What does Eustacia Vye symbolize in Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye?

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In chapter 15 of Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield is having breakfast in a diner and sitting next to a couple of Catholic nuns. One of the nuns teaches history and the other teaches English. Holden does very well in English so he has a conversation about Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," among other things. But right before they discuss Shakespeare, Holden thinks to himself the following:

"Then I started wondering like a bastard what the one sitting next to me, that taught English, thought about, being a nun and all, when she read certain books for English. Books not necessarily with a lot of sexy stuff in them, but books with lovers and all in them. Take old Estacia Vye, in The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy. She wasn't too sexy or anything, but even so you can't help wondering what a nun maybe thinks about when she reads about old Estacia" (110).

The above passage shows Holden wondering about how a nun, who has chosen a celibate life, might think or feel when reading about women who have lovers. Estacia Vye is a woman in a Hardy novel who is nontraditional for her Victorian time period. Vye is a hedonist (pleasure-seeker) and a spoiled brat--basically the complete opposite of a nun. Vye symbolizes everything the nun would not be; hence, the reason Holden wonders how someone so innocent would react to a heroine so sinful.  Since Holden is at a point in his life where he is discovering everything about adulthood, he compares Estacia Vye to the nun in an effort to make sense of women. He doesn't have much experience with women at this point in his life, but he most certainly doesn't have experience with nuns. So like good readers do, Holden makes a connection between a woman character he has read about and connects her with the nun before him. Then he compares and contrasts the two women making mental notes about what a nice nun would think about a sinful woman like Esatcia Vye. It's definitely a brief learning experience as Holden runs around New York City for a few days.

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The Catcher in the Rye

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