[Ackley] took another look at my hat . . . “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.”
This brief passage occurs in Chapter 3, after Holden has returned to his dorm room and is being pestered by Ackley. Of all the places in the novel where Holden discusses his hat, the most famous and recognizable symbol in the book, this is probably the most enlightening. It is obvious from the start that Holden uses the hat as a mark of individuality and independence. Here, we see how deeply his desire for independence is connected to his feeling of alienation, to the bitterness he has for the rest of the world. Of course, Holden will not really shoot people in this hat, but it remains a symbol of his scorn for convention. Holden nevertheless does “shoot people” in his own way: when he is in this cynical frame of mind, he expends all of his mental energy denigrating the people around him. He desires independence because he feels that the world is an inhospitable, ugly place that, he feels, deserves only contempt.