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The Catcher in the Rye

by J. D. Salinger

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The Catcher in the Rye Summary

The Catcher in the Rye is a 1951 novel by J. D. Salinger about a teenager named Holden Caulfield who spends a few days in New York.

  • It is the last day of the fall term. Holden has been expelled from Pencey Prep and prepares to leave.
  • Holden goes to the city. There, Holden asks his friend Sally to run away with him, but she refuses. 
  • Holden has his sister, Phoebe, meet him at the Metropolitan Museum. She arrives with a suitcase, prepared to run away with him. He assures her that he's not running away after all.

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Last Updated June 26, 2023.

J.D. Salinger published The Catcher in the Rye in 1951. In the novel, narrator Holden Caulfield leaves his prep school for an unsupervised weekend in New York City. 

Throughout the story, Holden gradually reveals his feelings about his classmates, family, and a tragedy that has left him reeling. Salinger's insightful look at the world of adolescent alienation and rebellion has made The Catcher in the Rye one of the most widely-read books of the 20th century.

Plot Summary

The novel begins with Holden Caulfield addressing the reader as a peer, his speech peppered with slang. Holden stays in California with his older brother, D.B.; an author turned screenwriter. Holden reveals that he is recuperating from the events of the past December. He describes those three days in the novel, setting up an extended flashback.

Holden is a student at Pencey Prep, a private boarding school in Pennsylvania. It's Saturday night and his final night at school. Instead of attending the big football game, Holden says goodbye to Mr. Spencer, his history teacher. Holden has been expelled due to his failing grades and will not return after spending the holidays with his family in New York City.

Holden reveals to Mr. Spencer that he has not told his parents about his expulsion. Mr. Spencer is a kind man who feels bad about giving Holden an F, even though it's his deserved grade. Mr. Spencer advises that Holden should be more concerned about his future before it's too late. Holden feels uncomfortable and tells Mr. Spencer not to worry about him before saying goodbye.

Holden returns to his dorm room to read, but he is interrupted by Ackley, another student. Holden finds Ackley's habits annoying and is relieved when his roommate Stradlater returns.

Stradlater is a strong, handsome student but not very bright. Holden agrees to write an essay for him. Holden generally likes him but is unhappy to learn that Stradlater's date for the evening is Jane Gallagher, a childhood friend of Holden's. He worries that Stradlater may try to take advantage of her.

After dinner in the dining hall, Holden, Ackley, and another friend go into town for hamburgers. When he returns to his room, Holden sends Ackley away and writes the essay for Stradlater. He writes about his younger brother Allie's baseball mitt, revealing that Allie died of leukemia a few years earlier. In his grief, Holden slept in the garage and punched out all the windows with his bare fists, which caused permanent damage to his hands.

Stradlater returns from his date and is unhappy with the essay, so Holden tears it up and throws it away. When Stradlater tells Holden about his date with Jane, Holden flies into a rage and punches him. Stradlater hits him back and leaves him alone in the room. Feeling alone and depressed, Holden tries to spend time with Ackley but feels worse. He leaves Pencey immediately and spends a few days alone in New York.

Holden takes the train to New York and checks into the Edmont Hotel. He doesn't want to be alone but can't bring himself to call his family. After calling a girl he met once at a college party, he goes downstairs to a nightclub. He meets some girls from out of town and enjoys dancing with one, but they leave him once they finish their drinks.

Alone again, Holden finds himself remembering kissing Jane. He decides to take a cab to Ernie's, a jazz club in Greenwich Village that D.B. used to like. On the way, he speaks with the cab driver about where the Central Park ducks spend the winter once the lagoon ices over. At the club, Holden meets his brother's ex-girlfriend and a crowd of people he deems phony and boring. He walks forty blocks back to the hotel in the cold.

Feeling depressed by memories of school and lonelier than ever, Holden has Maurice, the elevator operator, send a prostitute to his hotel room for five dollars. Holden is a virgin and more interested in conversing with the woman, who says her name is Sunny. 

When she realizes Holden isn't going to sleep with her, she demands ten dollars. Holden disputes the price, gives her five, and she leaves. The following day she returns with Maurice, and they demand extra money. As Sunny takes the cash from Holden's wallet, Maurice punches him, and they leave. Holden goes back to bed and thinks about killing himself.

Holden wakes up later on Sunday morning and calls his old friend Sally Hayes to arrange a date. While having breakfast at a diner, Holden meets two nuns and discusses books. He gives them ten dollars, even though he runs out of money. Holden feels he can't go home yet because he doesn't want his mother to know he's been expelled. He worries about her health since his brother died.

While Holden walks around the city to pass the time before his date, he overhears a child singing, "if a body catch a body coming through the rye." This makes him feel better, and he buys a record for his sister, Phoebe. He misses her very much and hopes to see her roller skating in the park. 

Holden thinks about her and their childhood field trips to the Museum of Natural History. Trying to relive these happy memories, he goes to the museum, only to decide that he doesn't want to go inside without Phoebe. Holden is cheered by children he sees but left depressed by everything else.

Holden finally meets Sally at the theater for the matinee. At intermission, Sally chats with another boy from a different prep school, and this annoys Holden. He sees them as putting on air and acting phony, which makes him angry. Despite his irritation, Holden takes Sally ice skating. 

While drinking, Holden tries to tell Sally what he hates about the phoniness of prep school, New York, and life in general, but she doesn't understand. When Holden asks Sally to run away, she turns him down. They argue, and she goes home alone.

Holden goes to another movie at night. It's a war movie, and he's bothered by its inauthenticity. He is also angry that his brother D.B. gave up writing short stories to be a Hollywood screenwriter. 

After the movie, he meets his friend Carl Luce at a bar. Luce is several years older, and Holden admires him. He asks Luce questions about his sex life, and Luce tells Holden that he's immature and should see a therapist.

Holden gets drunk, calls Sally, and is asked to leave. He stumbles outside and walks to Central Park to see where the ducks are. On his way, he drops Phoebe's record and breaks it. Cold and alone, he tosses his money across the icy duck pond and decides to head home before he catches pneumonia.

Holden sneaks into his parents' home and sees Phoebe sleeping. Holden reads her notebooks and papers, enjoying her writing before he wakes her up. Phoebe is glad to see him but quickly realizes he has been expelled from another school. She worries about him getting in trouble and tries to help him think of a career he'd like. 

They talk about Allie, and Holden tells Phoebe about the song he heard about the catcher in the rye. He likes to imagine that he's the catcher, saving children from falling over a cliff as they run in a field. However, Phoebe points out that Holden is misquoting a Robert Burns poem. The actual words involve meeting another "body in the rye," not catching one.

Phoebe gives Holden her Christmas money, and he leaves to visit his former English teacher Mr. Antolini. Despite the late hour, Mr. Antolini and his wife welcome Holden and give him a place to sleep on the couch. 

Mr. Antolini talks to Holden about the importance of education. Holden falls asleep briefly and then wakes to find Mr. Antolini sitting on the floor beside him, stroking his head. Holden interprets the encounter as perverted and leaves immediately.

With nowhere to go, Holden walks to Grand Central Station. On Monday morning, Holden wanders around the city, having a one-sided conversation with Allie, repeating, "Don't let me disappear." He decides to run away to live alone in the woods and leaves a note for Phoebe at her school. He wants her to meet him at lunchtime to say goodbye.

Holden bides his time at the Natural History Museum, feeling ill and nearly passing out. Phoebe meets him with her suitcase and intends to run away with him. Holden tells her, no, and they argue. Holden then walks to Central Park Zoo, knowing she will follow. They look at the animals in silence, and then Holden puts Phoebe on the carousel after promising her he won't leave. It begins to rain, but Holden sits, filled with joy, as he watches her ride.

The novel ends in Hollywood, with Holden explaining how he got sick and started seeing a psychoanalyst as part of his treatment in California. He closes by saying that he regrets talking about his ordeal: "Don't ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody."

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Chapter Summaries