The Meaning of the Title: 'The Catcher in the Rye'

A Study Guide for J.D. Salinger’s Famous Novel

The Catcher in the Rye is a 1951 novel by American author J. D. Salinger. Despite some controversial themes and language, the novel and its protagonist Holden Caulfield have become favorites among teen and young adult readers. In the decades since its publication, The Catcher in the Rye has become one of the most popular "coming of age" novels. Below, we’ll explain the meaning of the title and review some of the famous quotations and important vocabulary from the novel.

The Meaning of the Title: The Catcher in the Rye

The title of The Catcher in the Rye is a reference to "Comin' Thro the Rye," a Robert Burns poem and a symbol for the main character's longing to preserve the innocence of childhood. 

The first reference in the text to a "catcher in the rye" is in Chapter 16. Holden overhears:

"If a body catch a body coming through the rye."

Holden describes the scene (and the singer):

"The kid was swell. He was walking in the street, instead of on the sidewalk, but right next to the curb. He was making out like he was walking a very straight line, the way kids do, and the whole time he kept singing and humming."

The episode makes Holden feel less depressed. But why? Is it his realization that the child is innocent—somehow pure, not "phony" like his parents and other adults?

Then, in Chapter 22, Holden tells Phoebe:

"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 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."

Holden's interpretation of the poem centers around the loss of innocence (adults and society corrupt and ruin children) and his instinctual desire to protect children (his sister in particular). Holden sees himself as "the catcher in the rye." Throughout the novel, he's confronted with the realities of growing up—of violence, sexuality, and corruption (or "phoniness"), and he doesn't want any part of it.

Holden is (in some ways) incredibly naive and innocent about worldly realities. He doesn't want to accept the world as it is, but he also feels powerless, unable to effect change. The growing-up process is almost like a runaway train, moving so fast and furiously in a direction that's beyond his control (or even, really, his comprehension). He can't do anything to stop or stall it, and he realizes that his wish to save the children is "crazy"—perhaps even unrealistic and impossible. Throughout the course of the novel, Holden is forced to come to terms with the reality of growing up—something that he struggles to accept.

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Lombardi, Esther. "The Meaning of the Title: 'The Catcher in the Rye'." ThoughtCo, Feb. 24, 2020, Lombardi, Esther. (2020, February 24). The Meaning of the Title: 'The Catcher in the Rye'. Retrieved from Lombardi, Esther. "The Meaning of the Title: 'The Catcher in the Rye'." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 29, 2023).