The Catcher in the Rye is a 1951 novel by J. D. Salinger. A controversial novel originally published for adults, it has since become popular with adolescent readers for its themes of teenage angst and alienation. It has been translated into almost all of the world’s major languages. Around 1 million copies are sold each year with total sales of more than 65 million books. The novel’s protagonist Holden Caulfield has become an icon for teenage rebellion. The novel also deals with complex issues of innocence, identity, belonging, loss, and connection.
The novel was included on Time‘s 2005 list of the 100 best English-language novels written since 1923 and it was named by Modern Library and its readers as one of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. In 2003, it was listed at #15 on the BBC’s survey The Big Read.
Holden Caulfield, a teenager from New York City, describes events that took place in December 1949 from an unspecified California institution one year later.
Holden begins his story at Pencey Preparatory Academy, an exclusive private school in Agerstown, Pennsylvania, on the Saturday afternoon of the traditional football game with a rival school. Holden has been expelled from Pencey due to poor work and isn’t to return after Christmas break, which begins the following Wednesday. He plans to return home on that day so that he will not be present when his parents receive notice of his expulsion. On invitation, he goes to the home of his history teacher, Mr. Spencer. Spencer is a well-meaning but long-winded middle-aged man. Spencer greets him and offers him advice, but embarrasses Holden by further criticizing Holden’s work in his subject in a rude manner.
Holden returns to his dorm wearing the new red hunting cap he bought in New York. His dorm neighbor Robert Ackley is one of the few students also missing the game. Ackley, unpopular among his peers, disturbs Holden with his impolite questioning and mannerisms. Holden, who feels sorry for Ackley, tolerates his presence. Later, Holden agrees to write an assignment for his roommate, Ward Stradlater, who is leaving for a date. However, Holden is distressed to learn that Stradlater’s date is an old friend, Jane Gallagher, whom Holden had a crush on and feels protective of. When Stradlater returns hours later, he fails to appreciate the deeply personal composition Holden wrote for him about the baseball glove of Holden’s late brother Allie, and refuses to reveal whether he slept with Jane. Enraged, Holden punches him, and Stradlater easily wins the ensuing fight. Fed up with Pencey Prep, Holden catches a train to New York City, where he intends to stay in a hotel until he returns home on Wednesday.
In a cab, Holden inquires with the driver about whether the ducks in the Central Park lagoon migrate during winter, a subject he brings up often, but the man barely responds. Holden checks into the dilapidated Edmont Hotel. He spends an evening dancing with three tourist women in the hotel lounge and enjoys dancing with one, though is disappointed that he is unable to hold a conversation with them. Following an unpromising visit to Ernie’s Nightclub in Greenwich Village, Holden agrees to have a prostitute named Sunny visit his room. His attitude toward the girl changes the minute she enters the room; she seems about the same age as he. Holden becomes uncomfortable with the situation, and when he tells her all he wants to do is talk, she becomes annoyed and leaves. Even though he still paid her the right amount for her time, she returns with her pimp Maurice and demands more money. Holden insults Maurice, and after Sunny takes the money from Holden’s wallet, Maurice punches him in the stomach and leaves with Sunny.
The next morning, Holden, becoming increasingly depressed and in need of personal connection, calls Sally Hayes, a familiar date, and they agree to meet that afternoon to attend a play. Holden shops for a special record, “Little Shirley Beans”, for his 10-year-old sister Phoebe. He spots a small boy singing “If a body catch a body coming through the rye”, which lifts his mood. After the play, Holden and Sally go ice skating at Rockefeller Center. Holden impulsively invites Sally to run away with him that night to live in the wilderness, but she is uninterested in his hastily generated plan and declines. The conversation turns sour, and the two part ways.
Holden gets drunk at a bar, first calling an icy Sally, then walking to Central Park to investigate the ducks, breaking Phoebe’s record on the way. Nostalgically recalling the unchanging dioramas in the Museum of Natural History that he enjoyed visiting as a child, Holden heads home to see Phoebe, exhausted and out of money. He sneaks into his parents’ apartment while they are out, and wakes up Phoebe – the only person with whom he seems to be able to communicate his true feelings. Holden shares a selfless fantasy he has been thinking about (based on a mishearing of Robert Burns’s Comin’ Through the Rye): he pictures himself as the sole guardian of thousands of children playing in a huge rye field on the edge of a cliff. His job is to catch the children if, in their abandon, they come close to falling off the brink; to be, in effect, the “catcher in the rye”. Because of this misinterpretation, Holden believes that to be the “catcher in the rye” means to save children from losing their innocence.
When his parents come home, Holden slips out and visits his former and much-admired English teacher, Mr. Antolini, who offers advice on life along with a place to sleep for the night. Holden is upset when he wakes up in the night to find Mr. Antolini patting his head in a way that he regards as “flitty” (homosexual) and uncomfortable. Confused and uncertain, he leaves as dawn is breaking and spends most of Monday morning wandering the city.
Losing hope of finding belonging or companionship in the city, Holden impulsively decides that he will head out West and live as a recluse. When he explains this plan to Phoebe on Monday at lunchtime, she wants to go with him, even though she was looking forward to acting in a play that Friday. Holden refuses to let her come with him, which upsets Phoebe, so Holden decides not to leave after all. He tries to cheer her up by taking her to the Central Park Zoo, and as he watches her ride the zoo’s carousel, he is filled with happiness and joy at the sight of Phoebe riding in the rain.
In a short epilogue, Holden briefly alludes to “getting sick” and living in an institution in California near his brother D.B., and mentions he will be attending another school in September. Holden says that he doesn’t want to tell anything more because, surprisingly, he has found himself missing his former classmates. He warns the reader that telling others about their own experiences will lead them to miss the people who shared them.
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