J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye does not often deal directly with the idea of death. It is mostly concerned with main character Holden Caulfield’s psychological and emotional state. However, we do learn fairly early in the novel that Holden had a younger brother, Allie, who died at a young age. As the reader sees, Allie’s death had a profound effect on Holden and might have been the beginning of the psychological troubles he is having:
. . . they were going to have me psychoanalyzed and all, because I broke all the windows in the garage. I don’t blame them. I really don’t. I slept in the garage the night he died, and I broke the goddam windows with my fist, just for the hell of it.
So, although this event is not often referred to in the novel, the reader knows that it is central to Holden’s state of mind.
Much later in the novel, in chapter 22, Holden has journeyed back home and is talking to his younger sister Phoebe. He has been slowly descending into a deeper psychological hole throughout the story, and now that he is home events are coming to a climax.
As with Allie and his older brother D. B., Holden is very fond of his sibling Phoebe. They are just about the only people in the story that escape his excoriating judgment. He has been looking forward to seeing her, but when she realizes that he has been kicked out of yet another prep school she becomes upset and admonishes him:
You don’t like any schools. You don’t like a million things. You don’t.
Phoebe is giving him the heartfelt talking-to that nobody else in the story has. However, a moment later, Holden narrates that he stops listening to what Phoebe is saying and starts thinking about a kid he knew at a different school, Elkton Hills, who jumped to his death while being bullied by other students. It could be that Phoebe’s directness, her accusation that Holden doesn’t like anything and is in trouble yet again, has forced Holden to think about what is really bothering him. It is possible that death has been on Holden’s mind the whole time, lurking below the surface. Phoebe, one of the few people he respects, is able to draw it out.
A page or so later Holden relates an important part of the conversation, the section of the story that gives the novel its name. He is still talking to Phoebe. This is also about death, but it’s about Holden’s desire to save others from death:
I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all . . . 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. . . That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye . . .
This imaginary scene puts Holden in a position of power, where he can actually do something to change the deaths of Allie and James Castle. What this tells the reader is that Holden feels a sense of guilt, or powerlessness over their deaths; it’s a feeling he hasn’t been able shake. But this conversation with Phoebe, who is not a “phony,” brings him closer to what is really on his mind.