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The Catcher in the Rye

by J. D. Salinger

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Places Discussed

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*New York City

*New York City. Primary setting for most of Salinger’s writings. Salinger knew the city well; while he grants New York the “big-city” aura for which it is famous, he also paints a picture of the city’s darker side. Instead of having Holden attend fancy cocktail parties, Salinger has him staying at the seedy Edmont Hotel and sleeping in Grand Central Station. According to Salinger, New York is a place that brings out the worst in people.

*Upper East Side

*Upper East Side. Manhattan neighborhood in which Holden’s family lives. While his parents are away, he visits with his sister Phoebe in the family apartment. For Holden, Phoebe is the only person who is not a phony, and Salinger paints a portrait of her as pure innocence. Everything in her room is neat and orderly, including her schoolbooks. The whole apartment suggests normalcy and structure, the two things Holden needs more than anything else.

Edmont Hotel

Edmont Hotel. Rundown hotel in which Holden stays. The building represents the uglier side of New York City, and its ugliness is reinforced in a scene involving a prostitute named Sunny and one in which Holden makes unsuccessful sexual advances toward two women at a nightclub.

*Rockefeller Center

*Rockefeller Center. New York City landmark with a public ice skating rink to which Holden takes Sally Hayes on a date. While ice-skating should be a happy endeavor, Holden cannot get over the feeling that there are phonies all around them. Holden’s feelings are so overwhelming that they begin to spill over into his relationships with others, including Sally.

Pencey Prep

Pencey Prep. Residential military school in Agerstown, Pennsylvania, that Holden attends. Salinger based the school on Valley Forge Military Academy, his old military school in Pennsylvania. Although these students are in military school, Salinger shows them to be like other children; for example, Ackley’s room is as much a mess as Ackley himself. Nevertheless, Holden is impelled to rebel against the school’s attempts at military discipline.


Taxicabs. On his way to the Edmont Hotel, Holden asks the cabdriver what happens to the ducks in the wintertime. On his way to Ernie’s nightclub, he asks another cabdriver the same question. This suggests that, like the ducks, Holden feels the urge to leave in the wintertime but does not know where to go for safety and shelter.

*Museum of Natural History

*Museum of Natural History. New York science museum that Holden visits while searching for Phoebe. There he experiences one of the few places in which he feels truly happy. What he finds there are walls covered with graffiti; no matter how desperately he wishes to hold on to the innocence of childhood, the sight of the graffiti reminds him that he cannot.

Sutton Place

Sutton Place. Home of Mr. Antolini, a former teacher, that Holden tries to crash after leaving his parent’s apartment. Even here he sees the dark side of life, as he interprets Antolini’s behavior as a sexual advance. Even here in the home of a trusted friend, he finds no escape from the predators of the world. He flees to Grand Central Station, convinced that he is the only person who understands what the world is really like.

Wicker Bar

Wicker Bar. Posh setting in which Holden meets one of his former schoolmates, Carl Luce, to discuss Eastern philosophy. Holden tries to behave like one of the phonies he despises and eventually finds himself drinking alone, disgusted with himself for his posturing. The bar and the people in it are posh and well-to-do, something Holden is not, and his attempt...

(This entire section contains 688 words.)

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to fit in fails.

*Central Park

*Central Park. Large public park in central Manhattan in which Holden wanders around, looking for Phoebe, before meeting Luce. The children playing happily at the park are, for Holden, a picture of innocence.


*California. The novel is framed by a narrative that begins and ends with Holden speaking to a psychiatrist somewhere in California. Before leaving New York, Holden says good-bye to his sister, telling her that he plans to head westward.


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The plot of this novel, set soon after the end of World War II, is relatively spare. Holden Caulfield has been expelled from a private prep school, Pencey, and his leave-taking opens the novel. In preparing to leave, Holden sardonically comments on the boorishness of his classmates and the "phony" behavior of students and adults alike. Holden cannot communicate his alienation to teachers or counselors and habitually deflects conversations with them by telling lies, particularly ones he knows they want to hear.

He takes a train home to New York and again lies to adults to mask his reason for being away from Pencey. Once in New York, where his parents do not expect him, he checks into a hotel and his wanderings begin.

Literary Techniques

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The popularity of The Catcher in the Rye largely depends upon its plot and its language. It employs that most archetypal of all plots: the quest. From The Odyssey on, Western literature has dramatized the adventures of a quester. Escaping from Pencey Prep to New York City, Holden Caulfield encounters various figures in his search for human connection and meaning. The fabulous creatures and adventures of early quest narrative have become realistic here, but Holden's story is no less terrifying than that of Odysseus. Like Odysseus, he finally reaches, thanks to Phoebe, home. Has he learned anything? Has the quest been meaningful? He has certainly learned that he cannot be "the catcher in the rye." In addition, the fact that he is recounting his odyssey to a psychiatrist suggests that he is shaping and gaining control of his experience. Perhaps understanding even leads to love; after all, he misses everybody he tells about, even old Maurice.

When The Catcher in the Rye was published in 1951, much attention was focused on its "obscene" language. Now, in a more permissive age, more attention can be paid to the brilliance of its language. Holden's speech sounds authentic to almost all readers of the book. He uses the diction, slang, rhythms, and repetitiousness of the 1950s American teenager, shaped by Salinger to give it point, humor, and meaning. The question is, how can such a realistic example of teenage speech serve as such an effective medium of communication? While creating the illusion of realistic speech, Salinger contrasts Holden's sensitivity to an era of conformity.

Literary Qualities

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If The Catcher in the Rye merely detailed the awkwardness of a young adult growing up, it would still be valuable. But Holden's periodic allusions to his favorite authors and books, his often humorous and consciously unsophisticated analyses of those books and writers, and the novel's carefully ironic imitation of several powerful literary traditions help explain why Salinger's book is also a major work of American literature, closely studied by scholars and critics.

From the novel's first ironic sentence contrasting Holden with Charles Dickens's David Copperfield, Salinger lets his reader know his story has a much more sophisticated literary background than the narrator's youthful voice would indicate. Throughout the novel Holden refers to famous writers such as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Isak Dineson, Gustave Flaubert, Thomas Hardy, and William Shakespeare. Often used as school texts, the books and plays of these writers also express themes that help explain Holden Caulfield's alienation. Hemingway's novel A Farewell to Arms (1929) was a testament of an earlier American wartime generation disillusioned by the folly of an adult society that led to the loss of millions of lives in World War I.

I keep picturing all these kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all...And I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby (1925) presents a romantic young American who becomes involved in bootlegging liquor during the American Prohibition era of the 1920s. Fitzgerald's hero, Jay Gatsby, may be for Holden a model of the perfectionist-idealist who dares to challenge social conventions and to attempt to defeat the vulgar reality he is born into.

The Shakespearean references in the book are also illuminating. Romeo and Juliet, like Holden, dare to defy adult conventions and challenge, for romantic love, the hatreds of adults. Hamlet is a deeply troubled young man who faces moral dilemmas and exhibits strange behavior that, like Holden's, leads people around him to think he is abnormal, even mad.

Holden never directly mentions the book most relevant to his situation, Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn (1884). Like Huck, Holden is a sort of runaway able to observe the cruelty, folly, and deceptions of an adult society that exploits other human beings. Both characters break the taboos of conventional morality, such as those against cursing, to champion far more complex and abstract moral principles such as decency, respect for the spiritual aspects of humankind, aesthetic beauty, and childlike innocence. Huck Finn defies the conventional religion of his time, which accommodates human slavery. Holden also expresses a religious sensibility in a way, longing for the biblical Eden where human consciousness has not fallen. Unlike Huck Finn, Holden Caulfield, in twentieth-century America, has no frontier to which he can escape from a hypocritical modern world of concrete and steel.

Literary Precedents

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Because The Catcher in the Rye deals with those perennial themes of American fiction, the struggle of the individual with society and the struggle against Time, it has been compared with almost all of its major predecessors. Holden has been related to such diverse figures as Jay Gatsby, sensitive to the rich possibilities of life but trapped in an acquisitive and phony society; Henry David Thoreau, drawn to a purer life in the woods; and even Captain Ahab, on a quest for the Absolute. If nothing else, these genealogical charts show that The Catcher in the Rye lies in the mainstream of American literature.

One literary precedent stands out strikingly: The Catcher in the Rye is a kind of updating of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). Both stories are told by their adolescent heroes in vivid, colloquial English. Both young men are loving, sensitive, perceptive, and troubled. Both escape from their conventional circumstances, which they feel to be constraining and phony, to seek a more authentic existence. During their flights, both encounter a series of strangers, many of whom are threatening. Each boy becomes the vehicle for a devastating criticism of his loveless society. Finally, each returns home. But the differences between the two books are at least as important as the similarities and measure the road that America traveled in the intervening sixty-seven years. Huck is more accepting of reality; Holden is more alienated. Huck is freer and cheerier floating down the Mississippi; Holden is trapped in the modern wasteland. Huck can light out for the still existing Territory; Holden is recounting his story to a psychiatrist in California. Written after two world wars and the depression, The Catcher in the Rye presents a darker vision of the world.


Key Ideas and Commentary


Historical and Social Context