The Catcher in the Rye

The title of Salinger’s famous novel, The Catcher in the Rye, is based on what Holden Caulfield describes as his ideal job. This job reflects the various facets of Holden’s character, including his love and craving for innocence, the need he feels for stability, and his loner ways and outlook on life.

Holden is first introduced to this job when listening to a young child sing ‘when a body catch a body coming through the rye.’ The idea lingers, and soon an altered version of that becomes his ideal profession, reflecting what he feels going on inside himself.

Holden has shown clearly that what he values and desires above all is innocence and honesty. All around him, instead of this purity, he sees a façade that everyone works to support. "You never saw so many phonies in your life, everybody smoking their ears off and talking about the play so that everybody could know how sharp they were." 1

His idealized occupation reflects this; in the world he’s created for himself, children embody this innocence. Beyond that, even, the children aren’t in any pain or distress; they’re playing a game, laughing and running blindly through a field of rye. Holden is mourning his own loss of innocence in this, as well as a strong protectiveness over these other children, an overpowering desire to keep this innocence safe from the dangers that lie in wait.

Holden knows that his situation is unstable, and he responds to this with a sharp loathing for change and a strong desire for control. He has to savor what few, fixed things exist in his life, tossed around as he is by outrageous mood swings. He varies between love and hate, anger and tears, in an instant. "The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move. You could go there go there a hundred times, and that Eskimo would still just be finished catching those two fish." 2 In his ideal job he’s maintaining a stability that he himself lacks; he’s stopping children from plunging headlong off a cliff. If they fall, and he isn’t there to catch them, they will spin downwards, out of control. While he can’t maintain stability in his own life, Holden dreams of keeping these children from dizzying, uncontrolled freefall.

Holden is a loner, undeniably different from his peers, and suffers from more than the usual teenage anxiety. The title of the book reflects this in that his chosen profession is one that doesn’t actually exist. Holden, rather than choosing for himself a job such as lawyer, the purer form of which involves working for good, picks an occupation that exists only in his imagination. He does this because everything he sees around him in real life is tarnished with this façade; everything has been touched by what he deems phony. "But you don’t do that kind of stuff (‘saving innocent lives’) if you’re a lawyer. All you do is make a lot of dough and play golf and play bridge and buy cars and drink Martinis." 3

His ability to see through this outward show that people put on forces Holden to confront the fact that innocence is a rare, precious thing, and that the real world cannot hold up to the world he would like to live in. As Louis Menand said in his recent New Yorker article, "...sees through other human beings as quickly, as clearly, or as unforgivingly as he does. Holden is a demon of verbal incision." 4 Holden, by choosing a profession so unconventional, is showing once again how he is different from others, how he sees through the acts that humans put on and rejects the reality he is faced with.

The title, The Catcher in the Rye, is significant because it ties together three of Holden’s most defining characteristics; his love for innocent, pure things, his desire for stability, and his loner outlook on life. Salinger chose this title because it defines Holden, managing to capture in a few words the young man’s fascinating character. Holden is the only adult in this world of his creation, alone in a field of rye with children playing all around. He alone is responsible for catching them as they plunge headfirst off a cliff.


This piece was originally prepared for my English 10 class.  It has been reformatted for E2. Prepared for the Everything2 Support Your Local Library Quest.


1 Salinger (1945), 126
2 Salinger (1945), 121
3 Salinger (1945), 172
4 Menand (2001), 82



SALINGER, J. D. (1945) The Catcher in the Rye. New York, New York: Bantam Books.
MENAND, Louis. (2001) Holden at Fifty. The New Yorker, October 1.

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