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The Catcher in the Rye

by J. D. Salinger

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What is the metaphor behind Jane "keeping all her kings in the back row" in The Catcher in the Rye?

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In The Catcher in the Rye, Jane's habit of "keeping all her kings in the back row" during checkers serves as a metaphor for her reserved and cautious demeanor. It reflects her reluctance to risk what she values the most, mirroring her self-protective nature due to past abuse. The metaphor could also symbolize her virginity, innocence, and physical appearance. Holden, being her loyal friend, could also be seen as one of her "kings". This metaphor underscores Jane's understated power and artistic nature, though it's unclear how much of it is Holden's interpretation.

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In chapter four, Holden's roommate Stradlater prepares to go on a date with Jane Gallagher, who is one of Holden's close friends and someone he deeply admires. While Stradlater is shaving, Holden mentions that Jane is a dancer and says that he used to play Jane in checkers all the time. According to Holden, Jane would always keep her kings in the back row and would not move them. Holden mentions that Jane would never touch her kings and simply enjoyed the way they looked. Jane's affinity for keeping her kings in the back row could be interpreted in several ways, which reflect different aspects of her complex personality.

Jane's kings could metaphorically represent her reserved, cautious demeanor. Since kings are the most powerful pieces in the game of checkers, Jane's desire to keep them in a protected place on the board reflects her careful, safe personality. She is not willing to risk what matters most and is wary of others. One could surmise that Jane is vulnerable to a certain extent and determined to protect herself at all costs. This interpretation coincides with the fact that Jane has been previously abused by her step-father. One could also interpret Jane's kings as being symbolic of her virginity, physical appearance, and innocence. These are Jane's most valuable features and she is not ready to give them up or place them in the public spotlight.

One could also metaphorically interpret Holden as being one of Jane's kings in the back row. Unlike Stradlater, who enjoys playing games with girls and exercising his sexuality, Holden has Jane's best interests in mind while he remains in the background of her life. Holden's friendship and loyalty are priceless like the valuable kings in the game of chess. Holden is also similar to Jane's kings because he does not take action and refuses to reach out to her. Similar to the useless kings in the back row, Holden remains idle and watches as Stradlater takes his vulnerable, innocent friend on a date.

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This phrase comes up while Holden is describing to Stradlater how he used to play checkers with Jane over the summer. The entire passage reads as follows:

She wouldn't move any of her kings. What she'd do, when she'd get a king, she wouldn't move it. She'd just leave it in the back row. She'd get them all lined up in the back row. Then she'd never use them. She just liked the way they looked when they were all in the back row.

Holden idealizes Jane. He is horrified that someone as sneaky as Stradlater is going out on a date with her, so he begins babbling about her. Jane's keeping all her kings in the back row while she plays checkers is a metaphor for how Jane is quiet and reticent about her power as she plays the game of life. Kings are powerful pieces in checkers, and Holden is saying that Jane has power—that she is a strong person—but that she prefers not to show it. The metaphor also suggests that she is an artistic person first and foremost, because part of her rationale for not moving her kings is that she "liked the way they looked."

Of course, we have no way of knowing how much of this is what Jane really thinks and how much is Holden's projection.

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Holden says this to Stradlater about Jane Gallagher. Holden is speaking about the way in which Jane plays checkers, but his commentary on Jane is a metaphor for the safe, self-protective way that she approaches life. If a piece is kinged in checkers, it has the ability to move forwards and backwards, which makes it a valuable piece to capture the pieces of an opponent (as other pieces can only move forward). If Jane keeps all her kings in the back row, it means that she is not aggressive and not willing to risk what is valuable to her. Instead, she plays it safe and keeps her kings where they can't easily be captured instead of using them to onto the rest of the board to try to win the game. Her interest is not in winning the game--only in staying safe. From this metaphor, the reader surmises that Jane is vulnerable and self-protective.

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It's interesting to view Jane's checker-playing as a metaphor for her approach to life. Kings in the back row might stand for self-discipline, reserve, or a hidden ally.

One thing Holden remembers from playing checkers with Jane is that, when she got a king, she would keep it in the back row. She would line up her kings because "she just liked the way they looked when they were all in the back row." This is unusual because a king in checkers is a powerful piece. Most people are eager, as soon as they get a king, to use it to help them win the game. 

We can tell from this that winning was not Jane's primary concern in checkers.  She wanted things to look a certain way. This might tell us that she was a precise person who liked things arranged just so. Holden tells us that she was a ballet dancer, and "used to practice about two hours every day, right in the middle of the hottest weather and all." This shows us that Jane has a lot of self-discipline.  

Jane is also reserved. She obviously has problems with her stepfather, but she does not confide in Holden, even in the scene where she cries and he comforts her. She also does not go on making out with Holden afterward. She keeps her secrets and her dignity, just like she keeps her kings in the back row.

Because Holden knows this about Jane, he has some hope that she did not allow Stradlater (a notorious lecher) to take advantage of her.  

Finally, it's possible that Holden himself is Jane's "king in the back row." He is clearly devoted to her and wants to help and protect her. During the course of the book, they do not see each other, and Holden does not even call her (though he considers it many times). Really, Holden is not in much shape to protect anybody, however much he might want to do so. Still, he is on Jane's side. He is an ally who might help her some day, though it is not apparent to the rest of the world.

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