In Chapter 16 of J.D. Salenger’s classic novel The Catcher in the Rye, Holden is visiting the city, New York, hoping to find a copy of a particular recording he believes his younger sister Phoebe will enjoy. Holden, of course, is the quintessential alienated youth. He is, in fact, the poster boy for social alienation. His disdain for his contemporaries and for the average adult is offset by his love of children. Children represent innocence and are untainted by the realities of life. As he walks towards Broadway, site of his destination, a record story he hopes will have the record in question, he observes a family walking in front of him who Holden surmises probably just came from church. It is Sunday, after all, and they simply gave that appearance. What particularly captivates Holden, though, is the young boy, “a little kid about six years old” with a pretty voice who is singing a song the lyrics to which includes the refrain “if a body catch a body coming through the rye.” As Holden describes his own reaction to this reaffirming episode, “[i]t made me feel better. It made me feel not so depressed any more.”
The lyrics Holden repeats are from a Robert Burns poem titled “Comin’ Thro’ the Rye.” To Holden, the scene he observes depicts the innocence of youth. Later, when he is home with his family, Holden is discussing the song with Phoebe, whose intelligence and common sense Holden values highly. As he would expect, this ten-year-old girl is familiar with the Burns poem, informing Holden of its origins. Holden then explains his feelings about the song the little boy had been singing and the effects the lyrics had on him:
“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."
Holden’s love of children is taking the form of divine protector in his imagination, with the little boy’s song providing imagery consistent with his preconceived notions about life. What he doesn’t realize, however, is that Burns’ poem and the song adapted from it carry less-than-innocent sexual connotations. Holden’s misinterpretation of Burns’ poem lends this seminal character an element of innocence himself that his feelings of social alienation suggested might not otherwise exist.