The novel stars Holden Caulfield. It starts a little while before Christmas vacation. Holden is kicked out of Pencey Prep school. He goes out alone in New York City. Holden’s story is a first person account, from a mental facility.
Holden's story starts at the prep school which he describes as being "phony." The day of the Pencey football game is highlighted. Holden walks to his history teacher’s house, Mr. Spencer. The visit isn’t good. Later, he is beat up by his roommate over a girl.After the fight, Holden leaves Pencey. He leaves in the night.
By train, he goes to New York City, where his family had lived. He registers at an oldish hotel, the Edmont Hotel. Many events happen: dancing with tourist girls and time with a prostitute. Holden gets rid of the prostitute but doesn’t pay her enough. Holden gets beat up again.
Holden spends two days in the city being drunk. He meets up with an old friend, Carl Luce and Sally Hayes, an old girlfriend. Holden sneaks into his parents' apartment and talks with Phoebe, his little sister. Then he visits his former English teacher, Mr. Antolini who makes passes at him in the night.
Holden is depressed. He spends his time wandering around New York City. What upsets Holden the most is that he has no protection from the phoniness of the world or the perverts. He goes to his sister’s school and sees bad words on the walls. He has a vision of himself as a savior, as a “catcher in the rye”—standing at the edges of a field where children are running and playing, he guards them, keeps them from falling.
In the last few pages his time recovering at the institution made him calmer.