What type of literary devices are used in The Catcher in the Rye and what makes them effective?

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shake99 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

One of the most basic literary devices is plot. We all tend to take plot for granted because it is one of the first devices we learn.  Writers pay very close attention to how they organize their stories—they do not simply pour the words out on paper and hope for the best.

J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye’s plot is built around a special plot device called the flashback. In fact, almost all of the novel consists of one long flashback. We do not find out until the end of the novel that Holden has had a breakdown and is currently in some sort of hospital:

That’s all I’m going to tell about. I could probably tell you what I did after I went home, and how I got sick and all, and what school I’m supposed to go to next fall, after I get out of here, but I don’t feel like it.

Holden doesn’t tell us exactly where “here” is, but in the next paragraph he lets us know that it is some sort of clinic for people having psychological problems:

A lot of people, especially this one psychoanalyst guy they have here, keeps asking me if I’m going to apply myself when I go back to school next September.

So the reader does not find out until the end of the story that Holden has had some sort of breakdown. That requires the reader to re-think everything they’ve just read to take into account Holden’s questionable mental stability.

Salinger also uses extensive repetition in the novel. As we listen to Holden narrate, both in his speech and his thoughts, we hear several key words used over and over again. Possibly the most important such word is “phony.” Holden’s narration tells us that he is very bothered by people who put on a fake appearance, not just physically, but in their attitudes and actions. Considering that we find out later that he is in the process of breaking down psychologically, we can infer, because of the use of repetition, that the idea of “phoniness” is a significant part of the problem he is trying to deal with.

gmuss25 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Salinger utilizes numerous literary devices to characterize Holden and gives him a believable voice throughout the novel. Holden continually uses hyperbole when he speaks, which is typical of most adolescents. Holden's use of superlatives and over-the-top assessments characterize him as a naive, jaded teenager, who is trying to understand the adult world. In the first chapter, Holden immediately says, "My parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them" (Salinger, 1). Holden continues to use hyperbole when he says that his brother recently bought a Jaguar that "can do around two hundred miles an hour." Holden again uses hyperbole to describe the atmosphere of campus regarding the significant football game against Saxon Hall. Holden says, "It was the last game of the year, and you were supposed to commit suicide or something if old Pencey didn't win" (Salinger, 2). Holden's excessive use of hyperbole adds to his voice and characterizes him as a disgruntled, immature teenager. Holden's overstatements also emphasize his negative feelings toward popular people and events.

Salinger also utilizes verbal irony throughout the novel, which gives Holden his sarcastic tone. Holden continually uses the phrase, "Very big deal," when explaining something or someone that society values as significant. During a conversation with Mrs. Morrow on the train, Holden tells her, "I have to have this operation. . . It isn't very serious. I have this tiny little tumor on the brain" (Salinger, 43). Holden's sarcastic tone enhances his voice and characterizes him as a bitter adolescent.

ms-mcgregor eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The first literary device Salinger uses in "Catcher in the Rye" is allusion. Allusion is a reference to a previous literary work or historical event. In this case, the title of the book is an allusion to a Robert Burns poem and the line, "If a body meet a body comin' through the rye. " Holden changes the words to "If a body catch a body comin' though the rye. Eventually the meaning of this line is revealed as Holden's dream of being a 'catcher in the rye" who can save children from the disillusionment of growing up. This reveals one of the major themes of the novel. The technique the author uses for narrating the book is called "stream of consciousness." What we read is not a straightforward chronology of events but a retelling of the events in the order Holden's meandering mind remembers them. This allows the author to reveal how childish Holden is at times and his unwillingness to grow up even though Holden is unaware of this himself. The book is also full of symbolism.One of the main symbols is Holden's red hunting hat which symbolizes Holden's isolation from other people and his search for something, besides Phoebe, which is meaningful in his life. Ducks are a symbol for the homeless condition of Holden. They are evicted by the cold and Holden is "evicted" by the coldness of his family. All of the symbols point to the theme of an insecure young man desperately fighting maturity and the disillusionment that often comes with it.

katemschultz eNotes educator| Certified Educator

A couple of other great symbols point to the theme of the difficulty of growing up, or Holden's conflicting desire to want to grow up but not to want to grow up.

Holden enjoys the Museum of Natural History. He makes his way through the park to see if Phoebe is there However, when he gets there, he doesn't go in because he's afraid something might have changed. He's not as accepting of the idea of change as he might like to think he is. It also makes his reflect on his changing nature--he muses that the museum wouldn't change, you'd change. The museum wouldn't be different, but he would be different. He also doesn't like the idea that Phoebe would be different each time she went there, in effect reflecting on her growing up. He doesn't want anyone he loves to grow up and become phony, as he feels all adults are.

The carousel at the end of the novel is a symbol of stability as well. It goes around and around, never changing, never deviating and playing the same songs. However, it's important that Phoebe, who is still a child, goes on the ride, but Holden, who's trying to grow up and accept these changes, doesn't. He watches Phoebe try to grab the golden ring in the middle, and accepts that, just like he was able to, kids need to grow up and make their own mistakes and learn from them.

atyourservice | Student

There are several symbolism in the book the catcher in the rye, such as the red hunting hat, the museum of natural history, the ducks in central park, mummies, the little Shirley beans record, James castle, Phoebe’s notebook, and the carousel. These symbols are effective because they all have a deeper meaning behind them and reveal who Holden really is. They provide us an indirect characterization.

Wiggin42 | Student

There are various symbols and motifs in The Catcher in the Rye. For example: ducks, red hunting hat, blood, and death. The symbols are so effective and important because: 

Rather, the subtle structure and crucial episodes and symbols demand that the novel be evaluated as a work of literary art. Within the complex history of modern literature, Holden Caulfield is one of many rebels. This literature of protest against society often purposefully satirizes conventional values. If it offends readers, forces them to look at reality from what the critic Kenneth Burke has called a "perspective by incongruity," it does so to disturb and shock the audience to look again at the world. The Catcher in the Rye dramatizes how easily modern man, in Holden's eyes at least, accepts a vulgar environment characterized by graffiti, urban decay, fake behavior, and a culture that glorifies the trivial while remaining insensitive to human needs.

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The Catcher in the Rye

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