‘Spoiler Free’ Summary
When The Catcher in the Rye begins he’s 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 the people in it 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 elderly 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. 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 that moment and proceed home to Manhattan and stay there without telling his parents.
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 that they’re friends. He then proceeds to flirt with her and invite 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 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. There 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 and this results 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 next 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.
That night, while drunk, 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 before they’re about to fall off a cliff, an allusion to adulthood.
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 was making advances on him.
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.