Summary of the Novel
The story covers a three-day period in the life of Holden Caulfield. He has been notified that he has just flunked out of prep school, and he begins his journey home, where he must face his parents. He is also considering whether he should simply go out west and start a new life, rather than go home at all.
Before he leaves Pencey, Ackley, the boy who lives in the next room, comes over to visit. Ackley has several personal habits which make him unappealing, but Holden tolerates him. Stradlater, Holden’s roommate, then comes in to freshen up for a date. Although Stradlater is handsome and has the veneer of sincerity, Holden thinks he is a phony. That evening, in New York City, Holden joins three female tourists in a nightclub and gets stuck with the check. Back at his hotel, he accepts an offer from the elevator operator for some female companionship. When the girl arrives, he is depressed by the hollowness of an encounter with a prostitute and tells her that he is not in the mood for sex.
The next day, Sunday, Holden meets two nuns at breakfast. He enjoys their conversation and insists on giving them a contribution. That afternoon, he takes his old girlfriend, Sally, to see a play. Still ambivalent about going home, Holden tries to talk Sally into running away with him. When he insults her, she asks him to leave. Later, he goes home and sneaks into the house to see his sister, Phoebe, before he runs away. After they talk, he decides to spend the night at the home of his former English teacher, Mr. Antolini. Holden suspects that his former teacher is a pervert when he is awakened by Mr. Antolini petting him on the head. Holden makes up a flimsy excuse about getting his bags from the train station and bolts from the apartment.
Holden continues to be obsessed by his plan to go out west. On Monday morning, he writes Phoebe a note at her school asking her to meet him near the Metropolitan Museum. Phoebe meets him with suitcase in hand. She has decided to run away with him, but he tells her that he is not going away after all. They visit the zoo, and then Phoebe wants to ride the carousel in the park. Before she gets on, he confirms to her that he really is going home. While standing in a soaking rain, watching Phoebe ride the carousel, he feels so happy that he is on the verge of tears.
The novel is divided into three sections, with the first chapter as an introduction and the last chapter as an epilogue. The first part includes Chapters Two through Seven, covering the period at Pencey Prep. Chapters Eight through Twenty make up the second part, which recounts Holden’s wandering about New York, and ends with his decision to go home. Chapters Twenty-one through Twenty-five describe his time with Phoebe. Holden is the narrator of the story which is told as a “flashback.”
Estimated Reading Time
The average reader should be able to read the book in four to six hours. The colloquial and engaging style of Holden’s narration makes for a quick read. The reading could be broken down into two or three two-hour sittings, though many readers are able, if they have the time, to read the book in one long sitting.
More than most modern novels, The Catcher in the Rye is about identity. It tells of the often frustrating and futile search for self by a young person wandering in an adult urban world. Holden Caulfield’s emotional development has been arrested by the death of his younger brother Allie, and by a series of encounters that have shown him just what a “phony” world he is trying to grow up into. In the weekend in New York City that the novel chronicles, Holden searches for self, and, at the end, finds it.
The only good people in the novel are the innocent (his dead brother, his younger sister Phoebe, a pair of nuns he meets) and the misfits (former classmates Richard Kinsella and James Castle), who violate the rigid rules adults have set up for them. The adults Holden admires (his brother and his former teacher, Mr. Antolini) appear to have sold out. Holden is caught in mid-growth between the purity of childhood and the inevitable fall into adulthood. By the end of the novel, he realizes he has no sanctuary left (the Museum of Natural History he loved to visit has been contaminated), but he somehow feels happy sitting in the rain and watching Phoebe on the carousel in Central Park. It is a closing image of peace and acceptance: “The thing with kids is,” Holden writes tellingly at the end, “if they want to grab for the gold ring, you have to let them do it, and not say anything.” Holden is not through with his problems—he will soon suffer some kind of collapse and be institutionalized—but he has successfully let go of childhood and made the move toward adulthood.
The continuing popularity of The Catcher in the Rye—selling 250,000 copies in peak years—indicates that Holden’s search for identity struck a responsive chord in many readers. Apparently, the difficulties of adolescence Salinger describes continue to be universal. The book’s popularity also comes from Salinger’s style and the way he has caught so perfectly the slangy vernacular of his young hero. Few characters in modern literature are so sharply defined by their language. All the readers who for generations have identified with Holden worldwide have seen in this character something of their own struggles for identity.
Holden Caulfield is expelled from Pencey Prep, in Agerstown, Pennsylvania, just before Christmas. Before leaving his preparatory school, Holden says good-bye to Mr. Spencer, one of the Pencey teachers with whom he had good rapport, and has an altercation with his roommate, Ward Stradlater, and a dormitory neighbor, Robert Ackley. A disagreement over a composition Holden agreed to write for Stradlater and Holden’s anger with Stradlater’s treatment of the latter’s weekend date, whom Holden knows and likes, precipitates a fight in which Holden is cut and bruised. Holden sets out by train to New York City. Since he is not expected at his home in the city for Christmas vacation for a few days, he decides to stop at a city hotel and contact some friends.
Holden tries to pick up some women in the hotel bar, takes in a show at Radio City Music Hall, and visits a local café. Upon returning to his hotel, he is approached by the elevator man, Maurice, who arranges for a prostitute to come to Holden’s room. Holden prefers conversation to sex, however, and after he refuses to pay the woman for her services, Maurice arrives and beats Holden. After attending a play with a former girlfriend, Sally, Holden gets drunk in a bar and sits alone in Central Park, thinking, as he often does, about how lonely and depressed he is.
Finally, late at night, Holden goes home. His parents are out for the evening, and he spends some time talking with his ten-year-old sister, Phoebe, with whom he was always very close. Phoebe expresses her disappointment with Holden’s being expelled from school, and brother and sister talk at length about what Holden truly believes in and what he will do with his life. Holden tells Phoebe of his idealistic vision of being a “catcher in the rye,” protecting innocent children from disaster. He imagines children playing in a field of rye and himself catching them whenever they are in danger of falling over a cliff. He avoids seeing his parents on their return home and goes to see a former teacher, Mr. Antolini, from whom he intends to seek advice.
Mr. Antolini and his wife receive Holden warmly, and he is invited to spend the night. He listens carefully to Mr. Antolini’s ideas on Holden’s future. To Holden’s shock and dismay, however, Mr. Antolini makes what Holden understands to be sexual advances, and he leaves the Antolini apartment hurriedly. He spends the rest of the night in Grand Central Station.
The next day, Holden visits Phoebe at her school and tells her of his plans to begin a new life in the West. Holden’s story ends with his good-bye to Phoebe, but the novel’s first and last chapters indicate that he has a nervous breakdown of sorts. He tells the story while in a hospital, apparently in California.