The title refers to the hero of the novel, Holden Caulfield. The meaning of the title does not become apparent until towards the end, when he is talking to his little sister Phoebe and she insists:
"Name something you'd like to be. Like a scientist. Or a lawyer or something."
Finally he tells her:
"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 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. I know it's crazy." (Chapter 22)
Holden's fantasy characterizes him as impractical and idealistic as well as a lonely person standing in an open field with a totally impractical occupation. Later on, while he is watching his little sister riding around on the carousel, he has some further thoughts about being responsible for catching children who are in danger of falling.
All the kids kept trying to grab for the gold ring, and so was old Phoebe, and I was sort of afraid she'd fall off the goddam horse, but I didn't say anything or do anything. 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 its bad if you say anything to them. (Chapter 25)
Holden is not riding on the carousel himself. He might find it easy to grab the gold ring now that he is sixteen years old and over six feet tall, but he has come to realize that the gold ring isn't really gold. In these last few pages of the novel he seems to be arriving at maturity. Throughout the story he has been carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. He takes everything personally. He is a bit like Don Quixote. He would like to solve the whole world's problems. Mr. Antolini told him in Chapter 24, quoting Wilhelm Stekel:
"The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one."
It would seem that the whole point of The Catcher in the Rye is that the world is too big for any one individual to solve all its problems. Holden feels happy and relieved when he realizes that life is a great deal simpler than he had previously imagined. The carousel seems to symbolize life itself. People ride on it and try to catch the gold ring, and then they sit back and let the next generation take their turns riding on the wooden animals and trying to catch the rings that only look like real gold when you are young.