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The Catcher in the Rye

by J. D. Salinger

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In The Catcher in the Rye, what does Holden erasing the profanity symbolize?

Quick answer:

Holden erasing profanity symbolically represents his desire to preserve innocence and protect children from the competitive real world, which is associated with his affinity for his childhood and fear of becoming an adult.

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In chapter 25, Holden begins to lose his grip on reality and visits Phoebe's school to give her a note about meeting him at the Museum of Art. While Holden is walking toward the principal's office to drop off the note, he stops to catch his breath on the stairs and reads profanity written on the wall. Holden mentions that seeing the profanity drives him crazy and he tries to rub it off. While he is erasing the profanity, Holden says,
I thought how Phoebe and all the other little kids would see it, and how they'd wonder what the hell it meant, and then finally some dirty 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. I kept wanting to kill whoever'd written it.
After dropping off the note, Holden heads to the museum, where he helps two boys find the mummy exhibit. Suddenly, Holden notices profanity written on the wall and mentions,
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.
Holden's motivation to erase the profanity on the walls symbolically represents his desire to preserve childhood innocence and prevent impressionable children from being exposed to the real world. Holden's greatest fear is growing up and entering the competitive world of adults, where he believes everyone is phony and only concerned with making money. Earlier in the story, Holden expressed his desire to be a catcher in the rye, which metaphorically represents his desire to prevent adolescents from becoming phony adults. Holden's traumatic past and inability to emotionally cope with his difficult emotions deters him from moving on in life. As a depressed, neurotic teenager, Holden wants to prevent children from sharing his same experience, which is why he erases the profanity off the walls in an attempt to protect them from the corrupt world of adults.

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