Visual symbols tell us what to think, act or feel. A red octagon makes you stop. A peace sign tells you there’s hippie madness afoot. A few graduated arcs give you the thrill of being able to plug in and connect to the rest of the universe. We see these visual prompts and act on them.
But what about artistic symbols? Literary symbolism always sent me into a tizzy, because of the looming question, “Says who?” When I was assigned to read The Catcher in the Rye in 10th grade, I attacked it like every other book. I read it (possibly inhaled it) and moved on to the next book, waiting for everyone to catch up. Then, Ms. Fairchild, my beloved lit teacher, asked the question that broke my brain, “So what did the hat mean?” What did the hat…that it was a New England winter and his head was cold?
Rereading books from my high school days is enjoyable, because it’s great to look at an amazing book from a new perspective. I’m reading the previously mentioned The Catcher in the Rye. I paused briefly to revisit and refresh myself on some of the symbolism, including that accursed hat. Three different links provided by The All Knowing Google yielded three different opinions. I’m fifteen again; fifteen and wondering why this New England kid couldn’t have just bought this hat to keep his head warm on an adventure. Of course symbolism exists in the creative arts, but what if a hat is just a hat this time?
The compulsion to find hidden meanings in everything is sometimes a bit overwhelming. Creative expression is a creator sharing a meaningful vision with you. Your role as the beholder involves you seeking your own truth in that vision. Art and literature expand the mind. The mystery of it all is what compels us. If Salvador Dali stood next to Meditative Rose and said, “This is exactly what I was thinking when I painted this,” we’d lose interest. The best artists show rather than tell, leaving room for you to extrapolate.
There’s an almost distasteful arrogance that comes with defining artistic symbolism. You can’t presume to know precisely what was in the artist’s head when they created it, and not even the artist can predict how it will resonate with the public. At best they can hope. Simply put, you can not tell me how to feel.
So, Holden and his hat? I do have thoughts on its symbolism. Holden is reluctantly approaching the end of any childlike innocence he hoped to have and it scares him. The hat is warm, safe and definitively his in a world that is cold, rather dangerous and completely out of his control. That’s how I feel about that hat. My interpretation. And you can’t grade me on my feelings. So there.