With direct connection to the title of the novel, the theme of the protection of innocence in J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is explored through the eyes of central character Holden Caulfield. At various points of the story Holden experiences the struggles of growing up, the harsh realities of the adult world and an overwhelming feeling of depression as a result. This desolate state of being, a youth on the brink of adulthood, is remedied by his interactions with one character, his young sister Phoebe. It is her innocence, her love and her acceptance of him that fully encapsulates this theme, allows for Holden to reveal his inner most desires and ultimately attempt to move forward in spite of knowing what adulthood has lying ahead for him.

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Holden’s struggles with depression are a result of many contributing factors. He suffered the tremendous loss of his brother Allie and loathes fake people because “people are always ruining things for you” (Salinger 51), thus developing a distrust of others. Holden is a child who has suffered loss at an early age, but instead of emotional support from his family he is living at boarding school, feeling detached from any sense of belonging. Without the coping mechanisms of dealing with loss that an adult brain can better handle, coupled with the physical distance from family, Holden is left feeling disillusioned with his world, one teetering on the edge of adulthood, and decides physically removing himself from it and entering the adult world on his own may be the best solution. In trying to make the adult decision to take control of his life, control his depression, leave school and dip his toes into the adult world he is ironically acting on teenage impulse without consideration of the ramifications of his actions.

Never truly dealing with his teenage angst yet feeling mature enough to make adult decisions, Holden frequents drinking establishments and invites a prostitute to his room. It is here that he experiences the harsh reality of adulthood. Wanting the adult companionship he never truly experienced, a neglect that has sullied his view and approach to adulthood and the adults that inhabit it, he insists on only talking to her, especially after realising she was so young. He is then beaten by her pimp, this pivotal moment in Holden’s life cementing the idea that the adult world is a sordid and miserable one.

After interactions with his friends where his view of the adult world and his inability to navigate it impedes on their time together, Holden retreats to the one safe haven where he feels comfortable, and visits his young sister Phoebe. Phoebe symbolizes everything opposite to the world Holden hold such disdain for; her childlike innocence so precious in nature, untainted by the ugliness of fake people, dangerous strangers and darkness. It is here that this character, often depicted with such despair, reveals his most intimate revelation. Like the title, Holden wishes to be The Catcher in the Rye; “what Holden wants to do is to be the guardian of innocence and protector of innocents” (Cui and Zhang 270). His despair at his own experiences and his outlook on life muster in him a childlike purity; a noble thought in preserving the innocence of children from falling off the edge of the rye field cliff, off the cliff of childhood and into the harsh existence of adulthood. He wants to protect Phoebe; he wants no child to experience the depression he feels. He says “I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be” (Salinger 101). In Holden’s pursuit to protect others, Holden is also attempting to mend his own life, imagining himself as the protector he never had. It is a beautifully tragic fantasy in the reality that this will never happen, yet the thought of it gives Holden the will to go on, for his sake, for Phoebe’s.

A childhood tainted in tragedy can have harmful effects later in life if not dealt with in an appropriate and timely manner. Holden displays attempts to self-remedy his depression through the fantasy of being the protector he needed but never had. Once realising that he may never overcome his depression, Holden’s desire to protect innocents from suffering his fate is both touching in its intent yet dreary in its unavoidability.

  • Salinger, J D. The Catcher in the Rye. Little, Brown and Company, 1951.
  • Wang, Cui, and Xiaofen Zhang. “Returning to Youth and Nature —The Catcher in the Rye in Ecocriticism.” Journal of Language Teaching and Research, vol. 1, no. 3, May 2010, p. 270. CiteSeerX, Scientific Literature Digital Library