What does the title mean?
Nothing in The Catcher in the Rye signals Holden’s misinterpretation of the meaning of childhood and adulthood more precisely than the title itself. As he roams around New York City, Holden compares what he perceives as the uncorrupted innocence of children to the hypocrisy of maturity. He considers almost every adult he meets to be a phony, and repeatedly states his fear of turning into a phony himself. Conversely, children represent purity to him, and his desire to return to the innocent state of his own childhood. The book’s title stems from a scene in Chapter 16 when Holden observes a young boy who, ignored by his parents, walks in the street while singing “If a body catch a body coming through the rye.” Holden interprets this scene as a perfect expression of the innocence of youth. The fact that the boy walks in the street rather than on the sidewalk indicates that, for now at least, he exists in a world that is parallel to yet separate from that of his parents. Watching the boy gives Holden a reprieve from the phoniness of the adult world.
The line about a catcher in the rye is taken from a Robert Burns poem, “Comin’ Thro the Rye,” which Holden envisions as a literal rye field on the edge of a cliff. When Phoebe asks Holden what he wants to be when he grows up, he answers “the catcher in the rye” – a person he imagines as responsible for “catching” children in the field before they “start to go over the cliff.” The field of Holden’s fantasy is free of adult ideas and artificiality. The field is reminiscent of Peter Pan’s Neverland or the Garden of Eden, both of which are realms that protect innocence from the corrupting influence of experience. By contrast, the fall from the cliff represents the “fall” into adulthood—that is, into lust, greed, ambition, and “phoniness.” The language here echoes the Biblical fall of Adam and Eve, who were exiled from the garden after their awakening to sin and the shame of sexuality—a shame that Holden also feels.
Holden’s fantasy of becoming the “catcher in the rye” and protecting innocent children from their fall from grace is based on a crucial misunderstanding, just as he misunderstands what it means to be a child and an adult. As Phoebe informs him, the poem actually asks “if a body meet a body coming through the rye.” In other words, there is no catcher in the rye. What’s more, “meet” refers to a casual sexual encounter. The next line asks, ‘Gin a body kiss a body – Need a body cry.’ The poem as a whole poses the question of whether two people (“bodies”) should have sex in secret without making a romantic commitment to each other – the same question that Holden asks of Carl Luce. The lyric that sparks Holden’s fantasy turns out to mean just the opposite of his interpretation. An important implication of Phoebe’s correction is that, in direct contrast to Holden’s fantasy, there may not be any place of true innocence. Indeed, innocence may simply be a figment of his imagination.
Just as Holden’s misreading of the Burns poem creates a false separation of innocence and experience, so does his problematic tendency to idealize youth in others. In fact, the actual young characters in the novel are neither innocent nor pure. Allie died at age eleven, so will always remain a child in Holden’s memory. Yet, the fact that Allie died from cancer means he was forced to confront his own mortality at a very young age. Phoebe has a scrape on her arm from where a classmate pushed her down the stairs after she poured ink on his jacket – an indication of the cruelty of children. Similarly, Holden’s family’s maid is deaf in one ear from a childhood injury inflicted by her brother. Holden willfully blinds himself to the reality that childhood is rarely entirely idyllic. However, despite his stated contempt for adults, he tries to pass as older than he is on several occasions, and spends his time in New York pursuing adult activities like going to bars, the theater, taking taxis, and hiring a prostitute. As with his misinterpretation of the Burns poem, Holden confuses the external trappings of adulthood with internal indications of maturity such as empathy, conscience, and morality.