Holden Caulfield is the 17-year old narrator and main character of the novel.
He tells his tale set in the early 1950’s from a sanatorium in Southern
Throughout the telling of the tale, our narrator digresses and before the
events, which led up to his nervous breakdown, are told, he tells us about his brother D.B. D.B. was a promising short story writer who sold out to the glitz of Hollywood and he is now a scriptwriter.
Holden begins his tale at Pencey Prep, a private school in Pennsylvania.
He is the manager of the fencing team, but because he lost their equipment on the subway, their Saturday has come to a premature end. There is a traditional Saturday afternoon football game with school rivals Saxon Hall, but Holden doesn’t go to the game. Instead, he goes to see his History teacher, Spencer to say goodbye as he has been expelled due to poor academic performance. The Christmas break starts this Wednesday. Spencer lectures Holden at length and he decides to escape this and return to the quiet of his dormitory room.
His solitude is soon interrupted by his dormitory neighbor Ackley, then
later his room-mate Stradlater comes in and he agrees to do an essay for him while Stradlater goes on a date with Holden’s ex girlfriend, Jane Gallagher.
Later that evening Stradlater returns and fails to appreciate the essay, which Holden has done for him, which is about a very personal item – his late brother’s baseball glove. The two fights and Holden come off worst with a bloody nose.
He decides he has had enough of Pencey Prep and decides to leave early,
shouting at his fellow students, calling them morons. He will stay in New York until Wednesday, when he is due to return home.
On his way to New York City, he meets a fellow student’s mother where he tells her a pack of lies about her son and himself, emphasizing the fact that he is a compulsive liar, unbalanced and immature.
In the hotel, Holden struggles with his own sexuality as he watches the
antics of those in the street below his window.
He meets three women tourists from Seattle in the hotel lounge and enjoys
dancing with one, but only ends up paying their drinks bill.
Holden then decides to have a prostitute, Sunny, visit his room, but he has
second thoughts about this and pays the girl to leave. She returns with her pimp who proceeds to beat Holden up for more money.
Feeling lonely, he decides to ‘phone a more familiar girl, Sally Hayes, who agrees to go to the theatre with him the following afternoon. Before they meet, he has a conversation with two nuns at breakfast and they talk about Romeo and Juliet. He ends up giving them a $10 donation. He also decides to buy his sister, Phoebe, a special record and this again costs him $10, which would normal cost 50c.
He meets Sally as arranged, but decides that although very good looking, she
is very superficial, and phony. He sees many characters around him as being ‘phony’, part of his cynical outlook on life. He notices a small boy singing ‘If a body catch a body comin’ through the rye’
which somehow lifts the depression surrounding him. As his date with Sally develops, Holden becomes more intense and suggests that they should run away together. This only alarms Sally and she decides to
make her own way home. Holden gets himself very drunk and he ends up going through Central park in a very depressed state wondering about the ducks and why they vanish in the wintertime, just as his brother,
Allie, had done, dying from leukemia.
In trying to find the ducks, he manages to break Phoebe’s recording in the
Exhausted both physically and mentally he heads home to see his sister,
Phoebe. Despite their age difference, Holden and Phoebe are not only brother and sister, but very close friends. He then tells her that he would like to be the ‘catcher in the rye’.
He sees himself standing at the edge of a precipice, next to a field of rye where the children play. The rye is so tall that they cannot see the cliff, which leads to adulthood. He had to fall into adulthood on his own and he wants to save the children from making the same journey.
When his parents return, Holden hides and is not detected.
He leaves the apartment to visit a favorite teacher, Mr. Antolini who is one of the few people Holden respects due to his intelligence. Holden perceives Antolini as the only person in the adult world who he can relate to. According to Holden, he awakes to find Antolini making a homosexual advance towards him by patting his head, and he quickly leaves.
Next day, he arranges to meet Phoebe for lunch where he plans to say his
goodbyes and head out West. She insists on joining him on his trek, and realizing that this would destroy her innocence, he decides to stay in order to protect her from falling down the cliff into adulthood.
Holden’s story ends with Phoebe riding a merry-go-round as he watches on
feeling blissfully happy, fulfilling his role as the ‘catcher in the rye’.
The final chapter deals with Holden’s stay at the sanatorium and what has
been decided for him in the future, going back to school and trying to make a go of it.
This whole episode has only made Holden miss the people in the tale even the ‘phony’s’.