The narrator and protagonist, Holden Caulfield, informs the reader that he will not begin his story with his childhood, because he finds that boring and his parents would not want him to share personal information about them. Instead of sharing his “whole goddam autobiography,” he explains that he will tell about “this madman stuff that happened to [him] around last Christmas.”
Holden begins his story with the day he left Pencey Prep, a school for boys in Pennsylvania. On that day, there is an important football game between Pencey Prep and Saxon Hall. Even though most of the school is watching the game, Holden is on Thomsen Hill. He has just returned from New York with Pencey Prep’s fencing team. As the manager of the fencing team, he accidentally left all of their equipment on the subway, causing the team to miss the meet.
Instead of going to the football game, the narrator is on his way to say good-bye to his history teacher, Mr. Spencer. Mr. Spencer knows that the narrator has been expelled from Pencey after failing four subjects, and he wants to say good-bye.
Before going to see Mr. Spencer, Holden lingers on Thomsen Hill, “trying to feel some kind of good-by.” After recalling a memory of throwing a football with classmates, Holden goes to Mr. Spencer’s house. Mrs. Spencer answers the door and invites Holden to go into Mr. Spencer’s room.
Holden Caulfield enters Mr. Spencer’s room, which he describes as “pretty depressing.” Holden is repulsed by the smell of Vicks Nose Drops and the sight of Mr. Spencer in “this very sad, ratty old bathrobe.”
Mr. Spencer invites Holden to sit on the bed, and Mr. Spencer discusses Holden’s expulsion with him. Holden shares that he hasn’t yet told his parents about it, and he expects them to be irritated, because Pencey is the fourth school he has been expelled from.
Mr. Spencer reads the essay question from Holden’s exam, as well as the note Holden added to the bottom of it. Even though Holden resents the lecture, he “shoots the bull” with his teacher, saying things that he thinks the man wants to hear. Meanwhile, his mind wanders to things like the ducks in Central Park and the headmaster of Elkton Hills, one of his former schools.
Eager to leave the room, Holden lies that he has to go to the gym to get some equipment. On his way out, Mr. Spencer wishes him good luck.
Holden tells readers that he is “the most terrific liar.” Instead of going to the gym as he had told Mr. Spencer, he goes back to his room in the Ossenburger Memorial Wing. Holden thinks about the man the wing is named after, a Pencey graduate who made his fortune in the undertaking business. Once, when Ossenburger was visiting the school, a classmate named Edgar Marsalla “laid this terrific fart” during his speech.
Holden is happy to find his room empty; most of the school is watching the football game. He puts on a red hunting hat that he bought in New York and begins to read. Before long, Robert Ackley, a classmate who stays in the adjoining room, interrupts him.
Holden is repulsed by Ackley’s lack of grooming and his “terrible personality.” Ackley, he explains, hates everyone, particularly Holden’s roommate, Stradlater. Holden is annoyed by Ackley’s questions and disgusted when he clips his nails. Holden deliberately annoys Ackley as well by calling him “Ackley kid” and by “horsing around.”
Stradlater enters the room, in a hurry. Ackley leaves....
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Stradlater asks Holden if he can borrow his hound’s-tooth coat and decides to shave quickly before joining his date, who is waiting in the Annex.
In this section, readers meet the protagonist and narrator of the novel, Holden Caulfield. As the narrator, Holden addresses readers directly in the opening lines, explaining that he is going to tell the story of “this madman stuff that happened to me around last Christmas.” This announcement sets up the story of the novel, foreshadowing the significant events that are to be disclosed.
Developed through first-person narration, Holden’s voice is informal. He uses slang and swears frequently. In the first paragraph, Holden refers to David Copperfield, a novel by Charles Dickens. This immediately tells the reader that Holden enjoys reading, a fact about him that is developed further in Chapter 3. Holden freely refers to various pieces of literature, and his favorite type of books are the kind that “when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours.”
Despite Holden’s disdain for “phoniness,” there is often a sharp distinction between the words he says and what he is thinking. While he “shoots the bull” with Mr. Spencer, deferring to him and speaking to him respectfully as “sir,” his thoughts are entirely different. For example, when Mr. Spencer tells him that life is a game, Holden agrees: “Yes, sir. I know it is.” In the narration immediately following, however, Holden thinks: “Game, my ass. Some game.”
At some points in the conversation, his mind wanders to entirely different topics; this gives readers the impression that he has a lot of experience “shooting the bull” with the adults in his life.
In these chapters, readers learn about Holden through direct characterization, such as when Holden says that he is “the most terrific liar” or that he sometimes acts like he is “only about twelve.”
At other times, readers learn about Holden through indirect characterization. Throughout the chapters, he is sharply observant, particularly of small details. Mr. Spencer’s aging and Ackley’s “mossy-looking” teeth repulse Holden and occupy his thoughts. Readers also learn about Holden through the perspective of other characters. Mrs. Spencer seems to like Holden, and Mr. Spencer appears to care about him. When Ackley tells Holden that he is “nuts,” readers see that one of Holden’s peers views him as odd.
There are moments when Holden’s character is developed indirectly, through what he will not admit to himself. After Holden forgets all the fencing team’s equipment on the subway, ruining the meet, he remarks, “The whole team ostracized me the whole way back on the train. It was pretty funny, in a way.”
Holden’s claim that it was “pretty funny” is unconvincing. As he stands on Thomsen Hill, his yearning for a good-bye to Pencey Prep reveals that he longs for a sense of belonging more than he will admit.