As the novel begins, we are introduced to a seventeen year-old Holden Caulfield. He is currently residing at a rest home in California, as he relates to us the events of a few short days during the previous year. The entire plot of the novel is laid out as one long flashback as told by Holden.
He begins the story when he is a sixteen year-old junior attending Pencey Prep, an all-boy’s school in Pennsylvania. It is four days before the beginning of Christmas vacation. Holden’s classmates are all at the big football game, but Holden is on his way to say goodbye to his history teacher, Mr. Spencer. Holden will not be returning to school after Christmas vacation. He casually mentions to us that he has been expelled due to his poor grades.
While walking to his History teacher’s house, Holden briefly glances down at the football game. He is standing alone on a hilltop wearing a red hunting cap. Here we get our first glimpse of Holden as an outcast. Not only is he away from his peers and looking down upon them, but he is wearing a very distinctive and eccentric cap that sets him apart from the other boys. Holden has little interest in the football game. He proceeds to tell us about his brother D.B., who is a writer living in Hollywood.
The chapter comes to a close as Holden arrives at Mr. Spencer’s home, and is invited in by Mrs. Spencer.
The most striking aspect of this initial chapter is Holden’s manner of speech. Salinger has done an amazing job of writing incredibly believable and authentic dialogue. Holden puts on a “tough guy” image. He does not want to come across as either sensitive or a brain. It is more Holden’s thoughts and opinions, and less the plot, that tell the real story in this novel.
Mr. Spencer has been ill with the grippe, and Holden goes into his bedroom to speak with him. Mr. Spencer talks to Holden about the lack of enthusiasm that Holden has shown in his studies. Holden, not wanting his teacher to feel responsible, lets his teacher know that he deserved to get the failing grade that he received. Mr. Spencer reads aloud Holden’s disappointing final essay from his course. Holden is unhappy that he is reading this aloud and remarks to the reader that he would have never done that to Mr. Spencer. Mr. Spencer’s reading his paper aloud, along with Holden’s uneasiness with how old and sickly Mr. Spencer appears, prompts Holden to leave the house. He informs Mr. Spencer that he has to go to the gym to collect his things. They say goodbye.
During his talk with Mr. Spencer, Holden’s mind wandered off. He began to wonder what happens to the ducks on the pond in New York City’s Central Park during the winter. This question will come up again later in the novel. It shows how Holden cares for those that he sees as vulnerable and innocent.
Holden informs us that he is a fantastic liar. Sometimes a lie will come out of his mouth without his even meaning it to. He tells us that he had lied to Mr. Spencer about needing to pick up the gym equipment. This early revelation may lead the reader to wonder how much of Holden’s story is actually true. He is the narrator. Can we trust him?
Holden returns to his dorm room at Ossenburger Memorial Hall. He tells us about the man that the hall is named after. He is a former Pencey student who has become wealthy in the funeral business. Death is a subject that will be continually tossed about throughout the novel. Holden also provides some information about his school, and his favorite novels. He is currently reading Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen, and his favorite author is his brother D.B.
Robert Ackley, whom everyone simply calls Ackley, appears in Holden’s room. Ackley lives in the room next to Holden’s, and Holden tells us that he is a strange fellow and he does not like him very much. They talk for a while about school matters, until Ward Stradlater appears. Stradlater is Holden’s roommate and a good-looking guy with an outgoing personality and a good build. Ackley, who does not get along with Stradlater, leaves the room.
Holden and Stradlater talk for a considerable amount of time in both their room and the bathroom. Stradlater is getting ready to go out on a date. He wants Holden to write his homework assignment for him. Holden never answers this request with a definite yes or no. Holden learns that Stradlater's date is Jane Gallagher, a girl that Holden himself knows and likes. Holden gives Stradlater some background information on Jane, but Stradlater is only interested in talking about her if it involves sex. Holden asks him to give Jane his regards, but is sure he will not do so.
Stradlater leaves for his date, and Ackley returns to the room. Ackley talks about all of the guys at Pencey that he dislikes.
Holden has the regular Saturday steak dinner in the school’s dormitory. Afterwards, Holden and Mal Brossard, a boy on the wrestling team, plan to go into town to see a movie. Holden feels sorry for a lonely Ackley and invites him along. Their plans to see a movie fall through, and instead they simply eat some hamburgers and play some pinball. They arrive back at campus just before nine. Brossard goes off in search of a bridge game, and Holden and Ackley go back to Holden’s room. Ackley bores Holden with tales of his imaginary sex life, and eventually leaves Holden alone in his room.
Holden decides to write Stradlater’s paper, and settles upon writing a descriptive essay on a baseball glove. The baseball glove belonged to Allie, Holden’s younger brother who died three years earlier. The glove is covered in poems that Allie had written on it with green ink. Holden goes on to tell us about Allie's life and death. Holden tells us that he slept in the garage on the night of Allie’s death and broke all of the windows. His brother’s death was a very traumatic experience for him. Holden attempts to play down his attachment to the glove, but it is obviously of great significance to him. After finishing the essay, Holden spends some time looking out at the snow through his window.
Stradlater returns from his date and does not like the paper that Holden has written for him. An angry Holden pulls the paper out of his roommate’s hands, and proceeds to rip it up.
Later, Holden inquires as to what happened between Stradlater and Jane on their date. Stradlater reveals nothing. Holden is worried that his roommate has taken advantage of Jane, who he still thinks of as the innocent girl he once knew. Holden is angered by Stradlater’s attitude towards woman, and specifically Jane. The two boys end up in a fight. Stradlater, who is considerably stronger than Holden, merely fends off Holden without really hurting him. When Holden refuses to stop, Stradlater hits him. Stradlater does not understand what the fight was about and leaves the room. Eventually Holden's anger subsides, and he goes to Ackley’s room.
Ackley had heard the fight, and is awake in bed. Holden wishes to talk with him, but a tired Ackley merely wants to sleep because he has to go to mass in the morning. Holden leaves the room with the intent to locate Brossard. Instead, he decides to leave the school immediately. He returns to his room to pack, and then he leaves. On his way out, Holden wakes everyone up by yelling out, “Sleep tight, ya morons.”
Holden walks to the train station because it is too late to call a taxi. While waiting for the train, he cleans the blood (from the fight) off his face with some snow. He catches a relatively deserted train to New York. On the train he meets and talks with an attractive woman who turns out to be the mother of one of his classmates, Ernest Morrow. Holden tells us that he dislikes Ernest. This is not very surprising, as he seems to dislike practically everyone in the novel besides Jane, Phoebe, and Allie. Holden feels very sophisticated talking to her. Typically, Holden begins to lie to her about himself. He uses the alias of Rudolph Schmidt, which is actually the name of the janitor at Pencey. He tells her more lies including that he has a brain tumor. He even provides some lies regarding her son that make Ernest appear to be more popular than he really is.
Holden arrives at New York’s Penn Station. He goes to a phone booth, but realizes it is too late to call anyone. He decides to take a taxi to The Edmont Hotel and get a room. During the ride Holden asks the cabby if he knows what happens to the ducks in Central Park during the winter. The cabby doesn’t seem to understand the question. Once inside his hotel room, Holden spends a short time watching the people in the rooms across from his. Many are involved in various sexual activities. He decides to call Jane Galagher, but changes his mind and calls Faith Cavendish instead. Holden had gotten Faith’s phone number from a boy from Princeton. She is supposedly rather promiscuous. He has never met her himself, but calls her anyway. They talk for some time on the telephone, but ultimately she says it is too late for her to meet him.
Unable to sleep, Holden goes downstairs to the hotel’s club, The Lavender Room. Holden reveals that he really wants to call his sister, Phoebe. His fear that their parents will answer the phone prevents him from calling her. He clearly loves his sister very much, and tells us of how pretty and smart she is. He also lets us know that he feels like the only dumb one in his family. In the club he meets three secretaries from Seattle, Washington. He dances with them for some time. The women leave Holden with the bill, and he leaves shortly thereafter.
In the hotel lobby, Holden thinks about Jane Gallagher. In the past, their families had neighboring summer homes in Maine. Holden and Jane had grown quite close during the summer, and she is the only person that he has shown Allie’s glove to. Their relationship was more or less an innocent one.
Holden cannot sleep, and takes a taxi to a Greenwich Village club called Ernie’s. This is a place that D.B. used to take him to.
During the cab ride to Ernie’s, Holden once again questions a cabby about the ducks in Central Park. This cabby grows somewhat angry at Holden’s questions. Ernie’s is very crowded. Holden gets a bad table and orders a drink. Lillian Simmons shows up at his table with a naval officer. She used to date D.B. and invites Holden to join them for a drink. He declines, telling them that he was just leaving.
Holden walks back to the hotel.
At the hotel, Maurice, the elevator operator, asks Holden if he would like a prostitute. Holden accepts the offer, and returns to his room to prepare. Holden admits that he is nervous about sex and tekks us that he is a virgin. He confesses that whenever he actually gets close to having sex with a girl, she always asks him to stop. He is never sure if they really mean it, but he always stops.
The prostitute arrives, and Holden once again gives a false name. Holden is too embarrassed and nervous to go through with having sex with the prostitute. He tells us that he finds the girl more depressing than sexy. She gets a bit angry when he tells her he doesn’t want to have sex. He lies to her that he is recovering from an operation. He pays her five dollars and asks her to leave. She wants ten, but eventually leaves with just the five.
After smoking a few cigarettes, Holden goes to bed. Maurice and the prostitute come to Holden's room demanding the other five dollars. Holden refuses and gets roughed up a bit after insulting Maurice. Sonny and Maurice leave with after getting the extra five dollars. Holden takes a bath, and gets back into bed to attempt to get some sleep. Sunday morning is dawning outside his window.
In this chapter Holden informs us that he is sort of an atheist.
Holden wakes up early on Sunday morning, and again considers calling Jane. Instead, he phones Sally Hayes. He makes plans to meet her that afternoon, and admits that he doesn’t really like her very much, but that she is very good looking.
Holden, unsure of where to go, checks out of the hotel and takes a taxi to Grand Central Station. He checks his bags into a locker and heads off to have some breakfast.
At breakfast Holden sits near two nuns. He enjoys some polite conversation with them. Holden feels sorry for them and their old suitcases and small meals. He provides them with some money for the next time they take up donations. He attempts to pay for their meal as well, but they politely refuse.
Holden has time on his hands before his date with Sally. He walks on Broadway in search of a record he wants to purchase for Phoebe. He finds himself walking behind a family returning from church. A little boy is walking in the gutter and singing, “If a body catch a body coming through the rye.” Watching the boy and listening to his singing makes Holden feel happy.
He locates and purchases the record, and then he also purchases two tickets for a show for himself and Sally to see later that day. Once again he contemplates calling Jane. This time he actually goes through with it. When her mother answers the telephone, Holden hangs up.
Holden wanders through Central Park hoping to find Phoebe, but she is not there. He helps a little girl in tightening her skates. He also helps out a small child on the seesaw, but feels that the child does not want him around so he leaves.
Holden arrives at the American Museum of Natural History, but does not feel like going in. He takes a cab to the Biltmore to meet Sally.
In this chapter, Holden talks further about the nuns. He realizes that what he likes best about them is the fact that they don’t eat anywhere fancy for lunch. He then mentions that this same fact also makes him sad. It seems that even the things that Holden finds to be good also make him sad. Nothing is perfect and nothing fits in his idealized view of the world. He also shows his wish that things stay the same in relation to the museum. He wishes that things could be put in a glass case and then be left alone. The museum seems to represent Holden’s childhood. Holden loved being in the museum as a young boy. This is the time when his view of the world was still untainted by its harsh reality.
Holden and Sally’s date does not go very well. When she arrives she looks beautiful and Holden claims that he felt like marrying her right away. They go the theater and later go skating at Radio City. After skating they sit and drink Coca-Cola’s in a bar. Holden nervously lights matches and lets them burn to their ends. Sally wants to know if Holden will be accepting her invitation to help trim her family's Christmas tree on Christmas Eve.
At the bar, Holden begins to tell Sally about all of the people and things that bother him. He suggests that they both go away into the woods together, and perhaps even get married. Sally tells him that this all sounds great, but not before he finishes college and other goals are accomplished. This depresses Holden and he tells her that they should go because she was bothering him. This infuriates Sally, and Holden admits that he probably should not have said that. Holden attempts to apologize, but Sally leaves without accepting his apology.
Holden laughs aloud at his actions. He realizes now that he does not like Sally very much, let alone want to marry her. He does not understand why he felt the way he did when he proposed to her. Though he claims that he really meant it at the time.
Holden has a sandwich and again attempts to reach Jane by telephone. No one answers. Holden proceeds to speak about how he does not understand girls.
Holden ends up calling Carl Luce, a boy he knew from his time as a student at Whooton School. They agree to meet for drinks later that evening. Holden admits that he does not much care for Carl, but is in the mood for some good intellectual conversation.
With some time on his hands, Holden decides to go see a movie at Radio City.
Holden meets Carl at the Wicker Bar and they proceed to have a few drinks. Their conversation centers mainly on sexual topics. Carl refuses to go into great detail about his sexual activities. Holden tells him that his own sex life is pretty bad. Carl, whose father is a psychologist, suggests that Holden needs to speak with a psychologist. Apparently this is not the first time that Carl has made this suggestion. Holden begs Carl to stay with him a while longer, but Carl has other plans to attend to and leaves.
Holden admits that he is feeling lonely.
Holden remains in the bar and proceeds to get quite drunk. Holden once again decides to call Jane. He changes his mind when he decides that he is not in the mood. Instead, he calls up Sally. An obviously drunk Holden tells Sally that he will be at her house for Christmas Eve. He imagines that he has a bullet in his stomach, and tells Sally about it. Sally has apparently forgiven him for his behavior earlier in the day. She tells him to get some sleep and then hangs up.
Holden goes in the washroom and sits on the radiator for quite some time. He has no hotel room, doesn’t have his luggage, is rapidly running low on money, and is all alone.
Holden decides to walk to Central Park to see for himself what becomes of the ducks. He walks around Central Park, but never locates the ducks. Holden sits on a bench and thinks of Allie and worries that he will catch pneumonia and die. He decides to go home to see his sister Phoebe.
Holden reaches his family’s apartment. The regular elevator boy is not there, so Holden is able to get inside without giving away his identity. He quietly creeps into D.B.’s bedroom, which is where Phoebe stays when he is in Hollywood. Holden turn on the light in the room but she does not wake up. He looks around the room and reads some of what she has written in her books. He admits that he is actually feeling pretty good and goes on to tell us how great Phoebe is.
When Phoebe does awaken, she is overjoyed to see Holden. She starts talking nonstop. She tells him that she is very excited about her part in an upcoming school play. She also lets him know that their parents are out and will not return until quite late. Holden gives her the pieces of the record and she carefully places them in a drawer. He had accidentally dropped and broken the record while he was drunk.
Phoebe starts to suspect that Holden has gotten kicked out of his latest school. She is disappointed in him. She worries about what their father will do when he finds out. She hits him and refuses to talk anymore.
Holden finally gets Phoebe to talk to him again. She does not understand why he is always getting kicked out of schools, and wants to know the reason why. He tells her of how mean and phony the people are, but cannot fully explain it to her. Phoebe claims that he doesn’t like anything. Holden prtests that he does like some things. The two nuns come to his mind. As does James Castle. James was a fellow student at Elkton Hills that Holden was only slightly familiar with. He had jumped out of a school window to his death in order to avoid being bullied.
Holden replies that he likes Allie, and he likes sitting here and talking with her. Phoebe counters that Allie is dead, and that sitting and talking isn’t real. She asks him what he wants to be. He rejects several ideas before suddenly coming to a realization. He tells her that he wants to be the catcher in the rye. This is based upon the young child in the earlier chapter, and the incorrect words to a song that he was singing. The song, as Phoebe points out, actually says meet, not catch.
In Holden’s vision there are thousand of kids playing in a field with no one but himself around to protect them. There is a cliff nearby and it is his job to catch them if they go over the cliff. This fits in well with Holden’s actions throughout the novel. He has always been looking out for the young and innocent. He worried about the ducks because he feels that they are vulnerable. He was concerned about Stradlater taking advantage of Jane because he still imagines her as the innocent little girl he once knew. He even looked out for Ackley who he claimed to not especially like. He wants to protect others from being hurt.
It is interesting that Holden would choose this as his answer to Phoebe’s inquiry as to what he wants to do with his life. This is not an occupation. He does not even realistically consider a more attainable occupation.
The chapter concludes as Holden calls up one of his old teachers, Mr. Antolini.
Mr. Antolini says that Holden is welcome to come over. Holden lets us know that Mr. Antolini was just about his best teacher. He is also the one that covered up James Castle’s body and took him to the infirmary.
Holden and Phoebe spend some time dancing together. When their parents come home they quickly turn off the lights and Holden hides in the closet. When all is clear, Phoebe lends Holden her Christmas money and he sneaks out of the apartment. Part of him wishes that his parents would actually catch him.
Holden arrives at Mr. Antolini’s house. Antolini is a bit drunk. His wife is in the kitchen fixing some food. His wife is considerably older then he is, and they do not appear to be very close. Mrs. Antolini heads back to bed, leaving the two men to talk. Holden is exhausted and merely wants to sleep, but Antolini wishes to talk. Holden listens to his advice which seems quite sound, but he is too tired to take in all that he is saying. Antolini finally leaves Holden to go to sleep.
Holden wakes up to find Antolini’s hand on his head. Holden, convinced that Antolini is making a pass at him, panics and leaves the apartment in a hurry.
Holden takes the subway to Grand Central, where his bags are. He spends the night sleeping in the waiting room. The next morning he begins to reconsider Antolini’s actions. He isn’t sure whether it was a pass or not. He decides that even if it was, Antolini is still a pretty good guy.
He finds a magazine that someone has left and begins to read an article on cancer. While reading it he becomes convinced that he has cancer and is going to die. He decides to take a walk and as he walks he begins to feel very strange. He feels like he is going to disappear. He talks to Allie and begs him to not let him disappear.
When he reaches Central Park he sits down for about an hour. He decides that he will go out west and live as a deaf-mute. He feels this will help to keep his contact with other people to a minimum.
Holden decides to see Phoebe one last night before he ventures west. He leaves a note at her school arranging for her to meet him at the museum on her lunch break. While at the school he sees some profanity written on the wall. This makes him very angry and he erases it. He wants to protect the children from seeing it.
Holden’s health continues to deteriorate. Before his sister arrives, he faints while in the restroom of the museum. After he comes to, he feels better. When she finally arrives she is carrying a suitcase full of some of her belongings. She is intent on going with him. He refuses to take her with him. They argue and she becomes very angry with him. He eventually promises not to go out west at all. They leave the museum and start walking. She is following him, yet on the other side of the street. Eventually they are walking together and she has forgiven him.
They reach the carousel and Holden buys a ticket for Phoebe to ride it. He sits in the rain watching her ride the carousel. He feels completely happy, but does not know why. Holden agrees to return home.
Holden tells us he will not share the rest of the story. He will not tell us what happened after he returned home or how he became sick. He tells us he is enrolled in a new school for the fall, but is unsure if he will do well or not. He thinks that he will apply himself, but he is really not sure.
Holden is unsure of how to feel about the events that he just described to us. He only knows that he misses most of the people that he has talked about. He advises us to not tell anyone anything. He claims that if we do, we will just end up missing everyone.