The Catcher in the Rye is a novel written by J.D. Salinger in 1951. It is told from the first person perspective of a young boy named Holden Caulfield, who is in a psychiatric facility after the events of the novel. Holden dislikes the world around him and his story reflects that. It explores themes such as growing up, the phoniness that comes with growing up, and alienation from peers as a means of protecting oneself.
Not only is it the title of the novel, but it is also the looming symbol permeating the entire text. The reader is first introduced to it in Chapter 16 when Holden encounters a young boy singing the Robert Burns' poem from which it originates. An explicit definition for the catcher in the rye is not given until Chapter 22, when Holden tells Phoebe what he wants to be when he grows up. He imagines himself as the protector of children who, running blindly through a field of rye, get dangerously close to the edge. Presumably, this edge is the loss of childlike innocence through the descent in adult disillusionment.
Holden's red hunting cap is an extension of himself. He purchased it in Manhattan after failing to keep track of his fencing team's equipment. Even though the story takes place in the winter, Holden rarely wears the hat outdoors. Instead he puts it on when he is in his room or interacting with people from whom he is alienated. For example, he wears it when he watches Stradlater shave in the bathroom. The red hat, with its unusual peak and long ears, manifests his individuality. It also has a 2 fold function as a protective device as seen in Chapter 3 when Ackley interrupts Holden reading. Not only can it shield his eyes from the ugliness of the world, but it also alleviates self-consciousness about his appearance. Later in the story, the red hat becomes a catalyst for establishing genuine, healthy relationships with people, particularly his sister Phoebe. By giving her the hat in Chapter 24, he is giving himself to her. Ironically enough, Holden never loses his hat despite its small size.
As mentioned earlier, The Museum of Natural History appeals to Holden because of its functional nature. It embodies his obsession with salvaging as well as his nostalgia of the magical and ethereal world of childhood. Similarly to the way in which museums preserve the precious artifacts of history, Holden wishes to preserve and conserve the purity of childhood.
Holden's fascination with the ducks in Central Park South reveals a more whimsical side of him than is seen in most of the text. Yet, beneath the childlike curiosity lies a deeper and subconscious interest. He wants to know how the ducks survive brutal winters when their habitat becomes uninhabitable. In his weekend-long journey, Holden is, in some sense, looking for strategies for surviving what he perceives to be a cold, hard world. When he realizes that the ducks leave every winter, only to return each summer, he comes to understand that change is not a permanent state, but a cycle that can be endured.
Jane is Holden's ideal companion. He obsesses over her from Chapter 4 to the end of the text. However, Holden never has an encounter with Jane. She represents a time in his past, after Allie's death, that he was capable of creating meaningful relationships and she represents Holden's ideal companion. As a warm and sincere young woman, Jane's transparency made it easy and a pleasure for Holden to be with her. In the text, she becomes the point of reference when Holden contemplates relationships and intimacy.
Loneliness as a manifestation of alienation is the main motif of the text. Most of Holden's story describes his desperate search for authentic, human companionship. However, he continues to have pathetic encounters with people who only feed his loneliness and alienation. An example of this is his encounter with Seattle trio in the Lavender Room. He also continues to exhibit behavior that only serves to sabotage his attempts to bring emotional and physical intimacy into his life. Examples of this behavior include his outburst during his date with Sally Hayes and his crude questioning of Carl Luce at the Wicker Bar. A key element to the loneliness motif is Holden's extremely judgmental attitude towards people and himself. Throughout the text, Holden goes on long diatribes about other people's shortcomings and theorizes about them. For example, when he introduces Ackley to the reader, he focuses on Ackley's unattractive physical appearance. Through this objectification, he alienates them from himself while simultaneously alienating himself from them and as a result increases the degree of loneliness that he feels.
Intimacy directly relates to the loneliness and alienation motif in that forming intimate bonds with others presents him with the opportunities to recover from his alienated state. However, he spoils them with his immaturity. Again, the drink date he has with Carl is an illustrative example of how Holden's childlike behavior interferes with ability to establish relationships. He has not reached a point in his life where he can cope with the complexities of relationships: unpredictability, conflict, resentment, sacrifice. His preference is for that which remains static despite his search for something more substantial and enriching. This is founded on the fear born out loneliness. Accustomed to remaining outside the main social sphere, he fears complete exposure to those who may force him to reevaluate his convictions, self-worth, and self-awareness, obtuse though it may be.
Ambiguity in this sense is referring to Holden's personal definition of phony or anything that is superficial or involves a pretense. Yet, his definition of phoniness is flawed in that he tends to use phony to describe only those people who project strength as a means of disguising their weaknesses. However, within the sphere of ambiguity, lying is also a type of phoniness that Holden does not address. Particularly, he fails to recognize that which is phony in him. He freely and often deceives people for no apparent reason other than mere amusement. His proclivity for compulsively lying is something for which he often congratulates himself. An example of this is in Chapter 8 when he meets Mrs. Morrow, the mother of one of his classmates. Not only does he refuse to engage in such an introspective process, but he also lacks the tools for such a level of self-engagement.