J.D. Salinger’s novel tells the story of the cynical young man and his experiences in Manhattan, New York. Throughout, the author engages with themes of growing up, change, and the protection of childhood innocence.
‘Spoiler Free’ Plot Summary
When The Catcher in the Rye begins, teenager Holden Caulfield has just been expelled from another prep school with failing grades. Anger at his roommate causes him to storm out of the school early and travel home without telling anyone.
In Manhattan, he drifts from place to place. He encounters people from his past, some of whom he can hardly stand, others who can’t stand him. These include his wise young sister, a prostitute and her pimp, and a past girlfriend. Through these interactions, Holden’s opinion about the world and its people is fleshed out. His anger with life and his role becomes quite clear, and he expresses a desire to run away from his life entirely.
The Catcher in the Rye Detailed Summary
Spoiler alert – important details of the novel are revealed below.
J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is a frame narrative, meaning there is a story within a story. The narrator, Holden Caulfield, is telling the reader his own history. Where he is as he tells this story is only implied, but it is likely a mental hospital of some sort. When the story begins, he’s sixteen years old, and it’s the period between the end of the school term and Christmas.
He begins by outlining his life on a Saturday after classes end at Pencey Prep school in Agerstown, Pennsylvania. It becomes clear that this is not Holden’s first prep school but his fourth. He failed out of the three previous, and it appears as though he’s failed out of this one as well. Holden got failing grades in the majority of his classes and is being expelled. It is his intention to return home later that week.
Holden goes to visit his history teacher, an older man named Spencer, but the meeting doesn’t go well. Holden does not want to hear Spencer’s reprimands or life advice. Soon after, he runs into his roommate, the handsome yet kind War Stradlater. He asks Holden to write an essay for him and informs him that he’ll be going on a date with someone Holden knows and cares about from another school, Jane Gallagher. This surprises and worries Holden as he’s sure that Ward doesn’t want anything but sex from her. Holden also runs into his neighbor in the dorms, Ackley, an irritating young man with serious hygiene issues.
When Ward comes back from the date, Holden question’s him about what happened, and he doesn’t get a straight answer. This angers Holden, who attacks the much bigger and stronger Ward. They fight, and unsurprisingly Holden loses. This is the last straw for Holden, who decides he’s going to leave Pencey Prep at that moment and proceed home to Manhattan and stay there without telling his parents. Readers also soon learn about Holden’s younger brother Allie who died of leukemia three years before the novel’s beginning.
On the train on the way to New York City, he meets the mother of one of his fellow students at Pencey Prep. Despite intensely disliking her son, he tells the woman they’re friends. He then flirts with her and invites her for drinks which she declines. Holden’s cynical view of the world and his irritation with most people drive him away from human company, something he then craves. When he gets to New York, he rents a room at the Edmont Hotel. His room is positioned so that he can spy into other people’s rooms.
In New York City
His loneliness and longing for someone to talk to leads him to call Faith Cavendish, a woman he believes might have sex with him. She doesn’t really want to talk to him but suggests they meet for drinks the next day. He declines. In another strange encounter, Holden meets and dances with three women in the Lavender Room. They leave him to pay for their entire tab.
Holden isn’t sure what to do at this point but begins recounting how he came to know Jane, the young woman Ward went on a date with. It was while their mutual families were vacationing in Maine. They played games together and held hands. They almost kissed. Holden still holds her in his mind as the perfect woman.
After this, Holden takes a cab to Ernie’s, a jazz club in Greenwich Village. He runs into Lillian Simmons, a woman who used to date his older brother. They speak briefly, and Holden leaves abruptly. Back at the hotel, Holden is offered a prostitute by the elevator operator. The prostitute, Sunny, arrives at his apartment, but he doesn’t want to have sex with her. He pays her the $5 he owes her, but she demands five more. Holden won’t pay, resulting in the elevator operator, Maurice, coming in and beating him up and taking the money.
The next day he calls Sally Hayes, a young woman he used to date. They go to a play and eat lunch. Holden tries to call Jane but chickens out and hangs up. Later, Holden and Sally go ice skating, and Holden becomes irritated with her when she won’t agree to run away with him. The following person Holden sees is Carl Luce, a student at Columbia University. The two don’t get on as Luce believes that Holden is too immature.
While drunk, after he goes to the lagoon in Central Park, where he used to watch the ducks as a child, Holden breaks into his own home to speak with his sister Phoebe. She gives him some advice, and he tells her about a fantasy in which he’s the “the catcher in the rye,” a person who catches children coming out of a field of rye before they’re about to fall off a cliff, an allusion to adulthood. This was inspired by a song he heard a little boy singing: “If a body catch a body comin’ through the rye.” Phoebe tells him that the words are “If a body meet a body coming through the rye,” from a poem by Robert Burns.
Towards the end of the narrative, Holden goes to the apartment of his former English teacher, Mr. Antolini. He tries to help Holden figure out his life, but Holden is too tired and falls asleep. He leaves the apartment after becoming concerned that Mr. Antolini is making advances on him. He spends the night sleeping on a bench in Grand Central Station.
Holden proceeds to Phoebe’s school and sends her a note explaining that he’s running away and that they should meet up at the museum to say goodbye. She arrives with her suitcase, asking him to take her with him. He refuses, and she cries. Holden walks to the zoo and then over to a park carousel, for which he buys her a ticket. He watches his sister ride the carousel and almost cries.
It is here that Holden ends the narrative. He informs the reader that he doesn’t want to tell the next part of the story where he got “sick.” The Catcher in the Rye ends with Holden feeling optimistic about his future and the new school he’ll attend in the fall.
What is a short summary of The Catcher in the Rye?
The Catcher in the Rye chronicles a few days in the life of Holden Caulfield, a young man who hates adults, is disillusioned with responsibility, and is quick to point how what he finds as “phony” in the world.
What is the main message of The Catcher in the Rye?
The main message is the struggle of growing up. Holden finds himself torn between childhood and adulthood and his desire to remain a part of the former. The protection of childhood innocence is also a main theme of the novel. The latter is seen through Holden’s dream, the title, and the conclusion of the novel in Central Park.
Why is Catcher in the Rye so controversial?
The book has been banned in some schools due to the main character’s attitude, use of language, and themes. He has been described as a poor role for the young students who are often assigned the novel.
What mental illness does Holden have in The Catcher in the Rye?
It’s unclear, but Holden may be suffering from depression and anxiety. Others have suggested anti-social personality disorder and PTSD.
Why is The Catcher in the Rye so famous?
It’s been incredibly famous since its release in 1951 for its focus on adolescent emotions, the changing nature of contemporary life after the Second World War, and its unique depiction of an unlikeable, unreliable narrator.
What is the main problem in The Catcher in the Rye?
The main problem in the novel is Holden’s conflicting desire to connect with and shun the adults and adult experiences around him. He wants to be treated as an adult but feels that the adults he knows are “phony” and fake.