The scene in which Holden watches Phoebe sleep and reads through her notebooks is one of the most famous in the book, one of the few moments of respite Holden finds from the brutality of the outside world. As he says, adults “look lousy” when sleeping, but kids “look all right.” After Phoebe wakes up, however, things become more difficult. Her insistence in Chapter 22 that Holden tell her something he likes sends his mind skittering away from the question, and he remembers the violent death of James Castle, who committed suicide in a turtleneck he borrowed from Holden. After remembering the death of this young boy, the only thing Holden can think to tell Phoebe he likes is “Allie.” His mind is increasingly preoccupied with childhood and childhood death; he thinks to call Mr. Antolini when he remembers the teacher picking up James Castle’s broken body in his coat. He grows increasingly emotional and unstable; Phoebe’s unaffected kindness when she loans him her Christmas money causes him to break into tears.
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. . . .
One of the most important passages in the novel comes when Holden tells Phoebe he would like to be the catcher in the rye, saving little children from falling off the cliff. This passage elucidates the novel’s metaphoric title. The rye field is a symbol of childhood—the rye is so high that the children cannot see over it, just as children are unable to see beyond the borders of their childhood. Standing on the precipice that separates the rye field of childhood from the cliff of adulthood, Holden wants to protect childhood innocence from the fall into disillusionment that necessarily accompanies adulthood. Trapped between states, with his innocence in jeopardy, Holden wants to be a “catcher in the rye,” a savior of the innocence missing in the world around him, a world that has let him fall over the cliff into adulthood alone.
Holden’s mistake about the line from the Robert Burns song—his substitution of “catch a body” for “meet a body”—is highly significant, as its placement in the novel’s title suggests. Burns’s song “Comin’ Thro’ the Rye” exists in several versions, each with somewhat different lyrics. In some versions, the song is about a woman who has gotten her clothes wet while she was out in a rye field, while in other versions the speaker of the song is a woman discussing being out in a rye field. All versions of the song ask the question: is it wrong to “kiss” and “greet” someone you are attracted to if you meet them out in the fields, even if you don’t tell the rest of the world about it and you aren’t committed to that person? Implicitly, the song asks if casual sex, in the sense of sex without a commitment, is always wrong. Thus, in Burns’s song, “meeting” means encountering a potential sex partner, and the word itself may even connote having sex with that person. Casual sex is precisely the kind of sex that Holden finds most upsetting throughout the novel. By “catching” children from falling off a cliff, he really wants to protect them from the fall out of innocence into the adult world. In Chapter 25, Holden is quite explicit that he specifically wants to protect children from knowledge of sex. He rubs the words “fuck you” off the school wall because he worries that someone will explain to the children what it means. Thus, what the lyric means to Holden is almost the exact opposite of what the song is about.