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In The Catcher in the Rye J.D Salinger uses Holden’s recurring mentions of the ducks in Central park to reveal the childlike curiosity and genuine side to Holden’s regularly blunt and overwhelmingly cynical character. During his first of several taxi rides in the city, Holden, bothered by the thought of constant change yet intrigued by the thought of how others cope with change begins to ask his cab driver the whereabouts of the ducks in Central Park when the lake freezes over.
“Then I thought of something, all of a sudden. "Hey, listen," I said. "You know those ducks in that lagoon right near Central Park South?
That little lake? By any chance, do you happen to know where they go, the ducks, when it gets all frozen over? Do you happen to know, by any chance?" I realized it was only one chance in a million. He `turned around and looked at me like I was a madman.
"What're ya tryna do, bud?" he said. "Kid me?"" No—I was just interested, that's all." (60). As exemplified by many symbols throughout the book such as the wax museum, Holden finds solace and comfort in things that are constant and don’t change. Holden’s interactions are sabotaged by his resentment of “phoniness” and his prominent and overly judgmental side, constantly overwhelming and undermining the genuine and caring side seen only when Holden feels comforted and welcomed by his environment. His red hunting cap is another symbol of protection for Holden.
“Ackley took another look at my hat . . .
“Up home we wear a hat like that to shoot deer in, for Chrissake,” he said. “That’s a deer shooting hat.” “Like hell it is.” I took it off and looked at it. I sort of closed one eye, like I was taking aim at it. “This is a people shooting hat,” I said. “I shoot people in this hat.” (22). When Holden says “I realized it was only one chance in a million.” (60), as he poses his question about the ducks to the cab driver, is his way of “people shooting” as demonstrated by his cap, a way of making the distinction between someone who would answer his question honestly, or someone in his mind “phony”, or disingenuous, clouded by the cruel realities of maturity and the adult world. This one in a million chance is Holden referring to his realization that the odds of a complete stranger answering his question seriously, are as good as none. Moreover, the continuous change and constant moving in Holden’s life, both of which he utterly resents are symbolic of the ducks.
Holden’s changing from school to school is almost cyclical, as is the migration and the return of the ducks when the pond returns to its original state. Ultimately, Holden finds himself trapped in a state of longing for his childhood, his frequent use of alcohol and cigarettes and sense of maturity, all a façade, masking his yearning for a life of innocence and honesty. “ It was partly frozen and partly not frozen. But I didn’t see any ducks around.” (154). Finally, Holden’s state of being is defined by the lagoon, not frozen, not unfrozen. He is exactly that, in a transition between childhood and adulthood, half frozen and half not, the ducks in the pond being an everlasting symbol for the reluctance he shows to transition to adulthood, and his futile attempts to slow the inevitable process of maturity.
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