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This novel concerns the first-person account of Holden Caulfield, the extremely troubled young adolescent who is struggling with life, after experiencing his younger brother's death from cancer and then being thrown out of a number of different schools. The novel begins as he is about to leave yet another school and he plans on not going home, but running away. As he leaves his school, he meets with a number of individuals, both known to him and new people that he meets as he travels around the city. It becomes very clear to the reader that Holden's account of his life and the experiences he undergoes is very partial. For example, on the one hand, he seems obsessed with sex and admits as much himself. However, whilst he is eager to try and get into situations where he can have sex, he also every time sabotages such attempts, indicating a fear of sexuality that he seems unaware of. This sexual inconsistency is made overt when he describes to Phoebe how he views himself:
...I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff—I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all.
The title of this novel is clearly taken from this quote, but also note the way in which Holden seems himself as a protector of innocence of children. He is upset when he sees the word "Fuck" in places where children can see it, and his determination to stop children falling off the cliff, metaphorically referring to their loss of innocence, explains his own sexual frustrations and ambiguities. The novel charts Holden's gradual breakdown until he reaches a point where he has to seek out medical help and finally ends the novel after therapy from which he is slowly recovering and becoming integrated once again into life.
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