The Catcher in the Rye Questions and Answers
by J. D. Salinger

The Catcher in the Rye book cover
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What is the importance of this passage from The Catcher in the RyeAnyway, 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 do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be (page 173)

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Holden's fixation is on holding off adulthood/maturity and death. His younger brother Allie has died and Holden's response is deep and thoroughly impacting emotionally and psychologically. 

We see this fixation symbolized by the passage in question as Holden imagines himself saving children from death and, by extension, also saving them from the inevitable effects of time. We also see Holden's fixation on maintaining youth in his relationship with his sister and in his continuing relationship with his dead younger brother. 

Holden clings to the places and memories from his own youth and things that symbolize youth. 

The park evokes his own fond memories of childhood, before his brother Allie's death, and seeing Phoebe circling around in this natural setting seems to bring him a sense of permanency and wholeness. 

Allie is a regular fixture in Holden's thoughts and a source of both comfort and crisis for Holden. We can see from Holden's vision that he feels a lack of power but yearns to achieve power over time and over death as these things relate to childhood and youth. 

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cosmicarcata | Student

"picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all."

Page 8:

Life is a game, boy.  Life is a game that one plays according to the rules.

Game, my ass.  Some game.  If you get on the side where all the hot-shots are, then it's a game, all right- I'll admit that.  But if  you get on the other side, where there aren't any hot-shots, then what's a game about it?  Nothing.  No game.

Page 2:

Anyway, it was the Saturday of the football game with Saxon Hall.  The game with Saxon Hall was supposed to be a very big deal around Pencey.  it was the last game of the year, and you were supposed to commit suicide or something if old Pencey didn't win...I remember standing right next to this "crazy cannon that was in the Revolutionary War and all.    You could see the whole field from there, and you could see the two teams bashing geach other all over the place.  You couldn't see the grandstand too hot, but you could hear them all yelling, deep and terrific on the Pencey side, because practically the whole school except me was there and scrawny and faggy on the Saxon Hall side, because the visiting team hardly ever brought many people with them.

To me these passages are all related.

The game is war, and we play and train for war in sports at school.  We train to be invisible spectators as well.  School trains people to accept the history of patrotism so much that they don't question authority.    He wants to try to stop the innocent from just accepting what authority tells them is the truth and to question the rules of the game...and most of all to question playing a game that is rigged, for the winners and losers.  It is like a set up and if you get caught in the game you will be committing spiritual suicide for the sake of the game...and in some cases physical suicide.   The winners in the game are the ones that hold the power.  I think this is referenced in the merry go round when he talks about the "gold ring" which I think is a symbol of J.R.R. Tolkien's ring in The Lord of the Rings. (Also if you reread that passage on page211 be sure and play the song that is playing and imagine that it is a roulet wheel rather than a merry go round and see if that scene makes more sence to you like it did me.  See the second link for the song.

My reference below is to show that war is a theme of the book.