Significant Allusions

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Last Updated on August 5, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 758

Literary Allusions: Throughout his narrative, Holden Caulfield refers to many famous works of literature.

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  • The first sentence of The Catcher in the Rye alludes to Charles Dickens’s 1850 novel David Copperfield. As Holden introduces himself, he forgoes discussing his childhood or family, calling it “all that David Copperfield kind of crap.” This allusion refers to the detailed and descriptive background provided by the protagonist of David Copperfield, which is seen in conventional bildungsromane.
  • The novel alludes to Robert Burns’s 1782 poem “Comin’ Thro’ the Rye,” an adaptation of a Scottish folk song. Robert Burn’s adaptation is widely popular, and is directly mentioned in Catcher in the Rye by Holden’s sister Phoebe. “Comin’ Thro’ the Rye” first appears in the novel when Holden overhears a young child singing the song, although the child misquotes it: “If a body catch a body coming through the rye.” Burn’s version uses the verbs “kiss” or “meet” as opposed to “catch.” The song inspires Holden’s fantasy of being a “catcher in the rye”: He imagines himself catching children who run through the rye before they fall off a cliff. This fantasy directly reflects one of the novel’s main themes: the preservation of  innocence. The irony is that, unbeknownst to Holden, “Comin’ Thro’ the Rye” in fact centers around sexual subject matter. His ignorance of this fact is further evidence of his innocence.
  • At one point of the novel, Holden says that his favorite authors are his brother D.B. and Ring Lardner. Ring Lardner (1885–1933) is an American journalist and short-story writer whom J. D. Salinger admired. The alignment of Holden’s tastes with Salinger’s points to the semiautobiographical nature of The Catcher in the Rye, which Salinger admitted was loosely based on his own childhood.
  • After returning from service in World War II, D.B. asked Holden to read Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, which Holden dislikes. Holden wonders how D.B. can enjoy F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby while also liking A Farewell to Arms. These authors—Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald—were two of Salinger’s key influences. Salinger was particularly inspired by F. Scott Fitzgerald and saw himself following in Fitzgerald’s literary footsteps. Ernest Hemingway and his works were an inspiration for Salinger as well. In 1944, Salinger met Hemingway, and the two kept up a correspondence and friendship. Even with Salinger’s jab at Hemingway’s writing style in The Catcher in the Rye, Hemingway remained on friendly terms with Salinger and kept a copy of Catcher throughout his life.

Biblical Allusions: In chapter 14, Holden complains about the Disciples—the followers of Jesus, especially the twelve Apostles—and claims that he prefers the “lunatic… that lived in the tombs and kept cutting himself with stones.” This is an allusion to the possessed man called “Legion” in Mark 5:5: “And always, night and day, he was in the mountains, and in the tombs, crying, and cutting himself with stones.” Holden’s preference for the individual outcast over the communal establishment directly reflects his personality and values.

Allusions to Popular Culture and Events: The Catcher in the Rye was published in 1951, and refers to the events and popular culture of the 1940s and early 1950s.

  • While at Pencey Prep, Holden pretends to be a tap dancer to ease his boredom. He jokes that it is the opening night of the Ziegfeld Follies, a series of Broadway productions that ran from 1907 to 1936. Holden refers to the production with extreme sarcasm, as he openly dislikes musicals. 
  • When buying tickets for a show to attend with Sally Hayes to, Holden refers to “the Lunts,” saying that Sally loves the Lunts. This is an allusion to Alfred Lunt (1892–1977) and Lynne Fontane (1887–1983), a successful husband-and-wife acting team who performed together in several theatrical productions during the early- to mid-1900s. Holden takes Sally to I Know My Love, a Broadway play directed by Alfred Lunt that ran from 1949 to 1950 and starred himself and his wife in leading roles. 
  • At one point, Holden goes to see a film on his own. He does not give the name of the film, but he describes its plot in detail. The plot resembles that of the 1942 film Random Harvest, which is about an amnesiac war veteran. After seeing the film, Holden reflects on “the war,” and how his brother D.B. was in the army and “landed on D-Day.” This is a reference to the invasion of Normany by allied forces in 1944, the operation known as D-Day.

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