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The Catcher in the Rye Major Themes


If anything drives Holden’s cynicism it is what he sees as the loss of innocence. He idealizes this state over all others. His dream is to be “the catcher in the rye” in which children play in a state of protected innocence and he has the role of catching them should they wander too close to the cliff and fall form innocence. His feelings toward Jane Gallagher consist almost entirely of an idealized time of a completely innocent relationship.

He is at great pains to explain that there was never a sexual relationship between the two of them, and he is deeply disturbed that she may now be subjected to sexual advances from her stepfather and from Holden’s roommate Stradlater. Holden demonstrates a shift in his attitude toward the end as he realizes that Phoebe, and others, must eventually risk the loss of innocence in order to progress in life.


Against Holden’s preoccupation with innocence is an equal concern over death. The memory of Holden’s dead brother Allie hangs over the novel. Holden lives with the fear that he may one day disappear just like his brother. He has haunting visions of Allie in the cemetery surrounded by images of death. Holden equates death with the inexorable movement of time as he longs for things to remain the same. He would like the inevitable changes of life to be stopped, especially when something good happens.

As Holden contemplates displays under glass in a museum, he sees life itself as the specter of death. Life is the terrible change which Holden cannot accept. This is ultimately what causes Holden’s own downfall. He cannot accept the inevitability of maturity and growing up. As he longs to remain and innocent child, he destroys his own innocence, driving himself potentially insane.


Holden’s cynicism stems almost entirely from what he perceives as the fake and phony ways of the world, particularly the world of adults. He despises this artificiality. The latter is what fuels his resistance to adults and growing up. For these reasons he idealizes childhood. The innocence of children is authentic to Holden. It has not been tainted by pretense. When Holden sees the child singing “If a body catch a body coming through the rye” he sees an authentic expression of real feeling rather than an artificial display designed to amuse others.

The short story collection by Holden’s older brother is simple, private, and an expression of true feeling. This is opposed to the pure artificiality of the kinds of writing D.B. now does for Hollywood. Even the record Holden buys for Phoebe seems to express and authenticity that he idealizes. He says the recording sounds “Dixieland and whorehouse, and it doesn’t sound all mushy.” The singer, Estelle Fletcher does not compromise her music by trying to sound “cute.”

As opposed to this, Holden is offended by the fact that his brother writes Hollywood scripts. He hates when Ernie plays piano in a club in Greenwich Village because he sees Ernie as a sellout. Holden cannot stand most Hollywood movies because he sees them as sentimental and manipulative. Even in reading Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Holden recognizes that the novel is critically acclaimed, but he thinks it is artificial in its aim and therefore not authentic. All of Holden’s attitudes toward what he usually perceives as inauthentic are tied to his mistrust and dislike of adulthood.

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