The Catcher in the Rye is an in-depth allegory where characters and objects stand for larger and more profound things. In the novel, many human ideals are themed and represented. The protagonist, Holden Caulfield, encounters many different thoughts and principles that vary from person to person. The themes, motifs, and symbols here play out to be like real life: nothing is perfect, and nothing is what it seems.
One of the major themes in The Catcher in the Rye is alienation. Holden is excluded and victimized by the world that he lives in. He says he feels trapped on “the other side” of life. He strives to find means to protect himself. He makes himself unique and distinct from the rest of the world.
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Holden’s alienation causes most of his pain and problems. He never gets to the “root” of his problems and never addresses his emotions thoroughly. One quote that can be attributed to his feelings of alienation and loneliness is found in Chapter 6:
“For Chrissake, Holden. This is about a goddam baseball glove.” (Stradlater)
After Stradlater says this, we come to realize that he ridicules more than Holden’s paper, he unknowingly ridicules Holden’s deceased brother, Allie, the owner of the glove. This hurts Holden greatly and adds the need for Holden to alienate himself from people.
Isolation is also played out in The Catcher in the Rye. Holden often finds himself alone and without people to associate with. When he does associate with people, he seems to find that they are “phonies” and tries to find any means of ridding himself of these individuals.
His loneliness compels him to go on a date with Salley Hayes, yet, his need to be alone, “to isolate himself,” leads him to be rude to her. Yet again, he gets what he wants: to be alone.
“Childhood vs. Adulthood” is another major theme that is played out in The Catcher in the Rye. This novel is a bildungsroman; it is a novel about a young protagonist’s growth into maturity. Holden wants everything to be understandable and to last forever. He is frightened because he commits the same “sins” as others and he cannot get a better grasp of what to do to be different.
Motifs in The Catcher in the Rye are just as predominant as the themes in the novel. The motif of loneliness is one of the largest motifs in the novel. Holden creates and manifests his loneliness. Holden constantly and consistently shies away from people, and yet he hasn’t an idea why he searches out people to talk to. Holden’s conversation with Carl Luce and his date with Salley Hayes are foiled by his rude behaviour. He seems to ruin these social “outings” purposefully: to protect his sense of individuality. His loneliness is an emotional manifestation of his alienation. He uses this as a blanket of security and it also a source of great pain.
“Phoniness” is the dominating theme in The Catcher in the Rye. Holden uses this word to describe everything that goes on around him. In Chapter 22, Holden talks about how adults are phonies and worse yet, they cannot see their own phoniness.
Holden makes sure the readers know that he is a compulsive liar, and his lies are usually without reason; also they have the tendency to be cruel. As an example of his phoniness, he notes that one of his roommates was a brilliant whistler saying:
“Naturally, I never told him that he was a terrific whistler. I mean, you don’t just go up to somebody and say ‘You’re a terrific whistler.’”
When Holden says things of this nature, he is sinking to the level of the phoniness of everyone else around him.
The title itself, The Catcher in the Rye, first appears in Chapter 16, when a child that Holden admires for walking in the street instead of on the sidewalk is singing a song, “Comin’ Thro’ the Rye.” In Chapter 22, Phoebe and Holden are talking about what he wants to do with his life and replies with his “image” of a “catcher in the rye.” He talks about how he would like to catch the children, who are innocent, in the rye, from going over the cliff, which leads to “knowledge” and inevitably death.
“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 in the catcher in the rye and all.” (Holden, Chapter 22)
The song, “Comin’ Thro’ the Rye” according to information at sparknotes.com, asks if it is wrong for two people to have a romantic encounter out in the fields away from the public eye, even if they don’t play to have a commitment to one another. It is really very ironic that the word “meet” has to do with an encounter that leads to casual sex because Holden uses the word “catch,” which has the opposite meaning of this.
Holden’s red hunting hat is a symbol of Holden’s uniqueness and individuality. The hat shows how Holden wants to differ from the rest of the “phony” world. Holden yet again contradicts himself. He is very self-conscious of the hat and always tells the readers the times when he is wearing it. He doesn’t choose to wear it around people he thinks will judge him for it. Holden’s “hat problem” is a mirror for the main conflict in the book: Holden’s need for isolation versus his need for companionship. (Sparknotes.com, The Catcher in the Rye)
One of the most notorious symbols in the novel is Holden’s curiosity about the ducks in the central park lagoon. When he searches for the ducks, his character takes on a lighter side. Holden is more childish, and suddenly takes a break from the world around him, and the goings-on, and ventures into this mystery.
The ducks closely parallel Holden. The way the ducks live in a world that turns, “cold” and they survive, is the same for Holden: he lives in a cold, bleak world, yet, he has managed to survive.
In conclusion, these are some of the elements that make up The Catcher in the Rye. Although there are many more that can be listed, these are some of the most intricate and important. This novel, or allegory, proves that the world is not perfect no matter how much it seems to be. Nothing is perfect and nothing is what it seems.
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