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

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

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. In the decades since its publication, The Catcher in the Rye has become one of the most popular "coming of age" novels. Below, we'll explain the meaning of the title and review some of the famous quotations and important vocabulary from the novel.

The Meaning of the Title: The Catcher in the Rye

The title of The Catcher in the Rye is a reference to "Comin' Thro the Rye," a Robert Burns poem and a symbol for the main character's 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."

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 children (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 effect change. 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. Through the course of the novel, Holden is forced to come to terms with the reality of growing up-something that he struggles to accept.

The Catcher in the Rye: Key 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

The Catcher in the Rye: Vocabulary

Holden speaks to the reader in the first person, using the common slang of the fifties, which gives 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. Understanding the words Holden uses will give you a greater understanding of the prose.

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, especially at something unpleasant

bourgeois: middle-class, conventional

Chapters 16-20

blasé: indifferent or bored, unimpressed

conceited: having a high opinion of oneself, arrogant

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

Chapters 21-26

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

cockeyed: askew, cross-eyed

pharaoh: ancient Egyptian king

bawl: to cry

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