Holden Caulfield and the Red Hunting Hat Essay
A Cheap Ol’ Red Hat Holden Caulfield has a dominating dilemma throughout The Catcher in the Rye, his need for companionship and his longing for isolation. Adding to this confusion, he is caught between wanting to preserve the innocence of a child and wanting the independence of an adult. A cheap and simple red hunting hat, with no significance to anyone else but him, is the symbol for these conflicts. The hat is inseparable from J. D. Salinger’s portrait of Holden for a good reason: it is a symbol of his uniqueness and individuality.
The hat is a bizarre visual that stands out because it is not part of the fashion at the time. It shows that Holden desires to be different from everyone around him. At the same time, he is very self-conscious about the hat, always mentioning the hat when wearing it, and then, he often doesn’t wear the hat if he is going to be around people he knows.
The hat’s significant color, red, is the color of his siblings, Allie and Phoebe’s hair.
Perhaps Holden associates it with the innocence and decency he believes his brother and sister represent for him and when wearing the hat, it becomes a way to connect with these qualities. He never directly comments on the hat’s significance other than to mention its unusual appearance, but as always, Holden’s character is never direct. The presence of the hat symbolizes the main conflict in the book: Holden’s need for isolation versus his need for companionship. The first time Holden wears the hat is in front of his next-door roommate, Ackley.
As Holden puts on the hat, he expects to be isolated or ostracized. Ackley points out, “That’s a deer shooting hat. ” Holden quips: “Like hell it is! This is a people-shooting hat. I shoot people in this hat” (22). Without knowing it, Holden gives away a truth about how he is really feeling without any lies for the first time in the novel. Through lying and deception, he maintains self-protection and alienates himself; Holden is just as guilty of phoniness as the people he criticizes.
Throughout the story, JD Salinger reveals only small amounts of truth, allowing the reader to examine and analyze the situations. The red hat helps Holden to endure uncomfortable social situations, and at the same time, helps him satisfy his need for isolation. The hat, in his mind, gives him power over the people that surround him, similar to a hunter’s world, a world where the powerful dominate over all others. Holden’s hunting hat was red and becomes a symbol for his deceased brother’s hair, and therefore, satisfying Holden’s longing to find a connection to his family.
Holden relates to the color red in various ways and says: “People with red hair are supposed to get mad easily, but Allie never did, and he had very red hair” (38). He is describing his feelings in one of the rare truthful scenes of the novel. Holden wants Allie to preserve his innocence and Allie is the person that Holden needs to keep himself together: “Allie, don’t let me disappear. Allie, don’t let me disappear. Please Allie” (198). Holden wants Allie to save him from something he knows he cannot be saved from.
He also feels a great surge of anger (seeing red) when realizing Allie is dead and buried in a cemetery. Holden is connecting himself to the stereotype of red heads without realizing it. Holden regrets that he didn’t appreciate Allie as much when he was alive. “I didn’t enjoy seeing him in that crazy cemetery… twice we were there when it started to rain… it rained on his lousy tombstone, and it rained on the grass on his stomach… I just wish he wasn’t there” (155-156).
Allie is clearly very important to Holden, which is why he wears the “red” hunting hat. Holden’s travels over four days in New York are full of stress and depression, though there are moments of happiness. Through the trials of these moods, Holden is wearing the red hunting hat. He put it on after his fight with Stradlater, when he left Pencey Prep, then after getting extremely drunk at the bar and wondering into Central Park, along with many other stressful situations.
In each of these circumstances, Holden is desperate for companionship, wishing for someone to relieve his pain. He turns to different people asking for advice, whether to Allie or Phoebe, or to his few friends, he wants to connect with someone. Holden eventually finds answers within himself and he comes to terms with what he had difficulty in accepting: “The thing with kids is if they want to grab for the gold ring, you have to let them do it, and not say anything. If they fall off, they fall off, but it’s bad if you say anything to them” (211).
Holden realizes how kids need to grow up and they need to learn how to do it for themselves. Youthful innocence, as much as Holden wants all children to hold on to this precious quality, is not permanent. He wants siblings, and other children, to avoid his painful experiences in becoming an adult and never have to witness what he had in his travels. The red hat is the symbol of all that Holden struggles with, companionship versus isolation, innocence versus knowledge, and what he has come to understand.