Critical Essays Major Symbols


Radio City Music Hall

Radio City Music Hall, with its Christmas show, the Rockettes, and the painfully sentimental war movie, symbolizes much of what Holden despises about inauthentic art that panders to the audience. Holden sees nothing religious or beautiful about the stage show. He thinks that "old Jesus probably would've puked if He could see it." The legendary precision of the Rockettes' chorus line leaves Holden cold. The movie is worse, because it manipulates the audience into a sentimental glorification of war and the military, which Holden despises. He couldn't even stand the Boy Scouts.

The Carrousel's Gold Ring

A carrousel is a sort of motorized merry-go-round with seats that look like various animals, such as painted ponies, move up and down. Designed for children, some carrousels have a gold ring, perhaps 4 or 5 inches in diameter, hanging on the outer edge where the children might, with some difficulty, reach out and grab it as they pass by. The child who grabs the ring wins a prize of some sort: perhaps a free ride or a stuffed animal. However, there is some risk in going for the gold ring. The rider might even fall. So the gold ring represents a hope, a dream, and the chances that we must take to grab it. It is a major step for Holden to accept that kids will grab for the gold ring and adults must let them. It is part of life and part of growing up.

The Coming-of-Age Genre

Genre is a French word (pronounced ZHON-ruh) meaning a particular kind or type of art or literature. One popular genre of American fiction is the coming-of-age story. A typical example might be Robert Lipsyte's novel The Contender, in which a young protagonist, near Holden's age, begins in turmoil, struggles toward maturity, meets various obstacles that initially defeat him but that he finds he can overcome through virtue and perseverance, and eventually triumphs. Lipsyte's novel is more interesting than most because the author uses a sport, boxing, to help the protagonist mature, but the main character does not triumph in the sport. He triumphs in life. This, however, is not Holden's story.

The Catcher in the Rye is a coming-of-age novel with a twist. Holden does not follow the usual pattern. He begins in turmoil, struggles in turmoil, has a moment of epiphany (clarity of insight) watching Phoebe at the carrousel, but eventually suffers physical and emotional collapse. Holden does change toward the end of the book. His acceptance of Phoebe's need to "grab for the gold ring" indicates that he sees her as a maturing individual who must be allowed to live her own life and take her own chances, even though she may fail or fall. Children must do this, and adults must let them. For better or worse, Holden is beginning to grow up; but he is far from any kind of triumph. He will go home and soon collapse, resulting in his stay at the sanitarium in California. We cannot know how he will be in the future. Salinger does not spoon-feed the reader a "happy" ending. In that way, the novel is more realistic, more lifelike and authentic than some representatives of the genre.

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