“It’s a people shooting hat”: Motif in The Catcher in the Rye
A hat can do many things. It can cover. It can protect. It hides your hair. It keeps one warm, especially in cold weather. It is a symbol of expression. It is rebellious, if worn backwards. This functional object, in the world of Holden’s search for maturity, too acts in many distinct and figurative ways. When Holden Caulfield muses that his red hunting hat is more than just a hunting hat, it is actually a “people shooting hat”, the character himself attaches meaning to the object. It is symbolic to him and to us the reader. Throughout this work, Holden uses the hat in the ways any common person would, but it is how and why he uses the hat that is vital to understanding the character and the whole text. In the novel The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger uses the red hunting hat as a motif, a recurring image/object to suggest Holden’s struggle to cover up his past and his search for the future.
To truly understand how the motif functions in the text, we must look at its everyday function and how Salinger creates meaning from it.
It covers. But what does it cover? First, it covers Holden’s hair, which is “gray” with “one side of [his] head…full of millions of gray hair” (9). The hat here conceals Holden’s appearance of age or maturity. Holden claims he has had “them ever since [he] was a kid” and that people mistake him for being older. Holden, who says he “acts like [he’s] only thirteen”, desires to remain young and not be confused as an adult or live in the adult world. Second, the color of the hat helps Holden cover up his signs of maturity. The red hat can be seen as a substitute for his dead brother Allie. As Holden remembers, Allie “never got mad at anybody” unlike the stereotype of “people with red hair [who] are supposed to get mad very easily” (38). It is interesting that in making this observation of Allie and his red hair, Salinger juxtaposes the scene wherein Holden breaks “all the goddam windows with [his] fists, just for the hell of it” (39). Holden cannot control his maturing and he cannot control his anger or rage at a world, which had deprived him of his brother Allie. Therefore, he uses the hat to cover up his pain, anger, and his signs of maturity. Holden through the use of the hat desires to remain in arrested development, perpetual adolescence. He is twelve when Allie dies, the same age his hair begins to gray, and it is this age and this sense of innocence that the hat provides.
So, the hat protects as well. Yes, the hat is protecting Holden from his own realization about maturity, but they are other elements from which the hat protects Holden Caulfield. It is, after all, winter and weather is important. Here, Salinger uses the motif of the red hunting hat in conjunction with his setting. The winter season, in all its gloom and frozenness, acts as a season of despair to with Holden tries to escape:
You wouldn’t even have known it had snowed at all. There was hardly any snow on the sidewalks. It was freezing cold, and I took my red hunting hat out of my pocket and put it on – I didn’t give a damn how I looked. I even put the earlaps down. (88)
The hat is a way for Holden to retreat from the cold. Moreover, the cold serves as the environment in which Holden must hunt and seek. But what is he hunting or what is he hunting for?
First, we have already explored how the hat covers the pain he feels about Allie’s death and how the hat acts as a means of protection in this depressed period of his life. But, the hat as a “hunting” hat functions in two more distinct ways: 1) his search for his own childhood, and 2) his sarcastic defense against those who he perceives as phony.
Let us first explore the hunt itself. Along with the hat, Salinger populates the hunt with images that reinforce Holden’s desire to hold on to childhood: the paper on Egyptians in which Holden wonders about mummies, the Museum of Natural History where “everything always stayed right where it was”, the carrousel where childhood is repeated in a circle, and finally, the pond. To get to the point of what Holden is searching for, we must look at his desire to find out where the ducks go.
“Well, you know the ducks that swim around in it? In the springtime and all? Do you happen to know where they go in the wintertime, by any chance?”
“Where who goes?”
“The ducks. Do you know, by any chance? I mean does somebody come around in a truck of something and take them away, or do they fly away by themselves – go south or something?” (81-82)
Again, the desire to escape winter and depression is revealed in this scene. He is looking for a way out of his problem and is realizing that remaining “frozen” in childhood is no longer an option. Perhaps, somebody will come around in a truck; (in the end, he is committed to an institution). Or perhaps, he could fly away. The fleeing ducks can be seen as his childhood that is escaping, that will not freeze, and will not come back when it/he is thawed.
How does the hat fit in? The hat, which protects him from the world and covers his maturity, affords him the remaining time to hunt for his perpetual childhood. Without the hat, his hunt is over. The hat is off, and he is mature. When Holden decides his hunt as fruitless, he bestows the hat upon his sister, Phoebe; through her, he desires to protect and see everlasting childhood. He beams when she is on the carrousel, and bemoans lost when her favorite childhood record Little Shirley Beans is broken and can no longer spin. Even though, she “didn’t want to take [the red hat]”, he “ma[kes] her” (180). He forces her into his desire of perpetual adolescence. Despite her age, Phoebe, unlike Holden, has no desire to hold on to childhood and confronts Holden’s idea about being “the catcher in the rye” who saves kids. Phoebe corrects Holden’s memory of the Robert Burns poem: “It’s ‘If a body meet a body comin’ thro the rye’” (173). Holden’s desire to save children is in contrast to Phoebe’s understanding that one must move on; to her, “Allie is dead”, and people need to interact, not try to save something that is lost.
This brings us to the second point: “It is a people shooting hat”. Holden promotes that he “shoot[s] people with this hat” (22). He does - with wit, with sarcasm, with glib portrayal. To survive the hunt, Holden uses the hat as a protective shield of sarcasm and that allows him to remain immature and avoid the necessary interaction to grow up – the one Phoebe and others beg him to engage it. He ridicules everyone as “phony”. He criticizes all those who try to engage him: Carl Luce is a “flit”, Ackley is a “goddman moron”, Spencer is “old”, etc. Holden shoots down the advice of those who desire for him to grow up. When Mr. Antolini warns that he is for “some kind of terrible, terrible fall” (186), (perhaps off the cliff to adulthood), Holden does not concentrate, changes the subject, and ultimately, whether justified or not, dismisses the affection of Mr. Antolini as a “flitty pass” (189), Holden consistently and often consciously shoots down those trying to help.
So how does the hunt end? In the end, Phoebe returns the hat to Holden’s head, in a moment where she realizes Holden has more use for its protection than she does. Holden sits in the rain wearing his hat and muses: “My hunting hat really gave me quite a lot of protection, in a way, but I got soaked anyway” (211-212). Despite all that Holden does, he invariably will grow up. Though he is happy for now, as “Phoebe ke[eps] going round and round” on the carrousel, the story ends with the protection and Holden broken. His defense and desire to reclaim and preserve his childhood is soaked.
Throughout the text, the motif of the red hunting hat contributes to the idea that one cannot hold on to childhood or protect oneself from the inevitability of maturing. The tragedy of this bildingsroman is Holden’s error in his worldview. He refuses to accept this inevitability and allows himself to be broken. The sadness of the end, as Holden sits soaked, is that he tried to hold on to what will always slip away.
Note: This is over four pages in length.