What role does Phoebe play in The Catcher in the Rye?

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e-martin eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Phoebe is Holden's only real friend in the novel. She is his only confidant and, in Holden's view, the only person that understands him. Importantly, she represents one of the few positive ideas that Holden expresses in the novel.

In her youth, Phoebe still possesses an innocence that Holden prizes. 

Phoebe represents the innocence and honesty of childhood, which is all Holden truly respects...

It is from this innocence and purity that Holden feels he is being forcefully removed. As he gets older and his bitterness grows, he longs for an escape either back into childhood or off into the woods. He craves a return to innocence and Phoebe acts as his sole anchor to this quality in the world. 

Holden's other touchstone for innocence is his dead brother Allie. Where Phoebe represents a real, physical embodiment of innocence and honesty, Allie represents an idealized form of these traits. He becomes part of a fantasy world to which Holden occasionally escapes.

Through much of the novel, Holden despairs of finding a way to be at peace with the world. It is all too rotten for him. Only Phoebe has the potential to help heal him, as it were, by showing him that innocence still exists. 

This is the case at the end of the novel, when Phoebe rides the carousel and Holden looks on, feeling finally connected to the quality that he desperately seeks.

Watching his sister Phoebe riding a carousel, he states: "I was damn near bawling, I felt so damn happy, if you want to know the truth."

mdelmuro eNotes educator| Certified Educator

For Holden, Phoebe symbolizes the innocence and purity of childhood, an innocence and purity lost when one becomes an adult. Throughout the novel, Holden repeatedly says Phoebe is the only person he would want to talk to and its her decision to go with Holden to Colorado that forces the teenage boy to reconsider his choices.

There are two clear ways in which J.D. Salinger signals that Phoebe's childhood symbolizes the innocence and purity Holden craves:

  1. Holden buys Phoebe an album with a song with the lyrics "If a body meet a body comin' through the rye" on it, thinking the song said, "If a body catch a body comin' through the rye." Phoebe points out Holden's mistake, but it's still a telling one. The original lyrics suggest something sexual: a farmer's daughter meets her lover in a field of rye. However, Holden imagines himself "standing on the edge of some crazy cliff" catching "little kids" before they fall over the edge.
  2. Holden gets excited when a girl he runs into says Phoebe might be at the Museum of Natural History. He reminisces on the museum thinking about how he used to love it when he was a kid. His favorite part, he said, is the fact that "[y]ou could go there a hundred thousand times and...Nobody'd be different." It even excites him that Phoebe would "see the same stuff I used to see."

These are just two of many examples of how Phoebe symbolizes Holden's idealized state of life: childhood.

davmor1973 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Holden Caulfield uncomfortably straddles two worlds: those of childhood and adulthood. Phoebe is an important character because she shows how the two worlds can be reconciled. Although only a child herself, and six years younger than her brother, Phoebe still has maturity beyond her tender years. Prior to Phoebe's introduction we've only ever heard Holden's side of the story. We sympathize with his railing against a cruel, hypocritical, uncomprehending world. But when Phoebe arrives on the scene, we gain a much wider perspective on things. It's only then that we come to understand that much of the problem lies with Holden himself. Phoebe knows him better than anyone, certainly better than Holden knows himself, and so we trust that she's giving us an accurate picture of her brother's tortured inner state.

Phoebe holds out a prospect, however remote, of there being some goodness in this often harsh, uncompromising world. But it's real, nonetheless, unlike Holden's adolescent fantasy world; and Phoebe's carefree nature and evident enjoyment of life is child-like, rather than childish, as Holden's romanticized picture of childhood undoubtedly is.

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