'The Catcher in the Rye' Quotes

Salinger’s classic uses slang to convey a very unique character

J.D. Salinger’s use of informal language in The Catcher in the Rye is part of the novel’s enduring popularity. But the writing style wasn’t chosen simply to make it accessible; Salinger mimics the patterns and rhythm of a story being told orally, giving readers the almost subliminal sense that they’re listening to Holden Caulfield instead of reading a book. The result is a powerful sense of the character despite his obvious unreliability and tendency to lie, and the ability to pull almost any quote from the novel and find plenty of meaning and symbolism.

Misanthropy

“‛Up home we wear a hat like that to shoot deer in, for Chrissake,’ he said. ‛That’s a deer shooting hat.'

"'Like hell it is.’ I took it off and looked at it. I sort of closed one eye, like I was taking aim at it. ‛This is a people shooting hat,’ I said. ‛I shoot people in this hat.’” [Chapter 3]

Holden’s red hunting cap is ridiculous, and there is plenty of evidence that he’s aware of that fact, aware that walking around an urban setting wearing a bright red hunting cap is weird. On a surface level—surface because it’s the obvious reason for the cap that Holden himself admits to—the cap symbolizes Holden’s independent spirit, his determination to not be like everyone else.

This quote demonstrates Holden’s own perception of the hat as a disruptive tool, a layer of protective armor that allows him to attack the people he meets, if only in his mind. Holden’s misanthropy grows steadily throughout the novel as people he admires disappoint him and those he despises confirm his suspicions, and the red hunting cap symbolizes his willingness to "shoot" those people, or attack them and insult them.

Mortality

“I walked all around the whole damn lake – I damn near fell in once, in fact – but I didn't see a single duck. I thought maybe if there were any around, they might be asleep or something near the edge of the water, near the grass and all. That's how I nearly fell in. But I couldn't find any.” [Chapter 20]

Holden’s obsession with death and mortality drives the entire story, as it’s heavily implied that his emotional troubles and difficulties in school began when his brother Allie died a few years before the story opens. Holden is terrified that nothing lasts, that everything—including himself—will die and disappear like his brother did. The ducks symbolize this fear, as they are a feature of his past, a fond memory that is suddenly gone, leaving no trace.

At the same time, the ducks are also a sign of hope for Holden. They represent a comforting constant, because Holden knows that when the weather warms up again the ducks will return. This adds a faint note of hope that is amplified by the revelation at the end of the novel that Holden is telling his story from a place of safety and calm, implying that for Holden the ducks have finally returned.

“The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move ... Nobody’d be different. The only thing that would be different would be you.” [Chapter 16]

Unlike the ducks, which disturb Holden due to their regular disappearance, he finds comfort in the museum he takes Phoebe to, reveling in its static nature. No matter how long he stays away, the exhibits and the experience remain the same. This is comforting to Holden, who is terrified of change and who feels wholly unprepared to grow up and accept his mortality—and his responsibility.

Sex

“In my mind, I'm probably the biggest sex maniac you ever saw. Sometimes I can think of very crumby stuff I wouldn't mind doing if the opportunity came up. I can even see how it might be quite a lot of fun, in a crumby way ...” [Chapter 9]

Holden is a teenage boy, and thus he thinks about sex often, and is suitably conflicted and confused about all of the new feelings and urges he’s experiencing. But Holden has also confused the physical act of sex with his conception of love, wherein he considers the emotion he experienced with his brother Allie (and with his sister Phoebe) to be perfect and pure, and every other kind of love to be imperfect and impure.

This quote shows Holden’s performative side. He’s play-acting what he thinks is expected, the aggressive, sex-obsessed boy. But he’s disgusted by the imperfectness of lust and the relationships he’s seen other people engage in, and so he can’t quite keep up the illusion, quickly deriding sex as "crumby" and clearly demonstrating his less-than approving attitude towards it all.

“The trouble was, that kind of junk is sort of fascinating to watch, even if you don’t want it to be.” [Chapter 9]

As Holden observes the "perverts" at the hotel, he’s once again conflicted. He admits to being fascinated, but he’s also clearly disapproving. His sense of helplessness is part of his emotional collapse—Holden doesn’t want to grow up, but his body is outside his control, which is terrifying to him.

Phoniness

“The part that got me was, there was a lady sitting next to me that cried all through the goddam picture. The phonier it got, the more she cried. You'd have thought she did it because she was kindhearted as hell, but I was sitting right next to her, and she wasn't. She had this little kid with her that was bored as hell and had to go to the bathroom, but she wouldn't take him. She kept telling him to sit still and behave himself. She was about as kindhearted as a goddam wolf.” [Chapter 18]

There are many quotes about the "phonies" that Holden meets and his low opinion of them, but this quote in the middle of the story expresses Holden’s true problem with it. It’s not so much that people put on airs and pretend to be something they’re not, it’s that they care about the wrong things. For Holden, what offends him here is that the woman is becoming emotional about the fake people on the screen while ignoring her unhappy child. To Holden, it should always be the other way around.

This gets to the core of Holden’s war against time and maturity. As people get older, he sees them consistently ignoring what he thinks is important in favor of things he considers less so. He worries that by giving in and growing up he will forget Allie and start caring about fake things like the movies instead.

Childhood

“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.” [Chapter 22]

This quote not only gives the novel its title, it explains Holden’s fundamental issue in a beautiful, poetic way. Holden sees maturity as inherently bad—growing up leads to corruption and phoniness, and finally death. Everything Holden has observed in his life has told him that his brother Allie and his sister Phoebe are perfect in their childhood innocence, but will become like all of Holden’s despised schoolmates, teachers, and other adults in due time. He wishes to stop that passage of time and freeze everyone at a more innocent point in their lives. Crucially, Holden sees himself as all alone in this endeavor—the only person willing to attempt this feat, or qualified to do so.

The fact that the song Holden’s mis-remembers—Coming Through the Rye—is actually about people sneaking into the fields to have illicit sexual encounters makes Holden’s immaturity obvious. It’s also another example of something Holden believes to be pure and innocent being corrupted and ruined by adult sensibilities, even if he’s not aware of the fact in the story.