What does the carousel represent in The Catcher in the Rye?

The carousel Phoebe rides at the end of The Catcher in the Rye represents the cycle of life and the risks that are a necessary part of it. By letting Phoebe take the risk of riding the carousel, Holden shows he is beginning to mature.

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That Holden allows his beloved sister Phoebe is a good sign, a sign that this troubled young man is finally, at long last, starting to mature. Holden feels protective towards Phoebe, not least because he's already lost a sibling and understandably doesn't want to lose another one.

But he's still...

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That Holden allows his beloved sister Phoebe is a good sign, a sign that this troubled young man is finally, at long last, starting to mature. Holden feels protective towards Phoebe, not least because he's already lost a sibling and understandably doesn't want to lose another one.

But he's still prepared to let Phoebe ride the carousel all the same, as he's come to realize that, at some point, you have to let kids do their own thing. In that sense, the carousel can be seen as a symbol for the cycle of life, with all its many ups and downs, and which Phoebe, like all children, must be allowed to experience for herself without constant supervision.

This is a truly remarkable development for someone who'd always fantasized about being the catcher in the rye, the hero who saves little kids from falling over a cliff. Only the night before, Holden had been thinking about this fantasy. Yet now, he's prepared to let Phoebe enjoy herself on the carousel without hovering over her like an over-protective parent.

Holden has realized, at long last, that the carousel of life must be allowed to turn and turn, and that those who ride it must be allowed to take risks if they're to grow and develop.

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The adolescent Holden suffers intensely from survivor's guilt after the leukemia death of his brother Allie. This fuels in Holden an intense desire to atone for this death, even though it was not his fault, by protecting other innocents. These include people like his friend Jane Gallagher and the nuns he meets while breakfasting in a diner. However, his focus is on children, especially his little sister Phoebe, but all children in general.

As Holden tells Phoebe, he wishes he could be the catcher in the rye, the mythical figure who stands at the edge of cliff and saves the children playing nearby who might be in danger of falling off.

Towards the end of the novel, Holden ends up in two of his childhood haunts, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Natural History Museum. At the Met, he helps a group of rough boys find the Egyptian mummy exhibit. At the Natural History Museum, looking at the dioramas, the innocent period of his childhood field trips comes flooding back to him. He wishes he could be be back there, with no more troubles than who his partner would be on the trip.

However, encountering the past also helps Holden deal with it. By the time he lets Phoebe ride the carousel and grab the gold ring without hovering over her fearfully, he realizes, as he puts it, that 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.

This shows a maturation in Holden from the night before, when he wanted to protect children from falling. Now he realizes that life is risk and that children like Phoebe can't grow if they are not allowed to take some risks. The cycle of life, symbolized in the circular motion of the carousel, involves both the pleasure of the ride and the risk of falling.

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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.

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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.

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