Exploring the Symbols in Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye
Texts are never just random occurrences of words. Authors meticulously and painstakingly choose words to put on the page. Then comes the reader and meaning is produced. It’s the interpretation of meaning that causes the text to come alive. How is meaning interpreted? Different theories tell us how to look at a text in different ways. Looking at J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye in two different perspectives, New Criticism and Reader-Response Criticism, allows us to compare the same text in unusual ways.
New Criticism makes us analyze the text itself. We do not look at the time period or the author for clarification. The text is an autonomous entity that gives clues to its own meaning. If it is not in the text, it cannot be in the analysis. Many of the recurring symbols of the novel can be looked at using New Criticism. We must see how the text helps us interpret these symbols. For instance, one of the recurring images is the ducks of Central Park.
Throughout the novel, Holden Caulfield whines, sounding like a grumpy old man. He punctuates his rants with adult swear words. Several times in the novel he goes away from sounding gruff and asks an innocent question about one of life’s little wonders. He asks about the ducks in Central Park. The first time he thinks about the ducks is when he is talking to Mr. Spencer. He does not want to listen to the “grippy” old man, so he withdraws inwardly and thinks,
The funny thing is, though, I was sort of thinking of something else while I shot the bull. I live in New York, and I was thinking about the lagoon in Central Park, down near Central Park South. I was wondering if it would be frozen over when I got home, and if it was, where did the ducks go. I was wondering where the ducks went when the lagoon got all icy and frozen over. I wondered if some guy came in a truck and took them away to a zoo or something. Or if they just flew away. (Salinger 13)
He cannot even hold a regular conversation and, like a child, his attention wanders.
The image is progressed in the novel itself when Holden rides in the two cabs. To the first cab driver, he asks, “’You know those ducks in that lagoon right near Central Park?...do you happen to know where they go, the ducks, when it gets all frozen over?’” (60). But by the time of the second cab ride, he starts answering his own question, with facts that little kids find out as they grow. “’I mean does somebody come around in a truck or something and take them away, or do they fly away by themselves—go south or something?’” (81-82). The novel is telling us about the progression that Holden is going through. The novel expresses how childish this line of questioning is yet is also showing us how Holden is growing up from this line of questioning. As he grows in the novel, He actually goes out to see about the ducks in person. “So what I did, I started walking over to the park. I figured I’d go by that little lake and see what the hell the ducks were doing, see if they were around or not” (153). He wants to experience more things, just as children grow and experience more things and find out the answers for themselves.
The thing that is important to note is that the text does not come out and tell us what the ducks represent. The reader makes this connection and fills in the gaps. For example, in the novel The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg on the billboard are a recurring image. Only on page 159 of a 180-page novel is the secret revealed.
“and I said ‘God knows what you’ve been doing, everything you’ve been doing. You may fool me, but you can’t fool God!’” (Fitzgerald 159)
The difference between the billboard and the ducks is that the reader is not expressly told in the text of The Catcher in the Rye what to make of the ducks. Readers have to fill that in based on what they know of Holden and themselves. That is Reader-Response Criticism, the fact that the reader makes that connection without being expressly told to do so.
Reader-Response Criticism can result in different interpretations of the same novel, depending on the baggage brought in by the reader, the proclivity of the reader to analyze text and what the reader knows about life. The reader makes the connections. The reader understands that the line of questioning about the ducks reveals the youthful character of Holden. This is based on what the readers know of children, not what is expressed in the text. The ducks are also memorable to the reader because of Holden’s willingness to learn that is nowhere else in the novel. Also, the reader connects the ducks to Holden’s situation. The reader sees Holden as half-frozen, like the pond, after Allie’s death, and understands that Holden will one day let the ducks come back.
The red hunting hat is another symbol in the novel. The novel expands this symbol continually as a symbol of uniqueness and individuality. Holden is always self-conscious about the hat; he mentions it every time he puts it on. When he does put it on, he dons another personality and perspective. One of the first times he plays with the hat, he pretends in front of Ackley that he is “’going blind’” (Salinger 21). He also says, “’This is a people shooting hat,’” (22) clearly showing that he is not himself when he wears it. He changes perspective while wearing that hat, writing Stradlater’s composition while wearing it. However, like a child without too much direction, he does the composition wrong, according to Stradlater. He even blows up with anger wearing that hat, shouting, “’Sleep tight, ya morons!’’” (52) in order to wake up the dorm, clearly not something he would do without the hat.
It is interesting to note here that Holden wore the hat while he was asking the cab driver about the ducks in Central Park. “I’d put on my red hunting cap when I was in the cab, just for the hell of it, but I took it off before I checked in. I didn’t want to look like a screwball or something” (61). He is only comfortable to ask the childish questions while wearing the hat. He eventually gives the hat to his sister Phoebe. “Then I took my hunting hat out of my coat pocket and gave it to her. She likes those kind of crazy hats. She didn't want to take it, but I made her. I'll bet she slept with it on. She really likes those kind of hats” (180). Eventually, he realizes he doesn’t need it anymore, even though “My hunting hat really gave me quite a lot of protection, in a way; but I got soaked anyway” (212-213).
The reader puts new meaning onto the images of the red hunting hat. The reader cannot separate the hat from Holden, almost as if they were indelibly linked. It is up to the reader to fill in the gap about the color of the hat in comparison to the hair color of his sister Phoebe and his dead brother Allie. Another gap that is filled in by the reader is the composition Holden wrote for Stradlater. The way Holden talked of that piece of writing it is a shame that the reader never gets to actually read it, although the reader feels as if the text has been clearly expressed. The reader knows it is about the poetry on Allie’s mitt. The reader gets a sense that it is a brilliant composition, without actually ever reading it. The reader notes how Holden seems to be “putting on” innocence every time he puts on the hat. However, Holden still gets “soaked” while wearing it, and the reader realizes that whatever protection you have cannot shield you from growing up and losing innocence. The reader does all of this, not the text. The text advances the image but it is up to the reader to apply this kind of psychoanalytic approach to figuring out Holden.
The most impressionable image in the novel is the one that Salinger titled the book after. The catcher in the rye seems to be a mistake on Holden’s part, but further analysis reveals a new world to Holden’s character. A New Critic will show how the text advances this look into Holden’s character. The first time it is mentioned, it is a little kid that is singing the little ditty. Later, the catcher in the rye becomes Holden’s answer to what he wants to do with his life when asked by his little sister Phoebe. A New Critic an also make the connection between this image and the rude swearing written on the wall at Phoebe’s school.
The reader, though, makes the connections that the New Critic cannot. The novel leaves it to the reader to understand the connotations behind the word “meet” in the song of “Comin Thro’ the Rye” by Robert Burns. The song is truly about a sexual liaison in a field of rye, not the innocent song Holden thinks it is. He doesn’t want to see it as such, and neither does the reader. The reader connects this image to Holden’s character in ways that never leave. We constantly see Holden standing on the side of a cliff in a field of rye protecting the children from the edge. A reader today will also note the possibilities behind the fact that Mark David Chapman, the killer of John Lennon, and John Hinckley, the man who shot President Ronald Reagan, both referred to this book. Those are Reader-Response Criticisms and in order to understand them, we need to understand how to read them.
In deference to critical approaches, they all have new and exciting ways of bringing out new information in the meaning of a literary work. The Catcher in the Rye could easily be analyzed using any of the approaches, and new meanings would crop up. However, New Criticism helps us advance the images portrayed in the text and then Reader-Response Criticism helps us figure out the meaning, not only in what we see in the literary work but what the characters see. All in all, these approaches help us advance what we and others see in a literary work.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner, 2004.
Salinger, J. D. The Catcher in the Rye. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1991.