I put on this hat that I’d bought in New York that morning. It was this red hunting hat, with one of those very, very long peaks. I saw it in the window of this sports store when we got out of the subway, just after I noticed I’d lost all the goddam foils. It only cost me a buck. The way I wore it, I swung the old peak way around to the back—very corny, I’ll admit, but I liked it that way.
Holden first describes putting on his red hunting hat as he returns to his dorm room after visiting Mr. Spencer. He explains that he bought the hat in New York City, right after he realized that he’d lost his team’s fencing equipment. Here, the red hunting hat symbolizes Holden’s alienation from society and his intentional isolation from people. In addition, buying the hat is Holden’s way of trying to protect himself from society’s consequences, such as the ridicule he probably received after losing his team’s equipment. Holden describes that he wore the peak of the hat around the back and “liked it that way,” seeming to get comfort from the sense of individuality the hat brought him.
“Up home we wear a hat like that to shoot deer in, for Chrissake,” he said. “That’s a deer shooting hat.” . . . “Like hell it is.” I took it off and looked at it. I sort of closed one eye, like I was taking aim at it. “This is a people shooting hat,” I said. “I shoot people in this hat.”
In this dialogue between Holden and Ackley, Ackley scoffs at Holden’s hat, saying that the hat looks like “a deer shooting hat.” Holden’s defensive response reveals that he views his hat as a symbol of individualism and doesn’t want it to be considered something expected like a common deer hunting hat. In addition, Holden’s comment declaring that it’s “a people shooting hat” reveals feelings of hostility toward a society that, in his eyes, continuously reminds him that he doesn’t quite fit in. While Holden’s tendency to make such off-color remarks reveals his on-going desire to stand out as an individual, such comments might also serve a second purpose: They allow Holden to isolate himself from others, which provides protection from the uncomfortable feeling of always feeling like an outsider.
I couldn’t find my goddam hunting hat anywhere. Finally I found it. It was under the bed. I put it on, and turned the old peak around to the back, the way I liked it, and then I went over and took a look at my stupid face in the mirror. You never saw such gore in your life.
Just prior to this scene, Holden picked a fight with Stradlater, which left Holden on the floor, bloody and distraught. After the fight, Holden immediately searches for his red hunting hat, demonstrating how the hat makes him feel protected and isolated from the hurt and pain of the world around him. The color red also brings meaning to this scene, as the red hat upon Holden’s head matches the red blood all over his face, and both point to the scene’s intense emotions. Holden’s anger and desperation along with Stradlater’s frustration all connect with the red color of Holden’s hunting hat.
We got to the Edmont Hotel, and I checked in. I’d put on my red hunting cap when I was in the cab, just for the hell of it, but I took it off before I checked in. I didn’t want to look like a screwball or something. Which is really ironic.
As Holden arrives in New York City after leaving Pencey Prep, he describes his reluctance to wear his red hunting hat in public. While he wears it in the darkness of the cab, he takes it off before checking in to the hotel. In this scene, the red hunting hat is symbolic of Holden’s struggle between a desire to be a unique individual and a fear of standing out or being isolated from the norm. Despite Holden’s courageous and independent decision to leave Pencey Prep for an adventure in New York City, he arrives only to continue worrying about alienation and social expectations, removing his red hunting hat in public.
Then what she did—it damn near killed me—she reached in my coat pocket and took out my red hunting hat and put it on my head. “Don’t you want it?” I said. “You can wear it awhile.”
At the end of the novel, Phoebe and Holden share an emotional moment by the carousel in Central Park following an argument at the museum about him leaving New York. Phoebe takes Holden’s red hunting hat out of his pocket and hands it to him to wear. Phoebe’s gesture symbolizes her acceptance of Holden’s individuality while also ensuring Holden’s promise that he will come home rather than leave New York. It’s as if she is telling Holden that he cannot run away from who he really is or his difficulties, but instead, must put on his red hunting hat and accept his individuality while facing society’s expectations. Holden cannot rid himself of his red hunting hat just like he can’t rid himself of social codes and impending adulthood.