The title of the novel refers to the narrator and central character, Holden Caulfield. We learn this quite late on the book, when he visits his kid sister Phoebe. Holden, a high school dropout, feels lonely, aimless and depressed - all of which is very concerning to Phoebe. She accuses him of not liking anything and asks what he wants to be when he grows up. But he can't think of any conventional adult roles he'd like to assume. Instead, it turns out he would like to be the catcher in the rye - an idea taken from the misapprehension of a line in a song - and this involves looking after kids who are playing in a field of rye:
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. (Chapter 22)
Holden essentially longs to help preserve the happiness, playfulness and innocence of childhood, to prevent children from growing up, to stop them falling over the 'crazy cliff' into the adult world, with all its problems and complexities. He admits that this is 'crazy' (Chapter 22) but that's all he'd really like to do.
It is typical of Holden to name something so unusual, and idealistic, as a career choice. He seems unable to function in conventional society and to relate to anyone but children. Throughout the book we see how he only really relaxes when he is around children: his sister Phoebe, his memories of Allie, his other younger sibling who is now dead, the little girl in the park whom he meets when he goes to look for Phoebe there, and the two boys in the museum with whom he kids around. Perhaps most significant of all is the little boy whom he sees walking along a busy New York road, singing the song to which the title of the book refers:
He was just singing for the hell of it, you could tell. The cars zoomed by, brakes screeched all over the place, his parents paid no attention to him, and he kept on walking right next to the kerb and singing 'If a body catch a body coming through the rye.' It made me feel better. It made me feel not so depressed any more. (chapter 16).
At various points throughout J. D. Saliger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye, “the rye” is mentioned, clearly alluding to a poem by Robert Burns titled “Comin Thro’ the Rye.” The poem describes a young woman named Jenny who walks, with a wet petticoat, through a field of grain; the poem repeatedly raises several questions: if two people meet in such circumstances, should they kiss? What should their emotions be? If they do kiss, should the world know about any such kissing? One of the verses most relevant to Salinger’s novel reads as follows (in a modern English rendering):
Should a body meet a body
Coming through the rye,
Should a body kiss a body,
Need a body cry?
In the novel, Holden Caulfield alludes to the poem several times. At one point, for instance, he hears a young boy singing Burns’s song:
I got up closer so I could hear what he was singing. He was singing that song, "If a body catch a body coming through the rye." He had a pretty little voice, too. He was just singing for the hell of it, you could tell.
The boy’s singing makes Holden feel less depressed than he had been feeling, but notice that Holden hears the word “catch,” which is never used in the original work by Burns. Later, Holden’s own sister points out that the word “catch” is not in the original poem. Holden responds as follows:
"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 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."
This is the crucial passage for any interpretation of Salinger’s title. The relevance of the Burns allusion has been interpreted in a variety of ways, including the following:
- The Burns poem is relevant because the poem deals with casual romance involving a loss of innocence, but Holden wants to protect children from losing their innocence.
- The poem is relevant because casual sex is a theme and temptation in the book.
- Holden’s misquotation of Burns is important because later Holden finally realizes that he cannot rescue, prevent, and forbid in his relations with others but must learn to connect, share, and support.
- Holden’s misquotation of the title implies his desire to behave altruistically, but the novel raises the important question of whether he actually achieves that desire.
- Holden’s fantasy is typical of his general tendency to fantasize.
Most critics interpret the title phrase as Holden interprets that phrase: as an indication of Holden’s desire to protect small children.
It’s worth noting that when an Israeli translator tried to change the title of the book, Salinger took him to court and insisted that the original title be used.