How does the scene at the carousel at the end of the novel bring The Catcher in the Rye to an end?
Discuss Pheobe's reaching for the brass ring, what Holden says about it, what his tears mean (they may mean many things) and why he doesn't get on the ride with her.
Holden does not get on the carousel because he realizes he is too old. He is like a lot of us who take a child to a carousel and have that same realization. We wouldn't enjoy it anymore. We can't recapture the thrill of going around and around with the music playing. We know we would feel foolish and experience painful memories. It is for younger children to enjoy. This is a sign that Holden right there is giving up his childhood and "coming of age." He had fantasized about being a catcher in the rye, saving little children from falling; but as he watches his little sister risking falling off her wooden steed by reaching for the gold ring, he thinks:
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.
Holden has stopped wanting to be a catcher in the rye. He is giving up the fantasies of youth and accepting the cold reality of adulthood. The carousel is a good symbol of what he is realizing and feeling, because it goes on and on but there are always different people riding on it, getting thrilled by the whirling motion, and reaching for that gold ring which is really only made of brass. It's bad if you say anything to them. They'll find out for themselves soon enough.
In the carousel scene, Holden returns home, which was his original objective in leaving Pencey in Chapter 1. Like Phoebe reaching for the brass ring, he has tried to make the transition into adulthood and failed - "fallen off" the carousel, so to speak, and has returned to the security of childhood to regroup, hopefully to try again another day. In describing his fear in watching Phoebe, he says, "the thing with kids is, if they want to grab for the gold ring, you have to let them do it...if they fall off, they fall off, but it's bad if you say anything to them" (Chapter 25). Holden is aware that growing up involves necessary risk.
The fact that Holden sits by the carousel but does not ride is significant because it shows that he can go back and enjoy the peace and security childhood offers for awhile, but that he is in reality no longer a child and can no longer participate in its rites. His tears may be tears of joy and relief at the respite his return offers, or they may be symbolic of renewal.