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

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

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. It is one of the most popular "coming of age" novels. Salinger wrote parts of the novel during World War II. It speaks of his distrust of adults and the seeming fakeness of adult life, what Holden refers to as "phony".

Many readers related to the somewhat bleak view of the main character. It deals heavily with the loss of the innocence of childhood and having to grow up. Holden wrestles with his want to remain an innocent child which conflict with his adult urges that cause him do things like unsuccessfully seeking out a prostitute. 

The work has been popular and controversial, and a number of the quotes from this book has been cited as evidence of its inappropriate nature. The Catcher in the Rye is often studied in American literature. Here are just a few quotes from this popular novel.

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

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?

The Catcher in the Rye Quotes

  • "What I was really hanging around for, I was trying to feel some kind of a goodbye. I mean I've left schools and places I didn't even know I was leaving them. I hate that. I don't care if it's a sad goodbye or a bad goodbye, but when I leave a place I like to know I'm leaving it. If you don't, you feel even worse."
    - J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, Ch. 1
  • "I don't even know what I was running for - I guess I just felt like it."
    - J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, Ch. 1
  • "It was that kind of a crazy afternoon, terrifically cold, and no sun out or anything, and you felt like you were disappearing every time you crossed a road."
    - J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, Ch. 1
  • "People always think something's all true."
    - J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, Ch. 2
  • "People never notice anything."
    - J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, Ch. 2
  • "I'm the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life. It's awful. If I'm on my way to the store to buy a magazine, even, and somebody asks me where I'm going, I'm liable to say I'm going to the opera. It's terrible."
    - J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, Ch. 3
  • "When I really worry about something, I don't just fool around. I even have to go to the bathroom when I worry about something. Only, I don't go. I'm too worried to go. I don't want to interrupt my worrying to go."
    - J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, Ch. 6
  • "All morons hate it when you call them a moron."
    - J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, Ch. 6
  • "In my mind, I'm probably the biggest sex maniac you ever saw."
    - J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, Ch. 9
  • "It's really too bad that so much crumby stuff is a lot of fun sometimes."
    - J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, Ch. 9
  • "There isn't any night club in the world you can sit in for a long time unless you can at least buy some liquor and get drunk. Or unless you're with some girl that really knocks you out."
    - J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, Ch. 13
  • "Goddam money. It always ends up making you blue as hell."
    - J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, Ch. 15

Catcher in The Rye Vocabulary

Told in the first person, Holden speaks to the reader using the common slang of the fifties which give the book a more authentic feel. Much of the language Holden uses is considered crass or vulgar but it fits the personality of the character. However, some of the terms and phrases Holden uses are not commonly used today. A word doesn't have to be considered slang for it to have fallen out of style. As language evolves so to do the words people commonly use. Here's a vocabulary list from  The Catcher in the Rye. Understanding the words Holden uses will give you a greater understanding of the prose. You can even include some of these words into your own vocabulary if you find yourself liking them. 

Chapters 1-5

grippe: influenza

chiffonier: a bureau with a mirror attached

falsetto: an unnaturally high-pitched voice

hound's-tooth: a pattern of jagged checks, usually black-and-white, on fabric

halitosis: chronic bad breath

phony: a fake or insincere person 

Chapters 6-10

Canasta: a variation on the card game gin rummy

incognito: in the act of concealing one's identity

jitterbug: A very active dance style popular in the 1940s

Chapters 11-15

galoshes: waterproof boots

nonchalant: unconcerned, casual, indifferent

rubberneck: to look at or stare, to gawk, esp. at something unpleasant

bourgeois: middle-class, conventional

Chapters 16-20

blase: indifferent or bored, unimpressed

conceited: having a high opinion of oneself, arrogant

louse: a contemptible person; it is also the term for a single lice

Chapters 21-26

digression: a deviation from a central theme in speaking or writing

cockeyed: slanted, cross-eyed

pharaoh: ancient Egyptian king

bawl: to cry