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Essay: J.D. Salinger’s Use of Imagery & Symbolism to Show Holden Caulfield’s Innocence in The Catcher in the Rye

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  • Published: 15 November 2019*
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  • Tags: The Catcher in the Rye

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Show how the author’s use of imagery and/or symbolism reveals theme OR reinforces aspects of character in a work studied in this course.

Although it is generally acknowledged that society should shield children from mature content to protect their innocence, placing strict confines on growing adolescents can often instead incite their rebellion. In the coming-of-age novel, The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger illustrates Holden Caulfield’s complex personality as well as his need to preserve others’ innocence through symbolism. After losing his younger brother to leukemia, Holden believes he has lost his innocence, and has entered the corrupt world of adulthood. Although Holden does believe it is too late for him, he has an obvious need to preserve the innocence of other children to make up for his own lost childhood. He even idolizes his brother for never losing his innocence, as he never had the chance to grow up and become corrupt, but fears for his sister Phoebe, who will eventually have to face the brutality of adulthood. Many major symbols throughout the novel such as the museum of natural history, the ducks of Central Park and “the catcher in the rye” help demonstrate Holden’s refusal to accept change, his own innocence and his need to preserve others’ innocence.

To begin with, a significant symbol is the Museum of Natural History, where Holden revisits his childhood memories. While walking towards the museum, he states that “the best thing, though, in that museum, was that everything always stayed right where it was.” (p.121) He finds comfort in the constant and predictable manner of the displays, which relates to his need for stability. However, Holden comes to the harsh realization that while the artifacts would stay the same, the visitor would in fact be the one changing. He explains “You’d just be different, that’s all. You’d have an overcoat on this time. Or the kid that was your partner in line the last time has got scarlet fever and you’d have a new partner.” (p.121) While Holden lists a variety of ways you could be different every visit, he noticeably avoids mentioning a change in age. This relates to the fact that even as a sixteen year old boy, he is not associated with the general definition, which causes him to measure his change in events, and not in age. To continue, he states that “You ought to be able to put them in one of those glass cases and just leave them alone” (p.122), referring to his sister, Phoebe, whom he wished he could keep from growing up. This symbol relates very clearly to Holden, and his need to preserve innocence as well as his fear of change. He compares the stability of the museum to the transformation of humans, and evidently relates one to positivity, and the other to negativity. However, once Holden finally reaches the museum, he suddenly does not want to enter, perhaps afraid of any changes made to the museum that will erase his ideology, or that the changes he has undergone since his last visit will become obvious.

To continue, Holden’s obsession with the fate of the ducks in Central Pond shows his preserved sense of childhood and his own innocence. At the beginning of the novel, Holden ponders what will become of the ducks in Central Pond after it freezes over. He decides to ask an angry taxi driver “do you know where they go, the ducks, when it gets all frozen over?” (p.60), escaping an uncomfortable situation by changing the subject, as a child would do. Still preoccupied, he progresses to asking a second cab driver the same question, erasing his facade of maturity and sounding increasingly childlike by repeating the question. Though Holden believes he has lost all his innocence, this symbol proves that this is certainly not true. Finally, his interest not subdued, he decides to go visit the ducks for himself. “What it was, it was partly frozen and partly not frozen. But I didn’t see any ducks around. I walked all around the whole damn lake – I damn near fell in once, in fact – But I didn’t see a single duck.” (p. 154) Contrary to many other aspects of his life, even if the ducks are affected by change, this change is not permanent, but cyclical. Holden is intrigued by this, as the ducks leave every winter, but always come back every spring.  The ducks are stuck between change and stability, and similarly, he is stuck between childhood and adulthood.

Finally, the last symbol that portrays Holden’s need to preserve the innocence of children is “the catcher in the rye”. Holden’s first encounter with the symbol is when he notices a child walking down the street. “He kept walking on next to the curb and signing “if a body catch a body coming through the rye”. It made me feel better. It made me feel not so depressed anymore.” (p.115) Once again, the child is directly linked with innocence, signing and walking beside the sidewalk. Holden relates this experience with positivity, and the poem stays in his mind. Secondly, Holden creates a fantasy world in which he plays a role from the poem. When asked what he wants to do with his life, he states “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.” (p.173) This demonstrates how Holden still has that childlike innocence, since he cannot answer a serious question about his future, and instead creates a idealistic world. He views himself as a protector of innocence, keeping the children from falling down the cliff to the corruption of adulthood. Ironically, Holden discovers that the poem actually goes “If a body meet a body coming through the rye”. The reality of the poem undertakes the question if casual sex is okay, which is the opposite of the poem of innocence he thought it was. While Holden views himself  as the protector from the fall in this situation, Mr. Antolini also later proposes he might be the one falling. ”This fall I think you’re riding for – it’s a special kind of fall, a horrible kind. The man falling isn’t permitted to feel or to hear himself hit bottom. He just keeps falling and falling.” (p. 187) While Holden is stuck in his own little world of stability, Mr. Antolini’s perspective states that if Holden does not accept change in his life, he will keep falling forever.

In summary, Holden’s fear of change and his need to preserve innocence are his dominant character aspects in the novel, and are portrayed by Salinger’s use of symbols. The museum of natural history, the ducks in Central Park and “the catcher in the rye” all relate to his perceived vision of himself protecting the youth from the corruption of adulthood. However, another aspect of his personality is concealed: His own innocence. Even if Holden believes he has lost this personality trait and begins behaving in a way that he thinks demonstrates his maturity, his idealistic worlds and childlike thoughts reveal the true innocence of his character.

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