In J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, what does Holden’s reaction to the graffiti indicate ?

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger, Holden finds graffiti in Phoebe's school. He is concerned that the kids will see the nasty words and that some "dirty" kid will explain it to them, and that they will think about it and worry about it. It seems he is concerned for the welfare of the younger children.

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. I figured it was some perverty bum that'd sneaked in the school late at night...

The importance of Holden's reaction is that it reflects his concern for children, as seen in the conversation he had with Phoebe about the "catcher" in the rye…even though he had misremembered the quote from Robert Burns' poem.

"You know that song, 'If a body catch a body comin' through the rye'? I'd like—"

"It's 'If a body meet a body coming through the rye!'" old Phoebe said. "It's a poem. By Robert Burns."

...She was right, though. It is "If a body meet a body coming through the rye." I didn't know it then, though.

"I thought it was 'If a body catch a body.'" I said. "Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody's around—nobody big, I mean—except me. And I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff—I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going. I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That's all I'd do all day. I'd be the catcher in the rye and all...

Holden's concern for children who cannot take care of themselves is attached to the threat he perceives in the ugly world portrayed by the vulgar graffiti. Overall, the idea of children being caught before they can fall is something that applies to Holden, though he is unaware of it. Mr. Antolini alludes to this when he speaks to Holden about "falling" because he commits himself to a useless cause or doesn't find out what really matters to him.

Holden really does care for the young in need of saving. And his love for kids seems obvious by his deep attachment to his sister who he sees as untouched by the ugliness of the world. In a sense, though, he also is a child, struggling with the ugliness of the world.


Read the study guide:
The Catcher in the Rye

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