The main themes in J. D. Salinger’s novel include alienation in modern society, the challenges of adolescence, grief, and recovery. Holden Caulfield, the protagonist and first-person narrator, is a teenager who does not feel at home anywhere. While other characters appear in the novel, it is primarily a coming-of-age story in which Holden does not significantly advance in maturing but instead suffers a mental breakdown.
While some of his difficulties are associated with his family situation, his alienation extends to society in general. Holden is existing in a liminal state because he is an adolescent moving from childhood to adulthood, as are his peers. However, Holden finds little in common with other children his age, especially the boys who are his classmates at Pencey Prep. His efforts to connect with a girl his age do not turn out well, and his idea of gaining sexual maturity through contracting a prostitute lead to disaster.
Some of Holden’s problems stem from unresolved issues of grief and the ongoing recovery following the death of his brother, Allie. Holden has been enrolled in and expelled from numerous prep schools and, having lived away from the family’s New York apartment for so long, does not feel at home even there.
While Holden feels very close to his sister, Phoebe, his inability to belong has been exacerbated by his parents’ emotional distance, as his mother apparently has not recovered and his father is suppressing his emotions.