The Catcher in the Rye Book summary

J. D. Salinger

Overview

About

“The Catcher in the Rye” is a book written by J.D. Salinger, a fictional tale narrated by Holden Caulfield, a 17-year-old boy growing up in the late 1940’s. Holden is the son of a wealthy lawyer. The family lives in a well-to-do part of New York City. Holden attends private schools, and most of his peers also come from affluent families.  

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Plot Summary

The story is written as a recollection of a roughly-two-day period from the previous December (when Holden was 16 years old). The story relates his time just as he is leaving Pencey Prep, and the next couple of days. Pencey Prep is the school he is soon to be expelled from, although his parents are yet unaware of this. Due to a number of frustrating incidents throughout the day, he decides to leave just a few days before his actual expulsion takes effect. He leaves on a Saturday night, even though his expulsion is not effective until Wednesday. He intends to spend this time exploring New York City.  

While in New York, Holden observes and interacts with a number of people, most notably females. Holden is exploring his own sexuality, and many/ most of the encounters related in the story have an element of sexuality to them. As a young man, he has fantasies and lofty goals regarding his prowess and ability, but his awkward adolescent fears, in addition to his inner desire to preserve innocence, prevent him from participating is sexual activity.  

Earlier, on the day he left the school, Holden had been bested in a physical fight with his roommate. Later in the day, Holden gets beaten up again, this time by a pimp.  

On Sunday afternoon, Holden goes on a date with a former girlfriend, but the date does not end well. Holden later entertains himself with other activities, to include a performance by the Rockettes, and later a movie. Around 10PM, he meets up with an old friend at a bar. Holden drinks to the point of intoxication, but then heads for the duck pond in the park. He is concerned about the ducks’ welfare, in the cold of a winter night. He finds no ducks, but nearly falls into the pond himself.  

Finally, he is exhausted, and with thoughts of pneumonia worrying him, he decides to just go home. He wants to see his younger sister, Phoebe, who he is very close to. He hopes to sneak into the house without being detected by his parents, but is pleasantly surprised to find that they are not home. He relates to Phoebe that he wishes to be, “the catcher in the rye.” He wants to guard the edge of a field of rye, and catch any of the playing children, before they carelessly fall off. Later, when his parents arrive home, he sneaks out of the house to stay elsewhere, as they are unaware of his early withdrawal from school.

He tries to sleep at the home of a former teacher of his, a man who Holden likes and respects. However, his sleep is disturbed by the teacher stroking Holden’s head, an act that Holden is certain is some sort of perversion. He makes a hasty exit, and sleeps for a few short hours on a bench in the train station.

The following day, he feels fearful and odd, as the stressful events of the past few days weigh heavily upon him. He feels as though he is going to continue falling, perhaps forever.  

He tells Phoebe that he intends to head west. However, Phoebe insists on accompanying him. He tells her that she cannot come with him, but the stalemate is broken when he agrees to stay in New York.  

Holden envisions children on a carousel, happily enjoying the activity, but never actually going anywhere. He wishes for their ability to strive towards goals, but at the same time, feels that only the present is safe for them. He believes that the future only brings change for the worse.  

The book ends with Holden telling the reader that he has been relating this story from a mental institution, somewhere in California.   

Over the course of these harrowing two days, Holden gets very little sleep, and his alcohol consumption does little to help him deal with his emotional struggles. His anxiety is high, as he second-guesses many of his own decisions, and as his limited cash dwindles.  

The book is rife with analogies and allusions, as Holden grapples internally with many concerns. He has a near-obsession with death, which is understandable, having lost his own younger brother three years prior, and having a friend of his commit suicide more recently. He struggles with the phoniness of many, even most, adults, particularly performers such as actors and musicians, who he appears to despise. He has great difficulty accepting the passage of time, with a deeply cynical belief that time moving forward seems to erase all innocence and purity, only bringing pain, gloom, and resulting pain. While Holden wants to mature, he is at the same time resistant to doing so, as he sees little value in those who have become adults. 

However, the greatest internal struggle that Holden deals with is that of the preservation of innocence. Holden finds innocence at risk, everywhere he turns. From the ducks who face harsh winter conditions, to his friend Jane, Holden sees innocence. Even in the prostitute he almost hires, he sees innocence. He sees his younger sister, Phoebe, as the epitome of innocence, and his desire to protect her from the cruel world she faces is powerful. It is this desire to save the innocent that predicates the book’s title, as Holden’s vision of being the protector of children playing in the rye fields explains.  

  • Author(s)

    J. D. Salinger
  • Publication date

    1951

  • Language

    English

  • Classification

    Novel, Fiction

  • Pages

    277

Keywords

Novel

Publisher

 Little, Brown 

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