The Meaning of the Title The Catcher in the Rye

The Catcher in the Rye
The Catcher in the Rye. Little Brown & Co.

Titles often have great significance and the title of J. D. Salinger's only novel is no different. The Catcher in the Rye, is a catchy phrase that takes on a lot of meaning in the book. It's a reference to, "Comin' Thro the Rye,"  a Robert Burns poem and a symbol for the main characters longing to preserve the innocence of childhood.  

The first reference in the text to "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 him 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."

The "catcher in the rye" references take us to the poem by Robert Burns: Comin' thro' the Rye ( 1796).

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 them (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 affect change. He wants to "rescue" the children (like some Pied Piper of Hamelin, playing a lute or leading a lyrical chant--to take the children off to some unknown place). 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. Everyone must grow up. It's a sad, stark reality for him (one that he doesn't want to accept).

If, at the end of the novel, Holden is giving up his fantasy of his catcher-in-the-rye personae, does that mean that change, for him, is no longer possible? Is he giving up hope--that he can become anything other than the exemplification of the phoniness, inherent in all adults and society at large? What change-making is still possible for him, particularly in the setting that he finds himself in, at the end of the novel?

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