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Points to Ponder

Like Huckleberry Finn, to which it is often compared, The Catcher in the Rye is one of a handful of contenders for the title of "the great American novel." Both are told in the dialect of American slang, both are told in the first person directly addressing the reader, and both are told from the perspective of a young runaway. Both narrators are teenage boys who are struggling to come to terms with adulthood - each book is a bildungsroman, the German term for a coming-of-age novel. Each boy wishes to "light out for the territory" in Huck's phrase, to head west, away from a morally bankrupt society. Huck perhaps succeeds. Holden succeeds in only the most ironic sense: he tells his story from out in California, but he is living in a sanitarium and is under psychiatric care. Holden doesn't find freedom out west, and Catcher suggests that there is no longer anyplace we can go to escape our flawed civilization.

Throughout Catcher, Holden wants to protect those who can't protect themselves. He is concerned about the ducks in Central Park whose pond is frozen in the winter, for instance, but he is most concerned about protecting children. As "the catcher in the rye," he hopes to protect children from death, and by extension, from growing old and losing their innocence. This is most clearly caused by the loss of his younger brother, Allie, to leukemia. This sparks his adulation of his kid sister Phoebe and her unlimited potential, and his disapproval of his older brother D.B.'s choice to turn his back on his potential in the purer writing of short stories in order to sell out as a writer for the movies. It is not until the next-to-last chapter that he realizes he can't protect kids from the corrupting obscenities written on walls and that to learn they must be allowed to "reach for the brass ring" (as Phoebe does on the carousel at the end of the chapter) - to sometimes fall, and sometimes succeed, on their own.

As Phoebe points out, Holden's idea of "the catcher in the rye" is based on a misunderstanding of the Burns poem (it's "If a body meet a body comin' through the rye," not "If a body catch a body..."). Holden's whole perspective is centered around this basic misapprehension of humanity: he is more concerned with protecting or "catching" people (Jane, Phoebe) than he is with really knowing them. Everyone becomes simply someone to protect. As critic Duane Edwards points out, the narrator in the Burns poem considers kissing the one he meets in the rye; Holden's version changes it from a poem about love to a poem about death.

Browse all book notes

Historical Context
Main Characters
Points to Ponder
Did You Know
Plot Summary
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4 and 5
Chapter 6 and 7
Chapter 8 and 9
Chapter 10 and 11
Chapter 12 and 13
Chapter 14 and 15
Chapter 16
Chapter 17 and 18
Chapter 19 and 20
Chapter 21 and 22
Chapter 23 and 24
Chapter 25
Chapter 26


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