Catcher In the Rye: The Quest For Love
In many novels in J.D. Salinger's library of books, there is a recurring
theme of the loss of innocence of children, the falling and the confusions of
childhood, and many other ideas that apply to the ideas of adolescence and the
life of the average teenager growing up. Many of his themes occur in a short
period of time in a child's life that affects him/her in a very profound and
significant way. The idea of love is also a major theme that arises in many of
his characters and that indicates the character of the individual. He uses love
in the context of being a device that is used to protect and to care for people
who need protecting and caring. In the novel, Catcher in the Rye, by J. D.
Salinger, love is used by a character, Holden Caulfield, who struggles
desperately to find a certain somebody or anyone to allocate his love to, but
realizes finally, that this love is not necessarily expressed through saving "
the children in the rye" from the time of trial, but actually caring for them
and being their friends, during the time of trial.
The quest of finding the true love of people is an ongoing dilemma in
the lives of many people all throughout the world. The constant need for love is
overwhelming, and the tragedy of this great world is the fact that some people
do not find the proper love that they deserve. Holden Caulfield is a perfect
example of the striving to acquire a love sought all throughout his life.
According to this quote, "He is simply expressing an innocence incapable of
genuine hatred. Holden does not suffer from the inability to love, but does
despair of finding a place to bestow his love" (Heiserman and Miller 30), Holden
Caulfield has the need for allocating his cornucopia of love for people. His
quest is very simple. He wants to do good. As compared to tragic heroes in the
"Holden seeks Virtue second to Love. He wants to be good. When
the little children are playing in the rye-field on the cliff
top, Holden wants to be the one who catches them before they
fall off the cliff. He is not driven toward honor or courage.
He is not driven toward the love of woman. Holden is driven
toward love of his fellowman...." (Heiserman and Miller 25).
In other words, he is not a tragic hero, but rather a misfortuned hero that
struggles to find a person to give his love to. There is nothing tragic about
Holden also seeks circularity in his life. According to this quote,
I felt so damn happy all of a sudden, the way old Phoebe kept going
around and around. I was damn near bawling, I felt so damn happy,
if you want to know the truth. I don't know why. It was just that
she looked so damn nice, the way she kept going around and around,
in her blue coat and all. God, I wish you could've been there"
Holden revels in the virtues of softness of the edges, a roundness that can't
hurt anyone. He finds a comfort in the circular motions of the carousel.
"All the kids kept trying to grab for the gold ring, and so was
old Phoebe, and I was sort of afraid she might fall off the
goddam horse, but I didn't say anything or do anything. The
thing with kids is, if they want to grab for the gold ring,
you have to let them do it, and not say anything. If they
fall off, they fall off, but it's bad if you say anything to
them" (Salinger 211).
This illustrates the pure innocence of children, and the gold rings portray a sort of
round goal that children seek and reach for. This quote is later on in the story
and the true symbolism is realized toward the end of the novel.
Holden also seeks the truth from people in general, reaching for the one
theme left in the world, innocence. One kind of bitter truth he does not seek is
phoniness. In this, he means the people losing innocence or people who already
lost innocence, or has "fallen from the cliff". He is led to believe from his
early years that adulthood is a form of fake maturity. That is why he seeks to
find adolescents, to catch them from falling into the kind of fake maturity that
they are destined for. He seeks children, free of impurities. At Phoebe's school,
"....I saw something that drove me crazy. Somebody'd written
'Fuck You' on the wall. It drove me damn near crazy. I thought
how Phoebe and all the other kids would see it, and how they'd
wonder what the hell it meant, and then finally some dirt kid
would tell them-all cockeyed, naturally-what it meant, and how
they'd all think about it and maybe even worry about it for a
couple of days" (Salinger 201).
He realizes then, that innocence is a very hard part of one's soul to save. This
eventually leads him to his final realizations.
Holden has a few aspects and thoughts that help him to appease him slightly
of the thirst for love. "In childhood he had what he is now seeking- non-
phoniness, truth, innocence. He can find it now only in Phoebe and in his dead
brother Allie's baseball mitt, in a red hunting cap and the tender little nuns"
(Heiserman and Miller 26). Phoebe is a hope that Holden holds in his heart. Her
childish innocence gives him a true and pure outlook that lets him feel secure
in her presence. Also, the memories of his long dead brother, Allie, remain in
his mind, giving him comfort in the thoughts of the totally innocent nature of
his little brother who was so wrongly murdered by the unfair deadliness of
cancer. The only material remaining to remind Holden of him, apparently, is a
baseball mitt. He cherishes this glove and even makes a whole composition on it.
It is the only true memory of his brother. A red hunting cap is very symbolic in
Holden's life in the novel. According to this quote, "I got pretty soaking wet,
especially my neck and my pants. My hunting hat really gave me quite a lot of
protection, in a way, but I got soaked anyway. I didn't care, though" (Salinger
213), it is his only protection from the weather. It is symbolic of a constant
in his constantly changing life. It is something definite that cannot be
stripped of him. The tender nuns who Holden encounters are symbolic of true naï
veté and helplessness. They always appear to be outside, collecting money. They
are the quintessence of love, being sent forth by God to love, and chosen to
guide the stray and to help the hopeless. These various aspects of Holden's life
give him a comfort immeasurable to him. They somehow give him a reason to live,
Holden's quest of finding a pure and innocent adolescence to give his love
drives him to dreaming of being a "catcher in the rye". This dream is of saving
children who are falling off a cliff of a rye field. This symbolizes the need
for Holden to care for children and to save them from the loss of innocence. In
his narratives, Holden reveals many individuals who need catching, and many that
have already fallen. He went to the house of an old teacher, Mr. Spencer,
"....But I just couldn't hang around there any longer, the way we
were on opposite sides of the pole, and the way he kept missing
the bed whenever he chucked something at it, and his sad old
bathrobe with his chest showing, and that grippy smell of Vicks
Nose Drops all over the place" (Salinger 15),
and he was sickened by his appearance. The depressing ambiance of the room,
along with the sheer rotting-outlook of the room just plain disgusts Holden.
This is the first realization of the fact that adulthood made Mr. Spencer the
way he is today. Holden wonders how it would be different for these various
people if someone had loved them through their innocence. These thoughts
eventually lead him to the yearning to be a catcher in the rye.
Another child that has fallen, and still is falling is a neighbor of
Holden's, Old Robert Ackley. He has horrible hygiene and an annoying curiosity,
"He started walking around the room, very slow and all, the way he
always did, picking up your personal stuff off your desk and
chiffonier. He always picked up our personal stuff and looked at
it. Boy, could that get on your nerves sometimes" (Salinger 20).
This is the first symbolism of an elder having supremacy over him. It is just
another depressing sight of adulthood. Holden believes that if there had
been someone to catch such stray children from the rye, their lives would be
Another character in Holden's life that has fallen from the cliff, Ward
Stradlater, is his own roommate. Stradlater is an older individual than Holden
and is more mature in certain aspects. Holden constantly describes him as "sexy".
"I kept thinking of Jane, and about Stradlater having a date with her and all.
It made me so nervous I nearly went crazy. I already told you what a sexy
bastard Stradlater was" (Salinger 34). This illustrates the sexual maturity of
Stradlater. Later, Holden tries to experience his own heightening of sexual
maturity with a prostitute, but he realizes that he is not ready for it. He is
not ready to fall off of that specific cliff just yet. Stradlater is also a very
conceited individual. In a conversation, Holden addresses a thought of Jane, "
'....If she'd known (about Stradlater's "sexiness"), she probably would've
signed out for nine thirty in the morning.' 'Goddam right,' Stradlater said. You
couldn't rile him too easily. He was too conceited." (Salinger 34). This is
still another example of an adult's egotism and a possible success if he was
caught at an earlier age.
There is, finally, another example that personifies the sheer existence of
a troubled soul, who has fallen way past a cliff, but into the deep, engulfing
abyss!! This character is Old Maurice, a pimp, ready to con anyone, manipulate
anyone, and do any impure act possible to anyone. Holden, with his ignorant
foolishness, accepts a con for him to sleep with one of Old Maurice's
prostitutes. Later, Holden realizes that he is being conned out of an extra five
dollars. When he argues about the money, Old Maurice, with his own sense of
superiority beats up on poor, innocent, little Holden. Holden retaliates,
"I was so damn mad and nervous and all. 'You're a dirty moron,'
I said. 'You're a stupid chiseling moron, and in about two years
you'll be one of those scraggy guys that come up to you on the
street and ask for a dime for coffee" (Salinger 103).
This is when Old Maurice's ego starts to bleed and he beats up on Holden much
more. Old Maurice is the quintessence of a bully, having fallen off a cliff
at an early age, probably having been beaten at home, having lost his
innocence too early, and many other phony adult symptoms. Holden realizes
that Old Maurice is not too different from Stradlater, who also beat him
senseless in another meeting. These are examples of a lack of love through
their adolescent years.
Finally, there is one aspect in Holden's life that pushes him over the
cliff of realization, giving him a new light of seeing the many contours of his
life. This theme was suggested in an earlier passage in Phoebe's school,
Holden's old school, where there is a certain profanity that is unacceptible to
younger children. Holden tries desperately to rub off the word, and eventually
succeeds in doing so. However, this leads him to an insignificant realization
of the futility of trying to rub off all the curses in the world, or "catching
children in the rye". Later, at a museum, he experiences a double dose of
disgusting nausea. "That's the whole trouble. You can't ever find a place
that's nice and peaceful, because there isn't any. You may think there is but
once you get there, when you're not looking, somebody'll sneak up and write
'Fuck You' right under your nose" (Salinger 203). He catches a glimpse of this
phrase carved into a monument inside the museum. The museum that he depends on
to be sacred and always pure, turns out to have such a horrid word!! Also, the
word is carved into the stone, so it is actually impossible for Holden to
actually rub it out. This scene, with Holden nearly fainting and nauseated, is
the turning point of Holden's life, bringing an end to the dream of being the "
catcher in the rye". It gives him a sharp and bitter realization that everyone
in the world can not be caught, and it is futile to try to catch a child from
the cliff of adult maturity.
Holden Caulfield is a very concerned and caring individual, thrust into a
world of "phoniness" and "adult immaturity". This world gives him a pressure so
great that he does not know how to react to the various aspects of his life. He
feels an overwhelming urge to love people, seek others' love, and to care for
people that do not have the love that he has. This leads to his dream of being
a "catcher in the rye". However, as his life progresses, many occurences drive
him to a state of confusion and mental turmoil. He does not know how to handle
the radical changes in his life. The harsh realizations in theses few days of
his life give him a new perspective in his once secure world. He realizes that
caring, not catching, is needed in the preservation of innocence. Catching some
children in the rye merely saves a select number of individuals, for a little
period of time. It is Holden's realization that children are destined to fall
from innocence and it is futile for him to try to change it otherwise.