'The Catcher in the Rye' Themes, Symbols, and Literary Devices

J.D. Salinger’s masterpiece of teen angst seems like a superficial story about a cranky, spoiled rich kid at first glance. But a deeper dive reveals a haunting rumination on modern life, grief, and loneliness that continues to capture the imaginations of readers of all ages decades after its initial publication. Using a sharply-observed narrative voice and a subtle unreliability, The Catcher in the Rye's themes paint a deep portrait of a young man in anguish and trying desperately to hide it.

Innocence vs. Phoniness

If you had to choose one word to represent The Catcher in the Rye, it would be "phony," Holden Caufield’s insult of choice and a word he uses to describe most of the people he meets and much of the world he encounters. For Holden, the word implies artifice, a lack of authenticity—pretension. He views phoniness as a sign of growing up, as if adulthood were a disease and phoniness its most obvious symptom. He has moments of faith in younger people, but invariably condemns all the adults as phonies.

The flip side of this is the value Holden puts on innocence, on being unspoiled. Innocence is typically assigned to children, and Holden is no exception, regarding his younger siblings as worthy of his affection and respect. His younger sister Phoebe is his ideal—she is intelligent and perceptive, talented and willful, but innocent of the terrible knowledge that Holden himself has gained with his extra six years (most notably concerning sex, which Holden wishes to protect Phoebe from). Holden’s dead brother, Allie, haunts him precisely because Allie will always be this innocent, being deceased.

Part of Holden’s torment is his own phoniness. While he does not consciously indict himself, he engages in many phony behaviors that he would abhor if he were to observe them in himself. Ironically, this prevents him from being innocent himself, which explains to some degree Holden’s self-loathing and mental instability.

Alienation

Holden is isolated and alienated throughout the entire novel. There are hints that he is telling his story from a hospital where he is recovering from his breakdown, and throughout the story his adventures are consistently focused on making some sort of human connection. Holden self-sabotages constantly. He feels lonely and isolated at school, but one of the first things he tells us is that he’s not going to the football game everyone else is attending. He makes arrangements to see people, and then insults them and drives them away.

Holden uses alienation to protect himself from mockery and rejection, but his loneliness drives him to keep trying to connect. As a result, Holden’s sense of confusion and alarm grows because he has no true anchor to the world around him. Since the reader is tied to Holden’s point-of-view, that terrifying sense of being completely cut off from everything, of everything in the world not making sense, becomes a visceral part of reading the book.

Death

Death is the thread that runs through the story. For Holden, death is abstract; he’s not primarily afraid of the physical facts of the end of life, because at 16 he can’t truly understand it. What Holden fears about death is the change that it brings. Holden continuously wishes for things to remain unchanged, and to be able to go back to better times—a time when Allie was alive. For Holden, Allie’s death was a shocking, unwanted change in his life, and he is terrified of more change—more death—especially when it comes to Phoebe.

Symbols

The Catcher in the Rye. There’s a reason this is the title of the book. The song Holden hears contains the lyric "if a body meet a body, coming through the rye" that Holden mishears as "if a body catch a body." He later tells Phoebe that this is what he wishes to be in life, someone who "catches" the innocent if they slip and fall. The ultimate irony is that the song is about two people meeting for a sexual encounter, and Holden himself is too innocent to understand that.

The Red Hunting Hat. Holden wears a hunting cap that he frankly admits is kind of ridiculous. For Holden it is a sign of his "otherness" and his uniqueness—his isolation from others. Notably, he removes the hat whenever he is meeting someone he wants to connect with; Holden knows full well the hat is part of his protective coloring.

The Carousel. The carousel is the moment in the story when Holden lets go of his sadness and decides he will stop running and grow up. Watching Phoebe ride it, he is happy for the first time in the book, and part of his happiness is imagining Phoebe grabbing for the gold ring—a risky maneuver that could get a kid a prize. Holden’s admission that sometimes you have to let kids take risks like that is his surrender to the inevitability of becoming an adult—and leaving childhood behind.

Literary Devices

Unreliable Narrator. Holden tells you he is "the most terrific liar you ever saw." Holden lies constantly throughout the story, making up identities and masking the fact that he’s been kicked out of school. As a result, the reader can’t necessarily trust Holden’s descriptions. Are the people he calls "phonies" really bad, or is it just how Holden wants you to see them?

Slang. The story’s slang and teenage vernacular are out of date today, but the tone and style were remarkable when it was published for the way Salinger captured the way a teenager sees and thinks about things. The result is a novel that still feels authentic and confessional despite the passage of time. Holden’s style of telling the story also underscores his character—he uses profanities and slang words very self-consciously to shock and to demonstrate his jaded and worldly ways. Salinger also employs the use of "filler phrases" in Holden’s story, which gives the narrative the feeling of being spoken, as if Holden were actually telling you this story in person.