters of the novel are not completely innocent. For example, on page 182, Holden notices a scrape on Phoebe’s arm. When he asks him about it, Phoebe tells him that one of her classmates was always following her around in the park. In turn, Phoebe poured ink on her jacket and her classmate retaliated by pushing her down the stairs. This shows that children are not as innocent as Holden thinks. Another example to this would be Holden’s family’s maid’s brother sticking a straw into his sister’s ear, piercing her eardrum, leaving her with a hearing impairment. (page 175) These two situations clearly communicate to the reader that children are neither innocent nor pure.
In conclusion, the title of the novel and Holden’ misinterpretation of the poem “Comin Thro’ the Rye” play a big role in “The Catcher In the Rye”. Holden’s interpretation of the poem shapes his views on the world around him – especially the concepts of childhood and adulthood. Through the misquotation of the poem the author clearly communicates Holden’s thoughts and fantasies to the reader. The use of the poem also creates irony in the novel, further reinforcing Holden’s character.