Holden's curiosity about where the ducks go during the winter reveals a genuine, more youthful side to his character. For most of the book, he sounds like a grumpy old man who is angry at the world, but his search for the ducks represents the curiosity of youth and childhood innocence to encounter the mysteries of the world. This is a special moment because Holden lacks this amount of enthusiasm in other aspects of his life. Salinger repeatedly brings this question up, making the ducks and their pond are symbolic in several ways.
The fish dont go no place. They stay right where they are, the fish. Right in the goddam lake. The fish-----thats different. The fish is different. Im talking about the ducks, I said. Whats different about it? Nothins different about it, Horwitz said. Its tougher for the fish, the winter and all, than it is for the ducks, for Chrissake. Use your head, for Chrissake. I didnt say anything for about a minute. Then I said, All right. What do they do, the fish and all, when that whole little lakes a solid block of ice? Old Horwitz turned around again, What the hellaya mean what do they do? he yelled at me. They stay right where they are, for Chrissake. They cant just ignore the ice. They cant just ignore it (Salinger 82).
The fish statement questioning establishes Holdens fear in conflict resulting in how he runs from his problems. Noticing that the fish dont move like the fish, Holden interprets the message as them staying and dealing with their conflict. Unlike the fish, Holden is more of a duckrunning away to find somewhere else to fit in instead of sticking through the tough times. The temporary vanishing of the ducksthe ducks go away every winter but return every springalso relates to Holden. It symbolizes that change is not permanent, but recurring, thus establishing Holdens fear in change and disappearance.
The fond memory of Holden visiting the Museum of Natural History examples his fear of change and disappearance. He realizes that he has changed every time he has returned to visit and it troubles him. Holden tells us the symbolic meaning of the museum's displays: they appeal to him because they are frozen and unchanging.
The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody'd move. . . . Nobody'd be different. The only thing that would be different would be you (Salinger 121).
The museum represents the world Holden wishes he could live in, the fantasy world where nothing ever changes, where everything is simple and understandable. Holden is terrified by the unpredictable challenges of the worldhe hates conflict, he is confused by Allie's senseless death, and he fears interaction with other people.
Holdens dream of becoming a catcher in the rye shows his want for children to stay the sameinnocent and unchanged.
You know that song If a body catch a body comin through the rye? Id like Its If a body meet a body coming through the rye! old Phoebe said. Its a poem. By Robert Burns.
Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobodys aroundnobody big, I meanexcept me. And Im 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 cliffI mean if theyre running and they dont look where theyre going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. Thats all Id do all day. Id just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know its crazy, but thats the only thing Id really like to be. I know its crazy. (Salinger 173)
As Phoebe points out, Holden has misread the lyric. He thinks the line is If a body catch a body comin' through the rye, but the actual lyric is If a body meet a body, coming through the rye. The song Comin' Thro' the Rye asks the reader if it is wrong for two people to have a sort of romantic encounter out in the fields, away from the public, even if they don't plan to commitmentlike get married or have a relationshipto one another. It is highly ironic that the word meet refers to a get together that leads to sex, because the word that Holden substitutescatchis the exact opposite meaning in his mind. Holden wants to catch children before they fall out of innocence, into knowledge of the adult world, including the knowledge of sex.
In Salingers usage of the red hunting hat, he demonstrates Holdens uniqueness and individuality. It shows that he wants to be different from everyone else and follow his own path. The hats presence also reflects on the central conflict in the book over his need for isolation vs. companionship. Notice, the color of the hat is the same color of Phoebe and Allies hair. It might be his way of connecting to them representing innocence and purity.