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Symbolism In The Works Catcher In The Rye By Jerome David Salinger And Streetcar Named Desire By Tennessee Williams

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The word symbol, derived from the Greek verb symballein, ‘to throw together’, is an animate or inanimate object that represents or ‘stands for’ something else.1 They use a concrete image to express implicit ideas or emotions, to be interpreted by the reader. In the 20th Century, for instance, the United States used Uncle Sam as an easily recognizable symbol in order to recruit soldiers for the Second World War. In “The Catcher in the Rye”, J.D. Salinger uses symbolism to invoke themes such as pathos and individuality, which typify the novel’s protagonist, Holden Caulfield and his character. Similarly, Tennessee Williams uses various symbols in “A Streetcar Named Desire” that tell the reader more about the characters within it, such as Blanche’s changing mental state throughout the novel.

The titles of the texts are important symbols with meanings that become increasingly significant as the plot progresses. “The Catcher in the Rye” is a metaphor Holden uses to express his aspirations for the future, that of “catching” children playing in a field, when they get close to the edge. The children represent (perhaps Holden’s own) innocence, the field symbolizes childhood and the fall from the edge of the field epitomizes the fall into adulthood. This alludes to Holden’s own fear of growing up and resentment of the adult world: he will make sure the children never lose their innocence and youth, as he will “catch” them before they grow up. The metaphor lies in the inspiration of this image, when Holden hears a child singing the song “Comin’ Thro’ the Rye”. Holden’s interpretation of the lyrics is “If a body catch a body comin’ thro’ the rye”, but it is then revealed by Holden’s sister Phoebe that the actual lyrics are “If a body meet a body comin’ through the rye”. This shows that Phoebe, the child Holden arguably tries to protect the most, knows that the song is truly about recreational sex, which is one of the things Holden resents about growing up. This ironic misunderstanding shaped Holden’s character and actions, though, as he makes that metaphor the basis of his behaviour and attitude throughout the novel.

The incorrect song lyrics inspired Holden and were a driving force behind his actions, just like “A Streetcar Named Desire” is to Blanche. Blanche rides a streetcar named Desire and transfers to a streetcar named Cemeteries to arrive at Elysian Fields.

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This journey is both literal and allegorical, as the driving force behind Blanche’s actions is desire, which is shown by her iconic line, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers” and her flirtatious behaviour towards Stanley throughout the play. The next streetcar in the journey to Elysian Fields is not coincidentally named Cemeteries, as it is where the deceased are laid to rest. Similarly, the Elysian Fields, in Greek mythology, were the final resting place of the souls of the heroic and virtuous. This shows Blanche’s mental journey, because she leaves Stella’s house as a broken shell of her former self; her experiences there fundamentally change her as a person. Therefore, her soul’s final resting place is Elysian Fields. The representation of Elysian Fields in “A Streetcar Named Desire” is also important. It is a poor area, full of middle-class workers but, “unlike corresponding sections in other American cities, it has a raffish charm”. All the residents of the area are content and at peace with life, even though they are not upper-class. George Orwell famously declared that “Happiness can exist only in acceptance.”, thus acceptance may well be what the character of Blanche lacks in her pursuit of happiness, and the cause of her ongoing deception. Her first lie is very early in the play, when she tells Stella she is taking a “leave of absence” from her job as a teacher. She continues her deception, until it seems as though she believes her own lies when writing to the allegedly rich and adoring Step Huntleigh. Later, she justifies her deception as Blanche says: “I misrepresent things to them. I don’t tell the truth; I tell what ought to be truth.” This suggests she shuns reality and alters it to fit her preferred experience. Perhaps Blanche is Tennessee Williams’ way of showing the dangers of self- deception, which he might be familiar with as he had several relationships with women before accepting his homosexuality in the early 1930’s. Williams’ homosexuality, much like Blanche’s sexual promiscuity, were both considered morally wrong at the time the play was written, suggesting Williams used himself as an inspiration for Blanche’s character.

Another important symbol in “The Catcher in the Rye” is the protagonist’s “red hunting hat, with one of those very, very long peaks”. Holden buys the hat at a vulnerable time: only a day after he let his fencing team down by forgetting their equipment. It could be interpreted as a coping mechanism, as Holden would never admit to feeling vulnerable. The hat is almost synonymous with Holden Caulfield’s character, as it highlights his unique personality and desire to stand out. Simultaneously, he is self-conscious about the hat, as he refers to it constantly while wearing it. He also removes it when meeting new people, suggesting his apprehension about the hat, because it is an outlandish symbol of his individuality. Therefore, the hat reflects Holden’s main struggle; a need for companionship versus his need for isolation. The colour of the hat is also significant, as red is the colour of Holden’s siblings’ hair. Perhaps he associates the hat with his deceased brother and wears it as a way to remember him. The red colour also has sinister connotations of death and blood, which are presumably understood by Holden as he “shoots people in this hat”. This quote is controversial as read by a contemporary society, as at least two famous shooters cited “The Catcher in the Rye” as their inspiration. The hat as a symbol for past trauma and a method of coping with such trauma is reminiscent of the Varsouviana Polka in William’s narrative play. The polka is rather ambiguous, as it is not heard by any characters except for Blanche. The polka is played when Blanche is reminded of her husband, as she lashed out to her late husband about his homosexuality while dancing to the music. Her husband, who she refers to as “the boy”, immediately ran out and committed suicide after the confrontation. The Polka is a symbol for Blanche’s past, and reminds her of a traumatic event she had never learnt to cope with. It reveals her troubled mental state and evokes a sense of empathy, as the audience also hears the Polka music when Blanche hears it. However, in a contemporaneous society, where homophobia is considered the norm, it would be unlikely that the audience would feel any empathy for a homosexual man. The Polka haunts Blanche, which minimizes the fact that another person took their own life due to the repression of their homosexuality. The focus being on Blanche’s trauma, which is a large part of her personality, neglects the terrible reality her husband faced due to his sexual orientation. This is no coincidence; Williams is, much like Shakespeare, heavily influenced by his cultural and political surroundings and masterfully implements them in his works.

Contrastingly, the paper lantern over the light bulb symbolizes Blanche’s rejection of change. The lantern diffuses light, which makes for an unclear image, which is used by Blanche as an attempt to mask her present appearance. Blanche’s justification for her attachment to the lantern is that she “can’t stand a naked light bulb, any more than [she] can a rude remark or a vulgar action.” This is most likely not the reason Blanche is attached to the lantern, though, because it represents her fear of facing reality. She is aware of the fact that she is using it as a temporary coping mechanism, disclosing that she “[doesn’t] want realism––[she wants] magic!” when Mitch rips it off. The meaning of the lantern is further developed as Blanche is heard singing “It’s only a paper moon, Just as phony as it can be–But it wouldn’t be make- believe If you believed in me!” from the song “Paper Moon”. These lyrics reveal that Blanche wants people to believe the “phony” façade she is keeping up, because she does not know how to accept her traumatizing past and present reality. This theme is also clear in Blanche’s indulgence in alcohol, which she also denies while secretly drinking to escape sobriety and, by extension, reality. Similarly, Holden’s constant rejection of change is epitomized by his obsession with the ducks in Central Park. Holden “was wondering where the ducks went when the lagoon got all icy and frozen over” from very early on in the book. He later poses the question to two different cab drivers, even considering the childish idea that “somebody comes around in a truck or something and takes them away”. Holden’s fascination with the ducks represents his own struggle with changing. The ducks adapt to their surroundings when the lake freezes over, so they fly away. Holden is perhaps intrigued by the ducks’ ability to change along with their environment, something Holden has issues with. Towards the end of the novel, Holden “broke [Phoebe’s record] into about fifty pieces” on his visit to Central Park, where he could not find any ducks. The breaking of the record is significant because of the song on the record: “called ‘Little Shirley Beans”… about a little kid that wouldn’t go out of the house because two of her front teeth were out.” The broken record symbolizes childhood, and Holden’s futile attempt to prevent Phoebe from growing up, while the ducks prove that, in order to survive, he will have to adapt. In both works, it is significant that there is a notion of hope; In “The Catcher in the Rye”, the ducks will always reappear after leaving for winter, while in “A Streetcar Named Desire”, the paper lantern is presented to Blanche when she is taken away by the matron. This scene is particularly interesting, as Blanche “cries out as if the lantern was herself” when Stanley extends it towards her. This presumably reflects the fact that it is false hope that is offered: Blanche is keen to continue avoiding her reality, while Holden segues into envisioning his death and funeral after discovering the ducks to be gone. Both characters, when faced with the reality of their fabricated view of the world, struggle to come to terms with it, highlighting the destructive nature of their self-deception.

In both of these texts it is clear that symbolism is used deliberately and strategically in order to convey meanings that are more significant than their initial interpretations. Aforementioned symbols highlight characteristics of the protagonists of these works, conveying meanings about their unique personalities while remaining subtle, which adds to the depth of these characters. Furthermore, both Holden and Blanche are arguably, to a certain extent, based on their writers, J.D. Salinger and Tennessee Williams respectively. Salinger has even stated that “My boyhood was very much the same as that of the boy in the book”, possibly suggesting that the symbols in the novel find their origin in Salinger’s own life. Both authors are undoubtedly aware of the importance and potential of symbolism in shaping a narrative. Symbols and their subtle references to nuanced ideas offer an opportunity for the reader to connect with the characters within the texts, without them being two-dimensional. Moreover, symbols are presumably only effective because they are so authentic; they are as frequently found outside the narrative of the text as they are within it. People often treasure symbols that hold great significance to them personally, or unintentionally assign a greater meaning to a simple object because of past experiences. Thus, symbolism recalls a practice that is so inherently human, that, when applied to a fictional character, makes them relatable as a human being, rather than a mere protagonist in a work of literature.

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Symbolism In The Works Catcher In The Rye By Jerome David Salinger And Streetcar Named Desire By Tennessee Williams. (2021, August 09). Edubirdie. Retrieved October 5, 2022, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/symbolism-in-the-works-catcher-in-the-rye-by-jerome-david-salinger-and-streetcar-named-desire-by-tennessee-williams/
“Symbolism In The Works Catcher In The Rye By Jerome David Salinger And Streetcar Named Desire By Tennessee Williams.” Edubirdie, 09 Aug. 2021, edubirdie.com/examples/symbolism-in-the-works-catcher-in-the-rye-by-jerome-david-salinger-and-streetcar-named-desire-by-tennessee-williams/
Symbolism In The Works Catcher In The Rye By Jerome David Salinger And Streetcar Named Desire By Tennessee Williams. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/symbolism-in-the-works-catcher-in-the-rye-by-jerome-david-salinger-and-streetcar-named-desire-by-tennessee-williams/> [Accessed 5 Oct. 2022].
Symbolism In The Works Catcher In The Rye By Jerome David Salinger And Streetcar Named Desire By Tennessee Williams [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2021 Aug 09 [cited 2022 Oct 5]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/symbolism-in-the-works-catcher-in-the-rye-by-jerome-david-salinger-and-streetcar-named-desire-by-tennessee-williams/
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