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.”
The period following World War II was a time of hope, change, and puzzlement. Today’s youth have come to know this period through television sitcoms (Happy Days and Ozzie and Harriet), movies (Rebel Without a Cause), and early rock ‘n’ roll music, which is still heard on “oldies” radio stations. Needless to say, these provide a simplistic picture of this complex period (1945-60).
In reality, an estimated 50 million persons had died during the six years of World War II. They died on the battlefield, of starvation, and as a result of genocide. The United States buried its dead along with the rest of the world, but the country emerged from the war intact, even flourishing, from an economic point of view. The “war industries” continued into the postwar years, causing the economy to expand. It was a time of prosperity, unlike any in history.
Whereas the various New Deal programs of the Roosevelt administration had failed to lift the country out of the Depression, the war had energized the national will, sharply expanding employment, productivity, and capital investment. After the war, automobiles and major appliances were suddenly available. Indeed, everybody needed them because, during the war, raw materials had been used for the war effort rather than for “luxuries” like washing machines and refrigerators. Interstate highways and intercontinental airliners made travel easier, cheaper, and, thus, more available to the middle class. Mass-produced tract houses brought home ownership within the reach of the majority of workers. Jobs were plentiful. The American Dream was within the grasp of everyone.
But this is only part of the story. In 1950, America was at war again. This time it was the Korean War. It was also the beginning of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. Each side competed with the other in building the biggest and most destructive war machine. Senator Joseph McCarthy heightened the fear of a Communist takeover of this country by recklessly accusing people in government and in the entertainment industry of being Communist subversives. Paradoxically, and of equal importance to the American people, was the competition in space exploration which began with the Soviet launching of Sputnik.
Sputnik was the name for three satellites launched by the Soviet Union in October and November 1957 and in May 1958. Their purpose was to investigate whether living organisms could survive space conditions. Sputnik came as a tremendous shock to the United States, where technology was viewed as an American “exclusive.” Suddenly, Russia—the backward, unsophisticated competitor—had outdistanced the West. Reactions in the United States, in some cases, bordered on hysteria. Although the United States launched a satellite, Explorer I, in January 1958, it was too late. America was now “number two” in the space race. But who was to blame? The schools become the scapegoat. In order to close the alleged gap between the Soviet and American educational systems, federal dollars were pumped into the schools to improve science and mathematics education. Education became a national priority, not only to win the Cold War, but to reestablish the United States as “Number one”.
Most veterans of World War II and Korea were eager to put the war behind them and get on with their lives. Men and women who had never considered the possibility of higher education before the wars were now enrolling in college because of the GI Bill. Other veterans had skills learned in the military which easily transferred to the manufacturing and business world.
African-American veterans came home from World War II to find people of color still walking the streets of America with their heads down and riding at the back of the bus. They asked themselves, “Did we risk our lives so that we could come home to be the porters and janitors of the richest country in the world?” Clearly their answer was no. It was not long before Rosa Parks in Montgomery, Alabama, refused to go to the back of the bus (1955), and the civil rights movement was born.
Many veterans from the Second World War and Korea would never recover from the physical and mental wounds received in military action. Veterans, as well as others who had experienced the horrors of war, were thinking anew about the meaning of life. Some saw no meaning at all.
In the mid-fifties, a counter-culture emerged, called the Beat Generation (beatniks). Many of the beatniks fought in the Korean War, were disillusioned with the American Dream, and rejected the materialism of the conventional consumer society. The Beat Generation of writers, among them Allen Ginsberg Jack Kerouac Gregory Corso, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, created a literature around an unconventional lifestyle of Zen Buddhism drugs, jazz, and a heightened respect for the individual over the masses. They felt that the American way of life was too corrupt to be saved.
Salinger, too, was grappling with life’s contradictions, perhaps, because of his own war experiences. In his stories, he lamented the emptiness of contemporary culture. He struggled with the conflict between spiritual values and the materialism and selfishness of the times. He mourned the loss of childhood innocence as each person matures and makes compromises with the sinful world. He wrestled with the fact that it is difficult to be in the world without being soiled by the world. Finding genuine love in a society of imperfect men and women is not easy. Salinger was able to articulate the ambiguities in life with which every man and woman must come to terms.
Although Americans were buying automobiles and saving for a house in the suburbs, they worried about the Cold War due to the hostile relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union. But they were also concerned about the meaning of life, the individual’s place in society, and which values mattered, especially with the threat of nuclear destruction hanging overhead. Salinger wrote about every person’s need for meaning and authenticity. This is the reason that The Catcher in the Rye became a best seller.
List of Characters
Holden Caulfield—the protagonist and narrator of the story.
D. B.—Holden’s brother.
Selma Thurmer—the headmaster’s daughter.
Mr. Spencer—Holden’s history teacher at Pencey Prep.
Robert Tichener—one of the boys with whom Holden tossed the football “this time in around October.”
Paul Campbell—one of the boys with whom Holden tossed the football “this time in around October.”
Mr. Zambesi—the biology teacher at Pencey Prep.
Mrs. Spencer—the wife of Mr. Spencer.
Mr. Haas— the headmaster at Elkton Hills School.
Dr. Thurmer—the headmaster at Pencey Prep.
Robert Ackley—the boy who lives in the room next to Holden.
Herb Gale—Ackley’s roommate.
Edgar Marsalla—the student who created a disturbance during a talk by Mr. Ossenburger.
Mr. Ossenburger—an alumnus and benefactor of Pencey Prep, after whom the dormitory wing, in which Holden lives, was named.
Ward Stradlater—Holden’s roommate at Pencey Prep.
Howie Coyle—a student and basketball player at Pencey Prep.
Hartzell—Holden and Stradlater’s English teacher at Pencey Prep.
Fitzgerald—a former girlfriend of Stradlater.
Phyllis Smith—the girl who was supposed to be Stradlater’s date; instead Jane Gallagher is his date.
Bud Thaw—Jane Gallagher is Bud Thaw’s girlfriend’s roommate.
Jane Gallagher—a former girlfriend of Holden’s who goes on a date with Stradlater.
Mal Brossard—a student at Pencey with whom Holden went to Agerstown.
Allie—Holden’s younger brother who died of leukemia.
Ed Banky—the basketball coach at Pencey, owned the car which Stradlater borrowed for his date with Jane Gallagher.
Mrs. Schmidt—the janitor’s wife at Pencey Prep.
Frederick Woodruff—a student who lives in the dorm, to whom Holden sells his typewriter.
Mrs. Morrow—mother of Ernest Morrow, a classmate; the lady whom Holden met on the train.
Ernest Morrow—a classmate of Holden’s, son of the lady whom he met on the train.
Rudolf Schmidt—the name of the janitor at Holden’s dorm and the alias Holden used with Mrs. Morrow on the train.
Harry Fencer—president of Holden’s class at Pencey Prep.
Phoebe—Holden’s ten-year-old sister.
Sally Hayes—a girlfriend with whom Holden went to the play on Sunday afternoon.
Mrs. Hayes—Sally’s mother.
Carl Luce—a student at Columbia, and Holden’s student advisor at Whooton School; they met for drinks at the Wicker Bar.
Faith Cavendish—a former stripper who would not meet Holden for a drink.
Eddie (Edmund) Birdsell—a student at Princeton who gave Faith Cavendish’s name and telephone number to Holden.
Anne Louise Sherman—a girl whom Holden once dated.
Bernice—one of the three girls whom Holden met in the nightclub; the blonde, the good dancer.
Marty—one of the girls whom Holden met in the Lavender Room; the poor dancer.
Laverne—one of the girls whom Holden met in the Lavender Room.
Mrs. Caulfield—Holden’s mother.
Mrs. Cudahy—Jane Gallagher’s mother.
Mr. Cudahy—Jane Gallagher’s step-father.
Horwitz—the cabdriver who takes Holden to Ernie’s and who is unable to tell Holden where the ducks from Central Park go in the winter.
Ernie—the owner of a nightclub in Greenwich Village and the featured pianist there.
Lillian Simmons—a former girlfriend of D. B.’s, whom Holden meets in Ernie’s.
Raymond Goldfarb—a boy with whom Holden got drunk on scotch in the chapel at the Whooton School.
Maurice—the elevator operator who procured the prostitute for Holden.
Sunny—the prostitute procured by Maurice.
Bobby Fallon—a neighbor and friend of Holden’s in Maine several years ago.
Arthur Childs—a student at the Whooton School with whom Holden discusses religious issues.
The Nuns—nuns whom Holden meets in Grand Central Station.
Dick Slagle—a roommate of Holden’s at Elkton Hills School.
Louis Shaney—Catholic boy whom Holden met at Whooton School.
Miss Aigletinger—a former teacher of Holden’s who frequently took her class to the Museum of Natural History.
Gertrude Levine—Holden’s partner when the class went to the Museum of Natural History.
Harris Macklin—a roommate of Holden’s for a couple of months at Elkton Hills School.
George something—an acquaintance of Sally Hayes whom she saw at the play.
Al Pike—Jane Gallagher’s date at a Fourth of July dance.
Bob Robinson—a friend of Holden’s, who had an inferiority complex.
James Castle—the boy who committed suicide at Elkton Hills School.
Mr. Antolini—Holden’s former English teacher at Elkton Hills.
Richard Kinsella—a classmate of Holden’s who digressed a great deal in oral expression class when giving speeches.
Mr. Vinson—the teacher of oral expression at Pencey Prep.
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.