Seventeen-year-old Holden Caulfield is the troubled protagonist and the narrator in The Catcher in the Rye. He is the son of wealthy parents who live in New York. When the novel begins, Holden is living in an institution in Southern California, where he has been admitted for both physical and mental issues. The novel is Holden’s recollections of the three days which led him to be incarcerated there.
Holden’s story begins with his expulsion from Pencey Preparatory Academy, a boarding school in Pennsylvania, just before Christmas break in 1949. He has flunked in every subject except English. This is not Holden’s first expulsion—he has been expelled from a number of schools previously. Holden’s recollections begin with the irate quote below.
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me and all that David Copperfield land of crap, but I don't feel like going into It, If you want to know the troth.... I'm not going to tell you my whole goddam autobiography or anything I'll Just tell you about this madman stuff that happened to me around last Christmas Just before I got pretty run-down and had to come out here and take it easy. Where I want to start telling about is the day I left Pencey Prep.
Although many of Holden’s characteristics can, at first, be explained as teenage angst, he becomes more unbalanced as his story continues. Holden is stuck between childhood and adulthood. Holden views childhood as perfect and innocent, like his younger siblings Phoebe and Allie. And he views adulthood, adults, and the rest of society as fake and hypocritical.
Following his expulsion, Holden goes to visit his elderly history teacher, Mr. Spencer. But he is angry and disgusted when Mr. Spencer tells him that to get on in life, he really should play society’s game.
"Life is a game, boy. Life is a game that one plays according to the rules."
"Yes, sir. I know it is. I know it."
Game, my ass. Some game. If you get on the side where all the hot-shots are, then it’s a game, all right—I’ll admit that. But if you get on the other side, where there aren’t any hot-shots, then what’s a game about it? Nothing. No game.
Holden is indifferent to any kind of future he may have. He is also very judgmental about other people and finds fault with most people he comes across. He hates people who toe the line and live a normal, traditional kind of life.
A reason for Holden’s behavior and disillusioned views on life is the emotional trauma he feels at the death of his younger brother, Allie, from leukemia. To Holden, Allie was the perfect child and his best friend. His loss has left him without joy and cynical and angry with society.