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Themes and Symbols

The Catcher in The Rye

Themes:
 
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
 
Alienation as a Form of Self-Protection
Throughout the novel, Holden seems to be excluded from and victimized by the world around him. As he says to Mr Spencer, he feels trapped on “the other side” of life, and he continually attempts to find his way in a world in which he feels he doesn’t belong.

Symbols:
 
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.

"Madman"

Holden uses the word "madman" commonly as an adjective and in a variety of ways ranging from "[snow] was still coming down like a madman" to "I went right on smoking like a madman." It seems plausible that Salinger wished to convey that there is a bit of madness in the way Holden sees the world. The fact that the word comes up most often when Holden is criticizing himself could be a sign of further self-estrangement from society.

The hunting hat

Holden's attachment to the hunting hat can be seen in his early description of it: "This is a people-shooting hat. I shoot people in this hat." Perhaps the "hunting" Holden does is one not of killing people, but of criticizing them. When he gives the hat to Phoebe, it may be symbolic that Holden has chosen not to separate himself from society any longer.

 
The Museum of Natural History
 
Holden tells us the symbolic meaning of the museum’s displays: they appeal to him because they are frozen and unchanging. He also mentions that he is troubled by the fact that he has changed every time he returns to them. The museum represents the world Holden wishes he could live in: it’s the world of his “catcher in the rye” fantasy, a world where nothing ever changes, where everything is simple, understandable, and infinite. Holden is terrified by the unpredictable challenges of the world—he hates conflict, he is confused by Allie’s senseless death, and he fears interaction with other people.
 
The Ducks in the Central Park Lagoon
 
Holden’s curiosity about where the ducks go during the winter reveals a genuine, more youthful side to his character. For most of the book, he sounds like a grumpy old man who is angry at the world, but his search for the ducks represents the curiosity of youth and a joyful willingness to encounter the mysteries of the world. It is a memorable moment, because Holden clearly lacks such willingness in other aspects of his life.
The ducks and their pond are symbolic in several ways. Their mysterious perseverance in the face of an inhospitable environment resonates with Holden’s understanding of his own situation. In addition, the ducks prove that some vanishings are only temporary. Traumatized and made acutely aware of the fragility of life by his brother Allie’s death, Holden is terrified by the idea of change and disappearance. The ducks vanish every winter, but they return every spring, thus symbolizing change that isn’t permanent, but cyclical. Finally, the pond itself becomes a minor metaphor for the world as Holden sees it, because it is “partly frozen and partly not frozen.” The pond is in transition between two states, just as Holden is in transition between childhood and adulthood.