Identifying Themes and Symbols from Catcher in the Rye

This Storyboard That activity is part of the lesson plans for The Catcher in the Rye

Catcher in the Rye Symbolism


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Activity Overview

Themes, symbols, and motifs come alive when you use a storyboard. In this activity, students will identify themes and symbols from the novel, and support their choices with details from the text.

Themes and Imagery to Look For and Discuss

Fear of Change and the Transition into Adulthood

Throughout the novel, Holden finds solace in things that stay the same, and shows trepidation towards events that signal a change. This reflects his reluctance to leave the safety of his childhood, and he frequently finds fault with others so he doesn’t have to accept responsibility for his own actions. Holden feels much more calm in the presence of children, who don’t expect very much from him, but he is anxious in situations where he has to take responsibility. Ironically, it is this stubborn immaturity that prevents Holden from establishing any sort of romantic relationship, which he seems to want.

Loss of Innocence

Holden sees childhood innocence as something that no one should ever lose. Holden lost his with his brother Allie’s death, and it’s something that he still has not dealt with properly. Holden tells Phoebe that he wants to be a “catcher in the rye.” He imagines standing in a field of rye, where children are playing, and catching any children who start to run towards a cliff at the edge of the field. The cliff is a metaphor for a loss of innocence, when children inevitably begin the transition from childhood to adulthood.


Holden does not feel that he fits with the world around him; he does not fit in with his peers at the elite prep schools; he is so absent-minded that he leaves the fencing team’s equipment on the train; he buys a red hunting hat and wears it, even indoors, tugging on it when he feels insecure—which sets him apart even more from those around him; he lies often and finds fault with everyone around him; and he frequently wants to run away from his problems to start a new life somewhere else. The only people Holden establishes a true, honest connection with are his sister Phoebe, the nuns, and Jane Gallagher.

Unresolved Guilt and Grief

When Allie dies, Holden punches out every window in the garage of his family’s summer home in Maine. When he writes Stradlater’s composition assignment, he chooses to write about Allie’s baseball mitt which has poems written all over it. He sometimes regrets the day that he didn’t invite Allie to go shoot BB guns with him and Bobby Fallon in Maine. At the height of his mental breakdown, as Holden steps off curbs, he feels he’s going to fall into an abyss and asks Allie to keep him from disappearing. When Phoebe asks Holden what he likes in life, he answers Allie, and talking to her. It is clear that this young teenager has not dealt with the grief he holds for his brother whom he lost when he was only 13, and it’s not entirely clear that he’s getting support from his family, since he’s being shipped off to boarding schools.

Motifs & Symbols

Red Hunting Hat

The red hunting hat that Holden purchases in New York the day the novel open becomes a source of safety and security for him. He keeps the red hunting hat on when he writes the composition about Allie’s baseball mitt, when he leaves Pencey Prep in the middle of the night, and when he is thinking to himself in private. He doesn’t wear it out in public much, which seems to make it more personal for him. He eventually gives it to Phoebe as a gift when she gives him some of his Christmas money, and she gives it back to him at the end of the novel. It’s something that sets him apart, which alienates him but also gives him a sense of security.

Ducks in Central Park

Holden is concerned with the fate of the ducks in Central Park during the winter. Holden feels a kinship with the ducks, because it seems like they have nowhere to go, much in the way Holden feels lost in this world where he can’t seem to connect with anyone else. He can’t go home because of his expulsion from school, he can’t establish a connection with any girls, and the one teacher he has any trust in gets creepy with him. One promising thing about the ducks though is that they return every year. This seems promising for Holden’s future after his stint in the institution.


Holden sees the profanity scratched into the walls at Phoebe’s school, and later, on a wall at the Museum of Natural History. Holden takes this opportunity to observe that there are no nice and peaceful places left anymore because someone will always sneak in and write something that threatens the innocence of that place. The profanity bothers Holden at the school especially, because it is in a place where children can see it, and he knows that using profanity and seeing profanity is the beginning of things that will make them all a little less innocent. This begins the transition from childhood to adulthood that Holden himself fears so much.

Museum of Natural History

The Museum of Natural History is one place that has remained the same since Holden was a little boy and took school trips there. The mummies and Native American exhibits are in the same place. There is no real change in the building, which Holden likes, because he doesn’t like change. Change reminds him of the inevitable transition he will have to soon make into being an adult, which he is avoiding by doing things like flunking out of school.

Holden’s Name

Holden Caulfield. Once dissected, it reads: “hold on” [to the] “caul”, or hold on to the membrane that surrounds the baby in utero, which is expelled during birth. This is symbolic of Holden trying to hang on to his innocence, even though it has been shattered by Allie’s death. The “field” refers to the rye field, and brings the reader back to the moment when Holden declares he wants to be a catcher in the rye, and to prevent other children from facing the same loss of innocence that he has.

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Template and Class Instructions

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Student Instructions

Create a storyboard that identifies recurring themes in The Catcher in the Rye. Illustrate instances of each theme and write a short description below each cell.

  1. Click "Start Assignment".
  2. Identify the theme(s) from The Catcher in the Rye you wish to include and replace the "Theme 1" text.
  3. Create an image for the example(s) that represents this theme.
  4. Write a description of each of the examples.
  5. Save and submit the assignment.

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