Study Guide

The Catcher in the Rye Innocence

By J. D. Salinger

Innocence

Chapter 7

Most guys at Pencey just talked about having sexual intercourse with girls all the time – like Ackley, for instance – but old Stradlater really did it. I was personally acquainted with at least two girls he gave the time to. That's the truth. (7.32)

The truth? To us, this sounds a little like a “friend of a friend” story—as though Holden really wants to believe that everyone around him is totally depraved.

Chapter 13
Sunny

She came in and took her coat off right away and sort of chucked it on the bed. She had on a green dress underneath. Then she sort of sat down sideways on the chair that went with the desk in the room and started jiggling her foot up and down. She crossed her legs and started jiggling this one foot up and down. She was very nervous, for a prostitute. She really was. I think it was because she was young as hell. She was around my age. I sat down in the big chair, next to her, and offered her a cigarette.

"I don't smoke," she said.

She had a tiny little wheeny-whiny voice. You could hardly hear her. She never said thank you, either, when you offered her something. She just didn't know any better.

"Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Jim Steele," I said.

"Ya got a watch on ya?" she said. She didn't care what the hell my name was, naturally.

"Hey, how old are you, anyways?"

"Me? Twenty-two."

"Like fun you are."

It was a funny thing to say. It sounded like a real kid. You'd think a prostitute and all would say "Like hell you are" or "Cut the crap" instead of "Like fun you are." (13.30-35)

Holden recognizes the lingering (and ironic) innocence in Sunny. Though she's a prostitute, she still avoids vulgarities.

Chapter 16

Certain things they should stay the way they are. You ought to be able to stick them in one of those big glass cases and just leave them alone. I know that's impossible, but it's too bad anyway. (16.25)

The question here is, which things should stay the way they are? Dioramas at the museum? Sure, as long as we don’t learn new information that makes them outdated. Kids? Well, it starts to get a little creepy when you decide to put them in glass cases, is all we’re saying. A little Snow-White-and-the-Seven-Dwarves.

The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody'd move. You could go there a hundred thousand times, and that Eskimo would still be just finished catching those two fish, the birds would still be on their way south, the deers would still be drinking out of that water hole […]. Nobody'd be different. The only thing that would be different would be you. Not that you'd be so much older or anything. It wouldn't be that exactly. You'd just be different, that's all. You'd have an overcoat on this time. Or that kid that was your partner in line last time had got scarlet fever and you'd have a new partner. Or you'd have a substitute taking the class, instead of Miss Aigletinger. Or you'd heard your mother and father having a terrific fight in the bathroom. Or you'd just passed by one of those puddles in the street with gasoline rainbows in them. I mean you'd be different in some way – I can't explain what I mean. And even if I could, I'm not sure I'd feel like it. (16.24)

Holden likes the Natural History museum because, no matter what else changed in his life, it was always the same: it was like a little freeze-frame picture of his own childhood, a safe spot he could always come back to.

Or, as Matthew McConaughey says in Dazed and Confused: the great thing about high school girls is that you get older, and they just stay the same age.

Chapter 17

I said no, there wouldn't be marvelous places to go to after I went to college and all. Open your ears. It'd be entirely different. We'd have to go downstairs in elevators with suitcases and stuff. We'd have to phone up everybody and tell 'em good-by and send 'em postcards from hotels and all. And I'd be working in some office, making a lot of dough, and riding to work in cabs and Madison Avenue buses, and reading newspapers, and playing bridge all the time, and going to the movies and seeing a lot of stupid shorts and coming attractions and newsreels. Newsreels. Christ almighty. There's always a dumb horse race, and some dame breaking a bottle over a ship, and some chimpanzee riding a goddam bicycle with pants on. It wouldn't be the same at all. You don't see what I mean at all. (17.60)

It’s not exactly that Holden’s afraid of getting older; it more that he finds adult like repulsive. He wants to escape the system before he ends up just another "phony" concerned with money and parties and social formalities. (Although, only a rich kid could sneer at “making a lot of dough.” Just saying.)

Chapter 22
Holden Caulfield

"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.

Chapter 24

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.

Chapter 25

That's the whole trouble. You can't ever find a place that's nice and peaceful, because there isn't any. You may think there is, but once you get there, when you're not looking, somebody'll sneak up and write "F*** you" right under your nose. I think, even, if I ever die, and they stick me in a cemetery, and I have a tombstone and all, it'll say "Holden Caulfield" on it, and then what year I was born and what year I died, and then right under that it'll say "F*** you." I'm positive, in fact. (25.39)

Check out how this passage connects two of Holden's major obsessions: mortality and the "filth" of the world (which many would categorize under "loss of innocence"). This reminds us that, in a way, growing up—getting exposed to "filth" and various "f*** you"s—is a sort of death in itself: a death of innocence. We just suspect that it happens a lot earlier than Holden thinks.

I went down by a different staircase, and I saw another "F*** you" on the wall. I tried to rub it off with my hand again, but this one was scratched on, with a knife or something. It wouldn't come off. It's hopeless, anyway. If you had a million years to do it in, you couldn't rub out even half the "F*** you" signs in the world. It's impossible. (25.18)

It’s impossible to erase all the filth (and phoniness), so you either have to learn to live with the fact that the world simply isn’t innocent, or… not. And “not” involves some really unpleasant options, like having a mental breakdown or committing suicide.

Holden Caulfield

But while I was sitting down, I saw something that drove me crazy. Somebody'd written "F*** 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.

Holden Caulfield

Lawyers are all right, I guess – but it doesn't appeal to me," I said. "I mean they're all right if they go around saving innocent guys' lives all the time, and like that, but you don't do that kind of stuff if you're a lawyer. All you do is make a lot of dough and play golf and play bridge and buy cars and drink Martinis and look like a hot-shot. And besides. Even if you did go around saving guys' lives and all, how would you know if you did it because you really wanted to save guys' lives, or because you did it because what you really wanted to do was be a terrific lawyer, with everybody slapping you on the back and congratulating you in court when the goddam trial was over, the reporters and everybody, the way it is in the dirty movies? How would you know you weren't being a phony? The trouble is, you wouldn't. (20.46)

Oh, yeah, all the lawyers who go around saving innocent guys’ lives all the time—as though there really are that many innocent guys to save, even if they wanted it. Thinking that there are enough innocent people to save is just part of Holden’s own innocence.

"Hey, how old are you, anyways?"

"Me? Twenty-two."

"Like fun you are."

It was a funny thing to say. It sounded like a real kid. You'd think a prostitute and all would say "Like hell you are" or "Cut the crap" instead of "Like fun you are." (13.30-35)

Aw, how cute: a prostitute who won’t say “hell” or “crap.” Holden still sees a lingering innocence in her—which means, obviously, that he can’t have sex with her. (But he can refuse to pay her jacked-up price and get socked in the stomach for his chivalry.)

"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)

Irony alert: the song Holden is talking about is about casual sex, not saving kids’ lives. See “What’s Up with the Title?” for some more thoughts on this.