Just after writing Catcher, J.D. Salinger told Time magazine: “Some of my best friends are children...In fact, all of my best friends are children.” Both author and narrator are, dare I say, obsessed if not with children (creepy?), then certainly with childhood.
Salinger, through Holden's narration, introduces one of the great youthful voices in American literature, rivaled only by Twain's Huck. It's a youthful, teenage voice with an adult voice behind it: conversational style, simple language, colloquial (slang), lots of repetition, cussing, many digressions.
The entire novel is a confession by a young adult male who wants to return to his childhood. Some say he's talking to Allie, his brother who died in childhood. Holden has been in denial of Allie's death and seem stuck there ever since.
The first sentence says,
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me.
So, the novel is anti-Freudian (don’t psycho-analyze Holden’s lousy childhood).
Holden has a laundry list of childhood obsessions:
1. Jane keeping her kings in the back row (checkers)
2. “Catcher in the Rye”: rescue kids from falling
3. “F#@K”: tries to erase it
4. Elmer Fudd-like hunting hat; red like Allie’s bright red hair
5. Allie’s glove with the poems written all over
6. “Little Shirley Beans” – record he buys Phoebe
7. Carrousel – Holden watches it go round and round (never progresses)
8. Ducks in the lagoon: wants someone to rescue them
9. Kisses Jane all over face, but NOT on the lips
10. Homophobia: calls them “flits”
11. Gender stereotyping of girls, older women obsession
Holden hates phonies: glad-handing adults, oversexed teens, materialists. Notice: all kids are non-phonies. The two biggest non-phonies are Allie and Pheobe. Allie will always be a child, always a non-phony. Holden, then, tries to protect Phoebe from being a phony. He wants to be her "Catcher in the Rye." That's why he wants to keep her in museums on the carousel.
Key quotes, at the end, come from Mr. Antolini, who Salinger sets up as a red-herring savior (no Deus ex Machina). He says, Holden is “in for a terrible fall.” His advice seems to be Salinger's:
The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one.
The ending is anticlimactic: does Holden ever grow up? He says,
Don't ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody"
It's a downer of an ending, and Holden certainly shows regret. The reader then can make the case that such an admission is either the regret of an immature man who wants to die nobly or the regret of a mature man who is casting off his Romantic illusions of childhood and will live humbly.
I tend to think it's the latter, that the confession itself (the book) is Holden's noble cause. Art, then, is the "Catcher in the Rye."
The children represent all the things in life that Holden feels responsiable for. Holden tries to save all the kids in his dream, he stood in a field of rye with his arms out trying to prevent the children from falling off a cliff. He later realizes, while watching his sister on the carousel, that not all things in life can be controlled and Holden accepts his past and life itself.