What does the carousel represent in The Catcher in the Rye?
The carousel represents life, its cyclical quality, and its opportunities for change and growth.
As Phoebe rides around and around on the carousel, the mechanical horses move up and down, just as people have high and low moments in the cycles of their lives. When little Phoebe grabs the gold ring, Holden realizes that children must be allowed to extend themselves and take chances in life or they cannot mature and develop their own individuality. This gold ring symbolizes hope in life and the striving for and attainment of dreams.
Watching Phoebe, Holden recognizes the flaw in his dream of being a "catcher in the rye" who holds and protects innocent children from the "phoniness" and dangers of adulthood. Now he realizes that Phoebe's need to "grab for the gold ring" suggests that children must be allowed to mature and take risks in order to grow into adulthood:
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.
Grabbing the brass ring involves taking the chance that one may miss; however, one must extend oneself if one is to mature.
After Phoebe gets off the carousel, she reaches into Holden's coat pocket and pulls out his red hunting hat and places it on his head. He asks her, "Don't you want it?" but Phoebe replies, "You can wear it a while." Phoebe suggests to her brother that he, too, must maintain and develop his own individuality.
Holden Caulfield struggles to come to terms with the knowledge that the loss of innocence is an inexorable aspect of our lives. He would like to make it his mission to protect the innocence of children and in some way postpone his own fall into the adult world. He is drawn to the carousel because it represents a place of blissful, childish pleasure with music, lights, movement, and safety in the familiar.
The nature of carousels is circular. Symbolically, that means that one can only go on repeating the same path until one steps—or falls—off the carousel. Forward momentum is necessary to lead a successful life, and in the novel's moving final carousel scene, Holden experiences an epiphany. He declines Phoebe's invitation to ride with her and understands his place in the world and his own maturation. The scene ends with an uplifting tone as Holden recalls, "I felt so damn happy all of sudden, the way old Phoebe kept going around and around." Phoebe still has years to live in the suspension of childhood and is safe on the carousel—for now.