Themes in literary works are recurring, unifying subjects or ideas, motifs that allow us to understand more deeply the characters and their world. In The Catcher in the Rye, the major themes reflect the values and motivations of the characters. Some of these themes are outlined in the following sections.
As its title indicates, the dominating theme of The Catcher in the Rye is the protection of innocence, especially of children. For most of the book, Holden sees this as a primary virtue. It is very closely related to his struggle against growing up. Holden's enemy is the adult world and the cruelty and artificiality that it entails. The people he admires all represent or protect innocence. He thinks of Jane Gallagher, for example, not as a maturing young woman but as the girl with whom he used to play checkers. He goes out of his way to tell us that he and Jane had no sexual relationship. Quite sweetly, they usually just held hands. Holden comforted Jane when she was distressed, and it bothers him that Jane may have been subjected to sexual advances from her drunken stepfather or from her date, Holden's roommate, Stradlater.
Holden's secret goal is to be "the catcher in the rye." In this metaphor, he envisions a field of rye standing by a dangerous cliff. Children play in the field with joy and abandon. If they should come too close to the edge of the cliff, however, Holden is there to catch them. His attitude seems to shift near the end of the novel when he realizes that Phoebe and other children must be allowed to "grab for the gold ring," to choose their own risks and take them, even though their attempts may be dangerous.
Death is another consistent theme in the novel. It is continually implied by the presence of Holden's younger brother's spirit, even though Allie has been dead for about three years. When Holden fears for his own existence, such as when he feels that he might disappear, he speaks to Allie. He is haunted by the thought of Allie in the rainy cemetery surrounded by tombstones and dead people. Holden associates death with the mutability of time. He wishes that everything could just stay the way it is, that time could stand still, especially when something beautiful happens. When he compares this to the displays under glass at the museum, Holden seems to be rejecting life itself. Life is change. Aging and mutability are inevitable. It isn't just that society wants Holden to grow up; his own biological condition insists that he become an adult. When he resists change, Holden is fighting the biological clock that eventually will result in old age and death. He also resists simply growing up. Although we may admire his candor and even sometimes identify with his adolescent wish, we are left to conclude that Holden's way leads to considerable frustration and, eventually, madness.