Holden Caulfield, a tall seventeen-year-old with prematurely graying hair. In a California sanatorium where he is undergoing treatment for a physical and mental collapse, he narrates the very subjective account of his almost two-day sojourn in New York City shortly before his breakdown. In the narrative, he flees Pencey, an exclusive boys’ preparatory school in Pennsylvania from which he had been expelled, just before the Christmas break. Alienated, lonely, sad, and afraid to go home until the date his parents expect him, Holden roams New York City seeking comfort and understanding from past friends and acquaintances, from strangers, and, stealthily, from his adored little sister, Phoebe. Still mourning his younger brother Allie’s death from leukemia three years earlier, Holden nurses a morbid sensitivity behind a façade of adolescent loudmouthed belligerence, bravado, and apathy that has cost him friends and family approval and caused this third expulsion from a school. Longing for emotional support, Holden perversely trusts almost no one. He views his world, not incorrectly, as being full of “phonies”; often, he fantasizes about a solitary life as a self-sufficient deaf-mute. Holden longs for an idyllic world epitomized for him in the words of Robert Burns’s “Coming Through the Rye.” He wishes himself to be the “catcher,” protector of children’s innocence, in a kind of sunlit never-never land where life’s ugly adult realities—and even death—are kept at bay. He wryly admits, though, that such a world cannot exist. His temporary retreat is the collapse from which he is now recovering by warily recounting his experiences and feelings to a shadowy listener, probably a psychiatrist.
Sally Hayes, Holden’s longtime friend in New York City, a little older than he and certainly more worldly. A pretty, vain, wealthy, and self-absorbed social climber, she disappoints Holden’s hopes of a comforting and yielding companion when they meet for a Sunday date in downtown New York City. When she rejects Holden’s wild scheme for a romantic trip to northern New England, he publicly insults her, and she flounces out of Rockefeller Plaza alone. Holden appreciates her physical charms but ultimately rejects her as shallow and smug.
Phoebe Josephine Caulfield
Phoebe Josephine Caulfield, Holden’s wiry, red-haired, and bright ten-year-old sister. Regarding Phoebe as a living copy of all that he loved in Allie, Holden creeps home Sunday night to seek out her loyal companionship and her understanding. He is comforted by Phoebe’s jauntiness and vitality; he yearns to protect her from the ugliness he perceives in the world around them. A last coherent memory he has before his breakdown is of a rush of happiness as he watches Phoebe serenely riding the Central Park carousel, a tangible link with much that was joyous in his own childhood.
D. B., Holden’s older brother, a successful Hollywood scriptwriter. Holden views D. B.’s life and career as “phoney” and wishes he would return to the “pure” artistry of his short fiction.
Jane Gallagher, a friend, from his summers in Maine, who is Holden’s age. Holden and Jane enjoyed an unintimidating, platonic, late-childhood relationship in which each derived comfort from the other, especially when their separate private griefs intruded. At Pencey, when Holden discovers that his roommate, the “sexy bastard” Ward Stradlater, has a blind date with Jane, he is distraught, jealous and repelled by the thought of Jane at the mercy of handsome, conceited Stradlater. His concern precipitates his physical and verbal attack on Stradlater and his flight from Pencey later that Saturday night, marking the start of his odyssey.
Mr. Antolini, a youngish man now married to a wealthy older woman. He was once Holden’s English teacher at another preparatory school. Holden has respected Antolini as a teacher and valued him as a compassionate, trustworthy confidant, especially after seeing Antolini’s selfless response to a violent student death. In New York City, Holden seeks out Antolini for solace and shelter after he must flee discovery by his parents at home. He finds Antolini welcoming and ready with measured advice, but drinking steadily. Only disquieted when he settles to sleep on the Antolinis’ couch, the self-absorbed Holden seems not to perceive the restless cynicism that pervades Antolini’s response to his problems and perhaps explains the ever-present highball. Holden flees in panic when he awakes to find Antolini patting his head, a gesture Holden interprets as “perverty,” though he later regrets his precipitous flight when he remembers Antolini’s previous kindnesses. This betrayal of trust contributes further to Holden’s overwhelming sense of depression and alienation. It is perhaps Antolini, above the several other flawed people Holden meets, who most embodies the moral emptiness and irrelevance of Holden’s world.