Study Guide

The Catcher in the Rye What's Up With the Title?

By J. D. Salinger

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What's Up With the Title?

The first mention we get of this mysterious catcher in this mysterious rye is when Holden overhears a little kid singing, "If a body catch a body coming through the rye." For just a second, it makes him feel not so depressed, in part because Holden is a fan of little children, and we can all agree that the only things better than little kids are singing little kids.

So that's all well and good until several chapters later when Holden's sister Phoebe corrects him: first of all, it's "if a body meet a body”; second, it's not a song—it's a poem by Robert Burns. Here's the poem itself:

"Coming thro' the Rye" (1796)

Coming thro' the rye, poor body,
Coming thro' the rye,
She draiglet a' her petticoatie
Coming thro' the rye.

O, Jenny's a' wat, poor body;
Jenny's seldom dry;
She draiglet a' her petticoatie
Coming thro' the rye.

Gin a body meet a body
Coming thro' the rye,
Gin a body kiss a body—
Need a body cry?

Gin a body meet a body
Coming thro' the glen,
Gin a body kiss a body—
Need the warld ken?

Uh, what?

Since you probably don't speak 18th-century Scottish dialect, we'll translate for you: "Draiglet" = drags, "wat" = wet, "Gin" = when, and "ken" = know. In other words, Jenny is out in the rye with a wet body, dragging her petticoat—and she "meets" (has sex with?) someone. Need she cry (i.e., get emotional) about it? Need the world know about it? If not, then casual sex is OK.

In other words, this whole poem—that Holden romanticizes into big fantasy about protecting little kids—is just asking, “Is casual sex okay?”

What a shockingly pertinent question to ask in Catcher in the Rye.

And it’s a tough one for Holden. Holden thinks that to get sexy with a girl is to degrade her, or treat her like an object. Therefore, he can't get sexy with someone he cares about. Casual sex is his only option, but he's not so comfortable with that, either. The solution, it seems, is to avoid sex altogether, and to hang out with little kids and listen to them sing cute, innocent songs about … casual sex. Oops.

Even more ironic is that Holden says he wants to be the catcher in the rye—he wants to be "catching" all those little children playing in the rye. But the poem isn’t about preserving childhood innocence at all—it’s about sex. Holden exists in a world that is steeped in sexuality. It's on the school walls, across from his window in the hotel, in kids' songs, and even in his seemingly innocent fantasies. Is this a tragedy?

Well, it depends. You could say that Holden is just a little kid still coming to terms with adult sexuality and seeing it all as gross and perverted, in which case, no: it’s not tragic. It’s just a healthy, normal part of life, and Holden is the one with the problem. Or you could say that Holden is right. Sexuality is inherently perverted and corrupting—in which case, yes. Adulthood is always tragic, because it involves growing into sexuality.

What do you think?

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