Summary of the Novel
The story covers a three-day period in the life of Holden Caulfield. He has been notified that he has just flunked out of prep school, and he begins his journey home, where he must face his parents. He is also considering whether he should simply go out west and start a new life, rather than go home at all.
Before he leaves Pencey, Ackley, the boy who lives in the next room, comes over to visit. Ackley has several personal habits which make him unappealing, but Holden tolerates him. Stradlater, Holden’s roommate, then comes in to freshen up for a date. Although Stradlater is handsome and has the veneer of sincerity, Holden thinks he is a phony. That evening, in New York City, Holden joins three female tourists in a nightclub and gets stuck with the check. Back at his hotel, he accepts an offer from the elevator operator for some female companionship. When the girl arrives, he is depressed by the hollowness of an encounter with a prostitute and tells her that he is not in the mood for sex.
The next day, Sunday, Holden meets two nuns at breakfast. He enjoys their conversation and insists on giving them a contribution. That afternoon, he takes his old girlfriend, Sally, to see a play. Still ambivalent about going home, Holden tries to talk Sally into running away with him. When he insults her, she asks him to leave. Later, he goes home and sneaks into the house to see his sister, Phoebe, before he runs away. After they talk, he decides to spend the night at the home of his former English teacher, Mr. Antolini. Holden suspects that his former teacher is a pervert when he is awakened by Mr. Antolini petting him on the head. Holden makes up a flimsy excuse about getting his bags from the train station and bolts from the apartment.
Holden continues to be obsessed by his plan to go out west. On Monday morning, he writes Phoebe a note at her school asking her to meet him near the Metropolitan Museum. Phoebe meets him with suitcase in hand. She has decided to run away with him, but he tells her that he is not going away after all. They visit the zoo, and then Phoebe wants to ride the carousel in the park. Before she gets on, he confirms to her that he really is going home. While standing in a soaking rain, watching Phoebe ride the carousel, he feels so happy that he is on the verge of tears.
The novel is divided into three sections, with the first chapter as an introduction and the last chapter as an epilogue. The first part includes Chapters Two through Seven, covering the period at Pencey Prep. Chapters Eight through Twenty make up the second part, which recounts Holden’s wandering about New York, and ends with his decision to go home. Chapters Twenty-one through Twenty-five describe his time with Phoebe. Holden is the narrator of the story which is told as a “flashback.”
Estimated Reading Time
The average reader should be able to read the book in four to six hours. The colloquial and engaging style of Holden’s narration makes for a quick read. The reading could be broken down into two or three two-hour sittings, though many readers are able, if they have the time, to read the book in one long sitting.