The Catcher in the Rye: Characters, Themes & Symbols

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  • 0:02 ''Catcher in the Rye''
  • 1:00 Characters
  • 3:28 Themes
  • 5:13 Symbols
  • 7:05 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kimberly Yates

Kimberly has taught college English and has a master's degree in education.

~'Catcher in the Rye~', written by J.D. Salinger, is the story of Holden Caulfield's struggle with depression following the death of his brother. This lesson will explore the characters, as well as some themes and symbols in the novel.

Catcher in the Rye

Imagine you're hanging out with friends, listening to music, everyone singing along when you suddenly realize that you were singing the wrong words. For most of us, this would be a minor, if slightly embarrassing event. For Holden Caulfield, in J.D. Salinger's coming-of-age novel, Catcher in the Rye, his misunderstanding of a portion of a famous poem is symbolic of his misguided worldview.

When the novel begins, Holden Caulfield, a student at an exclusive private school, realizes that he will soon be expelled for poor grades. He decides there's no reason to wait for the term to end and instead goes to New York City for a few days, planning to hide out there in a hotel before going home to face his parents. While in New York, Holden makes several attempts to reach out to a variety of people, from old friends, to perfect strangers, to a young prostitute. Unfortunately, his attempts are awkward, and he often ends up insulting these people, which causes them to reject him and make him feel more alone than ever.


Holden Caulfield is the main character or protagonist, as well as the narrator, who tells us his story from a sanatorium. Throughout the novel, he struggles with depression over the death of his younger brother, Allie. He is lonely and wants to find someone to connect to, reaching out to many different people as he travels through New York. Unfortunately, his depression and his social awkwardness make each attempt a failure.

Stradlater is Holden's school roommate. He is handsome, popular, and very comfortable with women - all the things that Holden wishes he could be. Early in the novel, Stradlater asks Holden to write a composition for his English class. Holden agrees and writes about his brother Allie's baseball glove. However, Stradlater criticizes the essay and eventually the two boys get into a fistfight over a date Stradlater had with Holden's friend Jane. The fight with Stradlater is part of Holden's motivation to leave Pencey and begin a new journey.

Sunny is a young prostitute who comes to Holden's hotel room. In spite of the fact that he wants to connect to someone and is obviously interested in sex, Holden feels awkward and confused in her presence. He tells Sunny that he doesn't want to have sex with her; he just wants to talk. Sunny is irritated with him and leaves but returns later with her pimp who punches Holden and robs him.

Sally Hayes is a girl that Holden has been on several dates with in the past. When he's in New York, he calls her and invites her to go out with him. They go to see a Broadway show and then go skating. Holden thinks Sally is a phony and annoying, but impulsively, he still asks Sally to run away with him. He tells her that they can live in a cabin far away from everyone else. Sally refuses, and Holden gets angry and curses at her.

Jane Gallagher is an unusual character in that she never actually shows up in the book in person. She is a girl from Holden's past that he is still somewhat obsessed with. He remembers how he used to play checkers with her and is upset when he learns Stradlater is going out on a date with her. Jane represents yet another person that Holden would like to connect with yet is unable to because he is depressed.

Phoebe is Holden's younger sister. She is the one person that he feels he can really connect to, even though she's only in the 4th grade. She is smart, witty, and genuinely concerned about Holden. Phoebe is the only one who sees through Holden's awkwardness and still tries to connect with him. When Holden tells her about his plan to run off and live in a cabin in the woods, she immediately wants to come with him.


In literature, themes are the main ideas or points on which an author focuses. In Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger focuses on two main themes: protecting the innocent and isolation.

One of the primary themes in the novel is protecting the innocent. Throughout the novel, Holden reminisces about his younger brother, Allie, who has passed away. He wants to protect Phoebe; he demonstrates this by telling her she can't run away with him and worrying about her on the carousel.

However, Holden also wants to protect all innocent creatures. He worries about the ducks in Central Park, and when he sees curse words written on different buildings in New York, he tries to scratch the words away so little kids won't have to see them. Overall, His dream is to be a 'catcher in the rye,' protecting little kids from danger. At the end of the novel, while Holden watches Phoebe on the carousel, he realizes that you can't always protect children; you have to let them take their chances. The realization that his dream of protecting the innocent is futile is the final straw that causes his breakdown.

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