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The Use of Symbolism in “The Catcher in the Rye” Essay

The book “The Catcher in the Rye” may, at first glance, appear to be the typical novel about a troubled teenager who is struggling to become an adult. However, if we are to view the book in a more analytical form we can see that many of the main events in the book have much more important and deeper meanings because of the use of symbolism, a technique that works through a pattern of recurring motifs to convey a message. This novel uses symbolism to impart its main messages. Three central symbols throughout the novel which are important to understanding the theme had to with Holden Caulfield (the main character), and the moral of the story. These symbols lay behind the title of the novel — ‘The Catcher in the Rye’, Holden Caulfield’s name and Holden’s most significant possession – his red hunting hat.

The red hunting hat is first introduced to us in the fifteenth page of the novel and it can be deduced from it that Holden is searching for something, hence the name Hunting Hat — he is ‘hunting’ for something. The hat tells us much about Holden Caulfield himself and much about one of the books’ themes, Holden’s hunt and search for true identity, to find his purpose and meaning in life. After Holden receives this hat it becomes very significant to him and important because of what it represents to him. When Holden wears the hat he feels like he is different from the rest of society, he wishes to stand out from the masses. The reader recognizes that this hat is crucial to Holden’s being because he is constantly mentioning it in a casual manner, yet we know that he is very conscious of it. This is because, to him, the hat symbolizes a form of rebellion, because he wears it in order to be different.

Even the way in which he wears it – back to front – shows that Holden is going against the ‘current’ of society. He feels the need to stand out and alienate himself; because that is the only way he will remain and maintain his innocence as a child without ever becoming an adult. However, the fact that he takes it off when in the presence of certain people, means that he still wishes to be connected to society and accepted by those certain people he renders significant. The color of the hat also has a special meaning, linking Holden to innocence. The basis of this argument is that the hat is red, just like the color of Allie and Phoebe’s hair. It can be interpreted that he wears this hat because it reminds him of these two people, people who mean a lot to him and represent childhood innocence to him. As well as symbolizing Holden’s hope of retaining his innocence, the color of the hat also exemplifies Holden’s own turmoil and anger, his frustration with the rest of society and those who control and mandate the people of a society. For these reasons the hat is so important to understanding Holden Caulfield’s interpretation of life, as well as the rest of the book.

Holden Caulfield’s name is also significant to a certain extent because it represents a theme in the book. It is thought that the name Holden is supposed to mean ‘hold on’, but hold on to what? His last name gives us a clue to this. The word ‘caul’ in Latin actually means “a part of the amnion sometimes covering the head of a child at birth”. This suggests that Holden Caulfield would mean that Holden is actually “holding on to child’s hood,”1. Holden’s urge to remain innocent and how he is frightened of growing up, wishing to maintain a simple life in which he is able to understand everything. His confusion with growing up can be seen when he talks about sex, he says “[s]ex is something I just don’t understand. I swear to God I don’t” (Chapter 9). This quote represents how puzzling and frightening the idea of becoming an adult is for Holden. His name is not the only symbol of his desire to remain innocent and young.

The title of the book, “The Catcher in the Rye” has a number of different meanings, the most important one in connection with Holden Caulfield’s attempt to hold on to his childhood and how he wishes to keep others from ‘falling’ to the world of adulthood. The first reference to the title of the novel comes in the sixteenth chapter when Holden hears a young child singing the tune to a song called “Comin’ Thro’ the Rye.” The song itself talks about a ‘catcher in the rye’ and later on we learn the significance this phrase has for Holden. Holden imagines that the catcher in the rye is someone who is standing in a field of rye among a group of running children. This field is on the edge of a cliff, and it is the job of the ‘catcher’ to save these children from running off the cliff. The symbolic meaning of Holden’s interpretation, and Holden’s wish to become the catcher in the Rye, tell the reader that Holden wants to remain innocent.

The field of rye symbolizes childhood in general and how Holden not only wishes to remain oblivious to the problems and difficult decisions which come with growing up but how he wishes to save other children as well, which makes him appear to be prophet-like. This demonstrates Holden’s good intentions and his fear of falling into the unknown and his willingness to remain simple; protected from the uncertainties of life. However, his character changes at the end of the novel, when he takes his younger sister Phoebe to the park and lets her ride the carrousel. On the carrousel she, along with the other children, attempted to grab a gold ring that was dangling from the carrousel, coming very close to falling off her horse. At this point, instead of running to catch her, like a Cather in the Rye, Holden “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.” When Holden says this it is quite apparent that he has given up his role as the catcher in the rye, and how he has lost this part of him. He is ready to move on with his life and realizes it is not his job to save every child from falling into the unknown, because everyone needs to find out about the unknown for themselves.

In conclusion, the symbols are crucial to understanding one of the many recurring themes of the novel: Holden Caulfield’s attempt to remain an innocent child. These specific symbols – the red hunting hat, Holden’s name, and the books title – are the most significant symbols which transmit the central theme of the novel and offer insight into the reasoning behind the novel itself. Through symbolism the reader is able to reach a deeper understanding of the novel and the main ideas the author wishes to transmit to the reader. Catcher in the Rye does an extraordinary job of not only using symbolism, but using it effectively, meaning that every time a symbol is recognized the book reaches a new level of meaning to the reader.

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