I was thinking about the lagoon in Central Park, down near Central Park South. I was wondering if it would be frozen over when I got home, and if it was, where did the ducks go. I was wondering where the ducks went when the lagoon got all icy and frozen over. I wondered if some guy came in a truck and took them away to a zoo or something.
Holden’s reference to the ducks in the Central Park Lagoon starts early in the novel while he’s meeting with Mr. Spencer, his former teacher, who is trying to talk to him about his future. Instead of listening to Spencer’s important advice, Holden’s mind drifts off to “the lagoon in Central Park . . . wondering where did the ducks go.” This childlike wonderment over the mystery of the Central Park Lagoon ducks symbolizes Holden’s desperate attempt to hold onto childhood and the simple joy that comes with it. In this moment, Holden avoids facing the “tough stuff” or really thinking about Spencer’s lecture by letting his mind wander to his childlike query about the ducks. Perhaps Holden believes that if he understood how the ducks survived the drastic change in their environment, he could do the same.
“You know those ducks in that lagoon right near Central Park South? That little lake? By any chance, do you happen to know where they go, the ducks, when it gets all frozen over? Do you happen to know, by any chance?”
After arriving in New York City, Holden is chatting with his cab driver when he suddenly asks about the ducks in the Central Park Lagoon. Holden recognizes that it’s unlikely that the cab driver would know the answer but still asks the question, similar to the way a child often asks his parent anything that comes to mind. The question is so out of the blue that even the cab driver thinks that Holden is messing with him. Holden’s focus on the Central Park Lagoon ducks symbolizes his youthful side as well as his true desire to discover how the ducks survive the harsh winter environment, hoping he can apply their secret to his own struggles. The partly frozen pond also symbolizes Holden’s stagnancy, or his reluctance to transition between two states: childhood and adulthood.
He was a much better guy than the other driver I’d had. Anyway, I thought maybe he might know about the ducks. . . . [“]Do you know, by any chance? I mean does somebody come around in a truck or something and take them away, or do they fly away by themselves—go south or something?”
In this scene, Holden is in a dark mental state as he struggles with feelings of isolation, loneliness, and misdirection. As he gets in another cab, Holden once again zones in on asking about the ducks in the Central Park Lagoon, seeming more frantic about needing an answer. Holden’s desperate need to find out about the ducks symbolizes his need to survive his own emotional “winters.” Holden struggles with change, especially after his brother’s death, so knowing where the ducks go also represents a comfort he might find if he can prove that difficult change isn’t always bad or permanent.
I figured I’d go by that little lake and see what the hell the ducks were doing, see if they were around or not. I still didn’t know if they were around or not. It wasn’t far over to the park, and I didn’t have any place else special to go to—I didn’t even know where I was going to sleep yet—so I went. I wasn’t tired or anything. I just felt blue as hell.
After fighting with Sally and having an awkward conversation with Old Luce while in New York City, Holden, drunk and with nowhere to go, decides to find the Central Park Lagoon and check on the ducks. Holden’s childlike curiosity about the ducks bubbles up whenever he faces adversity, a detail that symbolizes his need for answers about perseverance and whether all change is permanent. Holden cannot mentally heal until he has answers about what the ducks do during the winter in the Central Park Lagoon.
Then, finally, I found it. What it was, it was partly frozen and partly not frozen. But I didn’t see any ducks around. I walked all around the whole damn lake—I damn near fell in once, in fact—but I didn’t see a single duck. I thought maybe if there were any around, they might be asleep or something near the edge of the water, near the grass and all.
Holden finally finds his way to the Central Park Lagoon after a dark walk through the park. In a freezing, drunken state, Holden feels determined to find the lake, and when he does, there are no ducks to be found Unable to accept defeat, Holden wonders if the ducks “might be asleep or something near the edge of the water,” and he almost falls in. In this scene, the partly frozen water symbolizes Holden’s current mental state, stuck between childhood and adulthood. At the same time, Holden’s refusal to give up on finding the ducks symbolizes his desire to hold onto the hope that change can be temporary and survivable, unlike his brother’s death.