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"You know that song 'If a body catch a body comin' through the rye'? I'd like – "
"It's 'If a body meet a body coming through the rye'!" old Phoebe said. "It's a poem. By Robert Burns."
"I know it's a poem by Robert Burns."
She was right, though. It is "If a body meet a body coming through the rye." I didn't know it then, though.
"I thought it was 'If a body catch a body,'" I said. "Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody's around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And 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. I know it's crazy, but that's the only thing I'd really like to be. I know it's crazy." (22.51-55)
Even more nobly, Holden doesn't just want to "save guys' lives," he wants to save kids' lives. As we discuss in lengthy detail in "What's Up With the Title?" the irony is that this song is actually about sex—and casual sex, at that. What Holden is attempting, then, is made futile.
I didn't know what the hell to talk about while I was waiting for the elevator, and he kept standing there, so I said, "I'm gonna start reading some good books. I really am." I mean you had to say something. It was very embarrassing.
"You grab your bags and scoot right on back here again. I'll leave the door unlatched."
"Thanks a lot," I said. "G'by!" The elevator was finally there. I got in and went down. Boy, I was shaking like a madman. I was sweating, too. When something perverty like that happens, I start sweating like a bastard. That kind of stuff's happened to me about twenty times since I was a kid. I can't stand it. (24.98-100)
As you have probably come to expect by now, there are few different ways to interpret this passage. If Holden has in fact been subject to such come-ons, we can sort of see why he wants to protect children's innocence so badly. If he hasn't (and therefore has read too much into instance after instance), then that is a hint that something isn't quite right with him.
But while I was sitting down, I saw something that drove me crazy. Somebody'd written "Fuck you" on the wall. It drove me damn near crazy. I thought how Phoebe and all the other little kids would see it, and how they'd wonder what the hell it meant, and then finally some dirty kid would tell them – all cockeyed, naturally – what it meant, and how they'd all think about it and maybe even worry about it for a couple of days. I kept wanting to kill whoever'd written it. I figured it was some perverty bum that'd sneaked in the school late at night to take a leak or something and then wrote it on the wall. I kept picturing myself catching him at it, and how I'd smash his head on the stone steps till he was good and goddam dead and bloody. But I knew, too, I wouldn't have the guts to do it. I knew that. That made me even more depressed. (25.16)
Ouch. Holden, baby, sorry to break it to you—but it was almost certainly one of the kids who wrote that. At least, judging by our elementary school, it was.