“There are things that we never want to let go of, people we never want to leave behind. But keep in mind that letting go isn’t the end of the world, it’s the beginning of a new life” (Author Unknown). This author is trying to imply that although letting go of the people that one deeply cares about, it may be best because it is the start for a new opportunity. The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger, is about a teenage boy, Holden Caulfield, who is trapped between the two phases of his life—adolescence and adulthood. Having just been kicked out of another school, he is painfully aware of his uncertain future. Holden is afraid to enter the adult world and instead wants to be a kid again. He does not want any adults around because he fears the responsibilities of growing up, and he thinks that he will become sexually active and “phony.” Holden believes to be “the catcher in the rye” means to save children from losing their innocence and entering adulthood. Holden does not succeed in the role of being “the catcher in the rye” because he fails to see that not everything can stay the same.
In Chapter 22, Holden reveals the source of the book’s title, The Catcher in the Rye. When Phoebe asks Holden what he wants to be when he grows up, he answers, “. . . 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” (191). Holden sees himself as “the catcher in the rye” by saving children from falling off a cliff. The children who are playing in the big field of rye are not “[looking] where they’re going.” This suggests that the children are unaware of the pressures of adulthood and the stress that comes with it. This condemnation is fast approaching as Holden tries to save the children, further supported by the fact that they are “running” towards the edge of the cliff. He, by stopping them from going over the edge, is managing to stop them from “falling” into adulthood, the one thing that he himself is so desperate to avoid. Furthermore, Holden feels that his life is better than adults, and therefore wishes to play a heroic role by becoming a catcher in the rye. As the catcher in the rye, Holden will become the owner of his life and have companions who can understand him better than his parents and teachers. Holden does not want to accept the world as it is; hence, he prefers to escape the real world and project his imaginary world in the real world.
Throughout the novel, Holden shows a childlike side to him, such as horsing around, pretending to be blind and so on. On the other hand, Phoebe, Holden’s little sister, shows very mature and adolescent character traits. She does well in school, she can dance well, she is neat, she “always has some dress on that can kill you” (160) and unlike others, she listens. Phoebe is mature for the reason of Holden being immature. She makes him a better person. Interestingly, when Holden hides from being “caught” by his parents, Phoebe shelters him and does not give him away. Because Holden was smoking in the room, Phoebe lies to their mother, saying she “only took one puff” (177). Firstly, she is the one who protects him, taking his role of a hero. At the same time, though, she suddenly begins to show Holden’s typical teenage behavior, such as lying and, even though only pretended, smoking. Finally, when her mother asks about her dinner, she replies with only one word: “lousy,” and her mother scolds her for using it. In fact, the word “lousy” is Holden’s most iconic and probably most often used adjective. This scene symbolizes the irony of Holden’s savior image, for it is he who puts Phoebe’s innocence at risk on the number of occasions, most significantly by his plan to travel west. When Holden is about to leave, Holden gives Phoebe his precious hunting hat. The exchange of the hat marks their exchange of roles. Not only does Phoebe takes on some of Holden’s characteristics, but she also becomes the catcher. While Holden is waiting for Phoebe to say goodbye to her before leaving, she then appears with Holden’s old suitcase, wearing his red hunting hat. By this time, she almost resembles him. She informs him that she wants to go away with him and, as a Holden’s typical move, refuses to return to school. Holden, shocked by her announcement, rejects her decision. He starts to panic when he realizes that he is putting her in danger with his behavior. Holden is afraid that Phoebe is getting too close to the edge of the cliff and that he will not be able to catch her. Phoebe will eventually enter the next stage in adolescence and witness things that Holden will not be able to protect her from.
While at school waiting for Phoebe, Holden sees an “f— you” sign written with a crayon on the wall. The environment that should be a safe haven for little children is contaminated with profanity. Holden, realizing that he needs to protect the children from the inappropriate language, decides to quickly erase it. The symbol of the graffiti reappears again but scratched on with a knife. Therefore, it is impossible for him to get rid of it. The intentional shift of the graffiti shows that Holden’s overwhelming need for protecting children from the negative things of the “outside world” cannot be successful, which is what Holden ultimately needs to accept. Furthermore, the carousel shows a childhood attributes and the constancy of its direction, since it spins in the same way. Thus, at the same time, it helps Holden change his attitude that one must risk the possible fall, for one needs experience, even negative, in order to learn and grow. He comes to a conclusion that it is not necessary to be a hero and protector of innocence, after all, because no one can deliberately hold back one’s natural progression into the next stage of life, in this case, is adulthood. According to Holden, “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 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” (211). The “falling” is a necessary part of growing up. The children are grabbing for the golden ring in order to reach their goal, and if they fall, they try again. Holden is finally admitting that growing up is, in fact, necessary for everyone including himself.
Not only is Holden unsuccessful in the role of being “the catcher in the rye,” but he has to accept the fact that he cannot“catch” everyone from entering adolescence. It has been established that Holden sees himself as a savior of children by protecting them from the evils of entering adulthood. Only at the end, when his adolescent attitude endangers Phoebe, he is able to finally accept the necessity of growing up because even though everyone matures and takes on responsibility, it does not mean that their purity and innocence will then be compromised. Holden subsequently realizes that life is a constant transition that everyone is going through and that no one can really protect a kid from it, so it’s better to just accept it as it is.