The kid was swell. He was walking in the street, instead of on the sidewalk, but right next to the curb. He was making out like he was walking a very straight line, the way kids do, and the whole time he kept singing and humming. I got up closer so I could hear what he was singing. He was singing that song, “If a body catch a body coming through the rye.”
While walking toward Broadway to meet Sally, Holden observes a little boy singing “The Catcher in the Rye” while walking somewhat riskily in the street instead of on the sidewalk. Holden seems to feel a sense of admiration and affection for the boy. This scene, which includes the lyrics mentioning the “catcher in the rye’s” role—to catch and save others coming through the rye—symbolizes Holden’s desire and intrinsic need to protect innocence and youthfulness. Holden feels this need because he still regrets not being able to protect his younger brother, Allie, from getting leukemia and dying.
He had a pretty little voice, too. He was just singing for the hell of it, you could tell. The cars zoomed by, brakes screeched all over the place, his parents paid no attention to him, and he kept on walking next to the curb and singing, “If a body catch a body coming through the rye.” It made me feel better. It made me feel not so depressed any more.
As Holden observes the little boy walking along the street and singing in New York City, he notes that the boy’s parents ignore their son and fail to notice the danger of his walking in the street. While watching and listening to the boy’s sweet singing voice, Holden’s anxiety and fear lessen. Just watching the boy makes Holden feel he’s playing the role of protector, as if he knows he can step in and save the child, or “catch a body coming through the rye,” if a car comes along. This scenario encapsulates all Holden desires: to find control, strength, and the ability to protect innocence and youth. In this case, the young boy represents this innocence as Holden focuses on his safety and protection.
I wasn’t listening, though. I was thinking about something else—something crazy. “You know what I’d like to be?” I said. “You know what I’d like to be? I mean if I had my goddam choice? . . . You know that song ‘If a body catch a body comin’ through the rye’?[”]
While visiting his sister, Phoebe, in New York City, Holden divulges to her that all he really wants to be in life is the “catcher in the rye.” He later clarifies his statement by explaining what he thinks the song means, what he thinks the catcher in the rye really does: protects the young and innocent from harm. However, when Holden says, “I mean if I had my goddam choice,” he shows how powerless he really feels over his role in society and his ability to be this protector figure.
“It’s ‘If a body meet a body coming through the rye’!” old Phoebe said. “It’s a poem. By Robert Burns.” . . . She was right, though. It is “If a body meet a body coming through the rye.” I didn’t know it then, though. . . . “I thought it was ‘If a body catch a body,’” I said.
As Phoebe and Holden discuss his desire to be the “catcher in the rye,” Phoebe points out that Holden has misunderstood the line from the poem. Holden’s mistake—replacing the word “meet” with “catch”—only further highlights Holden’s mixed-up perspective and mental fragility: He’s inserted his deepest desires into the line of a poem and song. Despite his desire to be the elder protector of the innocent, this scene reveals the much younger Phoebe acting as the mature, more knowledgeable voice of reason. Holden’s focus on being the “catcher in the rye” is not even based on truth and reality.
“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.[”]
Here, Holden finally explains to Phoebe what his understanding of the song means to him, what he envisions while thinking of the phrase “the catcher in the rye.” This quote represents Holden’s attempt to make sense of his life, his world, and his mental struggle. Holden’s hyper-focus on being a protector of innocence demonstrates how deeply his younger brother’s death has impacted him. The almost frantic description of being the only older person in charge of protecting “thousands of little kids” is also symbolic of Holden’s erratic and desperate attempt to grasp onto reality and solid ground. The symbol of being the “catcher in the rye” represents a solace for Holden, a place where he actually has control over his life and the ability to protect youthful innocence in a way he wasn’t able to protect his younger brother in real life.