Study Guide

The Catcher in the Rye Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By J. D. Salinger

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory


Holden's Hat

Holden has a really dumb hat. Well, it is dumb. Even he admits it:

I put on this hat that I’d bought in New York that morning. It was this red hunting hat, with one of those very, very long peaks. I saw it in the window of this sports store when we got out of the subway, just after I noticed I'd lost all the goddam foils. It only cost me a buck. The way I wore it, I swung the old peak way around to the back—very corny, I'll admit, but I liked it that way. I looked good in it that way. (3.3)

(Need a visual? Check out this selection).

So, what’s going on with this hat? Notice that he buys the hat in New York on the morning after he left all the fencing equipment on the subway and ticked off the entire team. So we know he's feeling particularly vulnerable at the time, even though Holden would never admit to feeling vulnerable.

And that hat shows up over and over again at important moments—writing the composition about Allie's baseball mitt, staring at himself in the mirror and pretending to be tough after Stradlater punches him, yelling "Sleep tight, ya morons" down the corridor. Meanwhile, he takes it off when he's on the train, going to a bar, in hotel lobbies, and so forth. So while he's all about the hat in private, he's embarrassed or lacking confidence to wear it in public. (Although, fair enough, it was also just considered polite to take your hat off inside, just like today.)

We even get hints to this at the start of Chapter Thirteen ("I took my red hunting hat […] and put it on—I didn't give a damn how I looked"), the end of Chapter Sixteen ("I took my old hunting hat out […] and put it on. I knew I wouldn't meet anybody that knew me"), and the start of Chapter Twenty-One ("I'd already taken off my hunting hat, so as not to look suspicious").

But despite his embarrassment, the hunting hat becomes an important part of the way Holden sees himself. It's a people shooting hat, he declares (we hope not literally). When he's wearing it, he can be as insular and tough and as … individual as he wants—just like Allie and Phoebe, both redheads.

That's why it's such a big deal when Phoebe puts it on his head at the end of the novel: not only is she giving back to Holden, but she's demonstrating that she loves him as the individual that he is—corny red hunting hat and all. (Want to see a cute interpretation of this moment? Check out this image.)

Ducks

Holden just can’t let up about those ducks. He asks his first cab driver if he “happen[s] to know where they go, the ducks, when it gets all frozen over? Do you happen to know, by any chance?" (9.4); and throws same question at a second cab drive a few chapters later (12.8). In his big breakdown moment, he stumbles drunkenly around the park looking to see “what the hell the ducks were doing, see if they were around or not” (20.38). Once he finally finds the lagoon, they’re not there—so he sits down and thinks about suicide.

Yeah, we think the ducks are probably important.

Holden has experienced a lot of death on a personal level, but he’s also standing in for the way post-war America was dealing with the losses of World War II. While others may find hope in religion (like the two nuns, or the Quaker student that he knew at school) or romanticized logic (like the cab driver who insists that, obviously, mother nature would take care of the fish—and the ducks) or even in consumerism and pop culture (like Sally and all the phony kids at his school), it’s all just phoniness to Holden. None of it helps him.

Somehow, the ducks do. Just knowing that the ducks come back over and over again, no matter how harsh the winter is or how unconcerned “Mother Nature” is with the ducks, they come back. He doesn’t know where they go, just like he doesn’t know how he’s going to make it through his own winter. But they come back, year after year—and so will he.

The Mummies

Holden claims he doesn’t know much about Egyptians in the failing essay he writes for Mr. Spencer’s class, but he knows enough to enthusiastically explain the process of mummification to two younger boys:

It’s very interesting. They wrapped their faces up in these cloths that were treated with some secret chemical. That way they could be buried in their tombs for thousands of years and their faces wouldn’t rot or anything. Nobody knows how to do it except the Egyptians. Even modern science. (25.34)

Notice that Holden doesn’t talk about how they pulled out the organs, or stuck hooks up their noses, or wrapped up their legs or arms; it’s all about the faces, and how the faces wouldn’t rot. To us, it sounds like Holden is a little worried about his own face rotting—metaphorically speaking. He’s afraid of disappearing, of not being noticed: of being just another “faceless” corporate employee, or of being buried and ignored underground like his little brother. But nobody knows how to do that, except the Egyptians. Right?

Right. Or, maybe, writing this book is a way of preserving his individuality and immortality. We’re just saying, 65 million copies sold sounds a lot better than lying shriveled up in some museum tomb.

Ossenburger

Old Ossenburger is the wealthy alumnus who gave Pencey money to construct buildings. Where’d he get that money? A chain of bargain funeral parlors:

He made a pot of dough in the undertaking business after he got out of Pencey. What he did, he started these undertaking parlors all over the country that you could get members of your family buried for about five bucks apiece. You should see old Ossenburger. He probably just shoves them in a sack and dumps them in the river. (3.1)

Nice. That’s just another reminder that Holden’s entire world is built around phonies who, if they’re not trying to cheapen death, are trying to pretend it doesn’t happen.

James Castle

Holden digresses in Chapter Twenty-Two about James Castle, a classmate of his who killed himself at Elkton Hills. On the surface, this is another instance where death has come close to Holden—he hears the body hit the ground, he sees the "teeth and blood" all over the place afterwards, and the boy is wearing Holden's turtleneck sweater at the time (22.30).

But then there’s the Mr. Antolini connection. Salinger helps us out by making it really explicit—Mr. Antolini carries the body away. And then, during his conversation with/lecture to Holden, Mr. Antolini makes a big deal (he even writes down a favorite quotation) out of warning his former student not to die nobly for an unworthy cause. Check out the passage where Holden explains his death. It seems that James insulted a (conceited) guy by calling him conceited

So Stabile, with about six other dirty bastards, went down to James Castle's room and went in and locked the goddam door and tried to make him take back what he said, but he wouldn't do it. So they started in on him. I won't even tell you what they did to him—it's too repulsive—but he still wouldn't take it back, old James Castle. And you should've seen him. He was a skinny little weak-looking guy, with wrists about as big as pencils. Finally, what he did, instead of taking back what he said, he jumped out the window. (22.30)

Sounds like he died nobly for an unworthy cause—exactly what Mr. Antolini wants Holden not to do. But we have to ask—is this really an unworthy cause, in Holden’s eyes? After all, James Castle is being true to himself in the only way he knows how. Notice that Holden emphasizes that the guy is weak and little; he has no chance of physically standing up to the bullies. Rather than be “phony” by taking back the insult, he jumps.

To Holden, this might sound a lot more like a noble cause than an unnoble one.

The Museum

Holden just doesn’t want to grow up. (He’s a Toys R Us Kid.) "Certain things,” he says, “you ought to be able to stick […] in one of those big glass cases and just leave them alone" (16.25). He's making a rather explicit connection here between the Indian Room at the museum (where the displays always stay the same) and the children (who are always changing) who visit on field trips. Since Holden is so straightforward about the connection, you'll really a lot from reading what he has to say on the subject (the last four paragraphs of Chapter Sixteen).

But there’s one less straightforward aspect we wants to investigate. Holden says that, while the displays stay the same, a person is different every time he comes back to visit. It’s not age, exactly: it's the changes you goes through in order to become an adult. So he's talking more about the intangible qualities of youth and innocence than he is about the physical ones. Just look at his list of examples—hearing parents fight, or seeing a gasoline puddle: these are examples of awareness, of mental growth, not of physical aging.

The question is, can you age physically without aging mentally? And would you even want to?

Little Shirley Beans

When Holden talks about the singer, Estelle Fletcher, he describes her singing it as "very Dixieland and whorehouse [… not] all mushy, […not] cute as hell," as he thinks a white girl would have done (16.2).

Okay. Weird. Why is Holden into a record that sounds Dixieland and whorish, especially since he's buying it for his little sister and is troubled by the thought of sexuality invading the world of children?

We think this is about avoiding phoniness. The record is obviously intended for children—it features a little kid that's embarrassed about having lost her front teeth. (Also, it's called "Little Shirley Beans," which is sort of a dead giveaway in that it sounds a lot like Shirley Temple. We’re not positive Salinger is drawing on those associations here, but it seems likely.) Anyway, Holden figures that most people would cheese up a records for kids, because they think that's what little kids are into.

So, what does it mean when Holden drops and breaks this record during his drunken stumbling around New York? Could it—ahem—have anything to do with lost innocence? And what does it mean that Phoebe wants to keep the broken pieces of the record?

Phoebe's Notebook

Before Holden wakes Phoebe up, he sits down and reads through her school notebook (check this out—it's not too far from the start of Chapter Twenty-One). Holden, much like we do, finds it endearing, states that "kid’s notebooks kill [him]," and adds that he could "read that kind of stuff […] all day and all night long" (22.18). But what does he like so much about it? Take a look:

Why has south eastern Alaska so many caning factories?
Because there's so much salmon
Why has it valuable forests?
because it has the right climate.
What has our government done to make
life easier for the Alaskan Eskimos?
look it up for tomorrow!!!
Phoebe Weatherfield Caulfield
Phoebe Weatherfield Caulfield
Phoebe Weatherfield Caulfield
Phoebe W. Caulfield
Phoebe Weatherfield Caulfield, Esq.
Please pass to Shirley!!!!
Shirley you said you were sagitarius
but your only Taurus bring your skates
when you come over to my house

Phoebe's notebook is the least phony expression of thought we've seen so far in the novel. There’s no hiding, no narrative, no analysis: Phoebe simply wrote exactly what she was thinking, new names, triple exclamation marks and all.

The question is this: is Catcher in the Rye also one of these “kid’s notebooks”? Is it just what some kid happens to be thinking? On the one hand, obviously no: it’s a carefully crafted novel by a fully adult author. But are we supposed to think that Holden is really just as naïve as Phoebe, saying things like “I’m the most terrific liar you ever say in your life” (3.1), or “I have a lousy vocabulary” (2.22)? Or is he actually guiding and manipulating the story in some way?

It’s definitely up to interpretation, but—call us naïve; we still think, in some way, that Catcher is just some kid’s notebook.

Vulgar Slang

Holden may use words like “bastard” and “ass,” but he has to draw the line somewhere—and he draws that line at writing "f*** you" on the walls of elementary schools and museum tombs. These places particularly bother him, because they remind him of his own relatively comfortable and happy childhood. In Holden's world, everything has been corrupted by vulgarities. Even his own death, he says, couldn't be sacred or peaceful, since someone would probably write a "f*** you" on his very tombstone.

We argue in Holden's "Character Analysis" that it's no wonder that he sees sex as dirty and degrading, when all the portrayals he's seen of sex are in fact dirty and degrading. This is one such portrayal; Holden imagines a "perverty bum" sneaking into Phoebe's school at night to write the message on the wall (25.16)

Hate to break it to you, Holden, but it's way more likely that a student at the school vandalized the wall. But Holden can’t see that. In his world, children are innocent and adults corrupt. While this keeps everything nice and simple in Holden's mind, it also makes it impossible for him to really understand the process of growing-up. While he does realize that trying to rub out all the "f*** you"s in the world would be impossible (“you couldn’t rub out even half the ‘F*** You’ signs in the world” [25.18]), he doesn't make the important connection that it would be futile anyway. Kids grow up—and sometimes they even write “f*** you” when they’re still in elementary school.

The Carousel

As far as we can tell, there's only one place in the entire novel where Holden declares himself to be really happy. So happy, in fact, that he's "damn near bawling." And that moment is at the end of his narrative, in Chapter Twenty-Five, as he's out in the rain watching Phoebe go around and around on the carousel. She just looks so nice, he says, in her blue coat, going around and around.

But there's more to this sunny jubilance than a kid on a carousel. A few things have just happened: (1) Holden decided that, after all, he's not going to run away, (2) Phoebe put his hunting hat back on his head, and (3) just maybe, Holden has realizes that growing up isn't the worst thing in the world.

Of course, number three up there is subject to debate. We're mostly talking about Phoebe's grabbing for the gold ring, and Holden's thought that "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" (25).

If you’re like us and under the age of, say, 65, you might have been scratching your head at the gold ring business. Here’s the deal: old carousels would liven things up a bit by releasing various-colored rings down a wooden chute on the outside of the carousel. If you timed it right, you could reach up and grab the ring—at great risk to life and limb, naturally. But it was worth it: you could redeem the ring for prizes like a free ride. (A teeny handful of carousels operating today still offer the ring game.)

When Holden concludes that you have to just let a kid reach, even though they might get hurt doing so, he might be saying admitting (although he probably doesn't realize it himself) that growing up is in fact necessary—for Phoebe and for himself; you can't really protect a kid from it, so it's better to just accept it as it is. Or he could just be talking about a gold ring.