In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield struggles to comprehend becoming an adult while retaining his childhood innocence. As a result, he spends a lot of time criticizing adults for being phonies. In Chapter 22, Phoebe confronts Holden about this and asks him what he likes, what he'd like to be. Holden has to take a step back and really evaluate his motivations for the way he thinks and acts. One can admire Holden for attempting to stay clear of the phoniness of the socio-economic world of adults. But Holden doesn't fully consider if his existential way of life is beneficial to himself or others. He is lost in his own philosophy. However, when Phoebe challenges Holden, we do get a glimpse, not of Holden the philosophical adolescent, but of Holden the hopeful adolescent.
In Chapter 22, Holden imagines his ideal occupation:
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 an ironic twist because he imagines himself as a protector, making sure other children don't fall off the cliff. The cliff could symbolize any number of things. It could be literal or metaphoric. But the fall does, at least subtly, reference Adam and Eve's fall in the Bible. With Holden, the fall might be falling into adulthood, which is a loss of innocence. Here's the paradox, as Jonathan Baumbach notes in the second link below. To be in this position, Holden must become adult-like in order to be a protector of those children. However, Holden wants to also remain innocent himself, so he would need someone to prevent him from falling over the cliff, perhaps a father figure. All things considered, being the "catcher in the rye" is to be, paradoxically, an innocent adult or wise child or an existential saint.
The title "The Catcher in the Rye" is good for many reasons.
It suggests the loneliness of the young hero, standing out in the middle of a vast field of rye, a self-appointed guardian of children who aren't even aware of him.
It suggests the impractical nature of the hero. He is looking for an impossible vocation. He isn't even trained to be a lifeguard, which would seem to be the job that would come closest to his fantasy.
It suggests the mental confusion of the hero. The Rye is a river, not a field of grain. The correct word in Burns's poem is "meet" and not "catch." His sister Phoebe tells him the line should be: "If a body meet a body coming through the Rye."
It suggests the hero's kind nature.
It suggests his immaturity.
There is something very touching about the phrase "The catcher in the rye" and something very touching about the concept.
It suggests the young hero's uniqueness and individuality and originality and imagination. He is the only catcher in the rye in the whole world.
It suggests the hero's independent spirit. He would have to have a job that nobody else ever had, or thought of having, or even wanted.
Holden is one adolescent boy who at least knows what he wants.