The Catcher in the Rye Summary

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger


This classic novel centers on the life of Holden Caufield. Holden is sixteen years old and is a unique character. He talks directly to the reader as he relates the course of events that caused him to wind up in a mental health facility in California. This facility is where the reader first meets Holden. The experiences he tells us about cover a period of only three days from the year before. The reader feels intimate with Holden because he is very frank and includes phrases such as "you would have loved it" and "You should have seen it." This makes the reader feel as if they are being told the story by a friend.

Holden is disillusioned with just about everyone and everything. Holden takes us back to the year before on his last day of Pencey Preparatory School. It is his last day because he has flunked out of school, failing all his subjects, except English. Holden tells us that it is not the first school he has flunked out of, and we can imagine how bad he feels about this fact. The truth, he tells us, is that Pencey is full of phonies. Holden cannot stand people who show off and present themselves to be something they are not.

We are introduced to Holden's roommate, Ward Stradlater, and their next door friend, James Ackley. Holden describes Stradlater as a handsome moron, and poor Ackley, as a pimply faced, loser. Stradlater goes out on a date with Jane Gallagher, a girl that Holden likes. He fears that Stradlater will take advantage of sweet Jane, and this causes him much distress.

As the story unfolds, Holden goes to his favorite teacher's house to say goodbye to him. He tells his teacher, Mr. Spencer he does not blame him for failing him since he never did any work. Mr. Spencer begins to give Holden a lecture about his poor academic record and makes him read the final exam he turned in out loud. The exam is terrible, and Holden put in little to no effort on the exam. Having to read his exam out loud humiliates Holden. He begins to detach from the present situation by wondering what happens to the ducks in Central Park in the winter time. Holden is adept at detaching from unpleasant situations by daydreaming. He leaves his teacher's house and is sorry that he went to say goodbye to him.

Holden has a red hunting cap that is a constant symbol throughout the novel. He likes the red hunting cap with fold-down flaps because it is unique and odd.

Holden goes through some more unpleasant situations, such as getting punched in the face by his roommate Stradlater, before deciding to leave school a few days before the Christmas break. Holden decides to stay in a hotel in New York for a few days, so he will not need to explain to his parents why he has left school early.

The Edmont hotel is filled with perverts, according to Holden. He thinks that Stradlater would fit in just fine there. While he is staying there, he tells the reader more about his brother, Allie, who died several years ago of leukemia. He misses his brother and is still mourning his loss. Holden also tells us about his little sister, Phoebe, whom he adores. He wants to call Phoebe but knows that she is probably asleep because she is only ten years old, and it is very late at night. Holden is worried his parents may answer the phone if he calls her. Phoebe and Jane Gallagher are the few people that Holden likes. Everybody else he has discussed in the novel so far is a big phony. As for Jane, Holden thinks of phoning her, too. He also thinks about how he can never have sex with a girl if he likes her because he does not want to degrade her. However, he does not feel like having sex with a girl unless he likes her a lot.

Holden goes to the hotel bar and meets some older women who dance with him. They think it is hilarious that this young boy is flirting with them. They end up sticking Holden with the bill, and he feels depressed about that fact.

Holden decides to go to another bar that his brother D.B. used to go to a lot before he moved to California. Holden believes his brother sold out by writing for Hollywood. He thinks that D.B. is wasting his talents by writing commercially.

When Holden arrives at the bar, it is very crowded. He finally gets served alcohol, and he has a few drinks. One of D.B.'s old girlfriends, Lillian Simmons, recognizes Holden and invites him to join her and her date at their table. Holden declines and leaves the bar. He complains that someone is always ruining his time. Naturally, he feels that Lillian is a big phony. Holden knows that Lillian was just being nice to him because she was hoping that he would mention her to D.B.

The elevator man at The Edmont Hotel, Maurice, tells Holden he can send a girl to his room. Holden says yes, but when he gets back to his room, he regrets it. He says that when people are depressed they will say yes to almost anything. "Sunny" arrives feeling nervous and looking like she is also sixteen years old. Holden tells her his name is "Jim Steele". He tells her he cannot have sex because he recently had an operation on his "clavichord." This is amusing because a clavichord is a musical instrument. Sunny overcharges Holden for her time, but Holden will only pay her the amount agreed upon with the doorman. Sunny leaves in a huff. She returns later with Maurice and they force their way into his room. Maurice punches Holden in the stomach and Sunny takes five dollars from Holden's wallet.

When Sunny and Maurice leave, Holden begins to pretend he was shot in the stomach. He has a short fantasy about struggling to survive the gunshot wound as he makes his way to the bathroom.

When Holden wakes up the next morning, he calls Sally and arranges to take her to a matinee. Sally is the kind of girl that is beautiful but pretentious. He does not hold her in such high esteem as he does Jane Gallagher. After the play, they go ice skating at Radio City. During their efforts to skate, Holden asks Sally to run away with him. He tells her they can live in a little cabin in the woods. Sally is more concerned with whether or not Holden will help her decorate her family's Christmas Tree than the absurd idea of running away with him. Holden keeps pressuring her to run away with him and then finally, curses at her when she refuses. She leaves him and goes home.

Holden's spontaneous decision to run away with Sally is surprising. He has been telling the reader how phony she is throughout their time together. Holden is obviously desperate to avoid telling his parents that he has flunked out of yet another school. Holden is still in the depths of mourning the loss of his younger brother. All his flunking out of schools and disenchantment with everything and everybody is because he just cannot come to terms with the fact that Allie died of Leukemia.

After Sally leaves, Holden begins thinking about Jane Gallagher again. He imagines taking her dancing. He finally calls her, but nobody answers the phone. Holden remembers his old academic advisor, Carl Luce, now goes to Columbia. He lives in the city, so Holden looks up his phone number and gives him a call. Carl agrees to meet Holden at a bar called The Wicker Room, at ten o'clock.

Holden arrives early to The Wicker Room and has a drink. He gets served even though he is under-aged. When Carl arrives, he is arrogant and cold to Holden. Holden is like a little puppy dog trying to please Carl. He keeps asking Carl many questions about his love life. Carl tells Holden he is seeing an older Asian woman in her 30's. This information excites Holden, who gets even more rambunctious when Carl tells him that Asian women view sex as both physical and spiritual. Holden tells Carl he feels that way as well, but he does not know how to achieve it. He confesses that sex confuses him. He tells Carl that although he only wants to have sex with a girl he really likes, he does not like the thought of degrading a girl he really likes. Carl Luce tells Holden he is immature. He says that maybe his father, who is a psychoanalyst could help him, but he does not want to hear about it. Carl leaves early, despite Holden asking him to stay for one more drink. After Carl leaves, Holden tells us he does not think very much of Carl Luce, anyway.

Holden proceeds to get very drunk. He goes to the men's room and splashes water on his face and drenches himself. When he leaves the bar, he puts on his red hunting cap but is still freezing. He decides to go to Central Park and see if he can find if the ducks are still at the lagoon. It is December in New York, and it is the dead of winter. Luckily for Holden, it is deserted in the Park. Central Park is a great place to get mugged or murdered, especially at night. Holden gets lost but finally finds the lagoon. He nearly falls into the water as he goes all around the edges looking for the ducks. The ducks are not there. Holden lies down on a bench and imagines freezing to death. He sees all the same people that were at Allie's funeral as he imagines his own funeral. He knows all the people that were there because D.B. told him. Holden was in the hospital with a broken hand and could not attend. He broke his hand by smashing out all the windows in the garage after he heard that Allie had died. Finally, he shakes himself out of that morbid imagining and decides to go home.

Holden wants to talk with Phoebe, but he does not wish to see his parents. It is still too early to be coming home for Christmas break. He thinks if they see him, they will know immediately that he has been kicked out of school. Holden sneaks into his family's apartment and watches his younger sister as she sleeps. He reads all her notebooks and the funny messages she was sending to her friends. When he finally wakes Phoebe, she is ecstatic to see Holden. She tells him their parents are still out at a party in Connecticut. Phoebe is in a play and is excited that Holden will be able to come see her perform.

She is full of happy energy until she realizes that Holden must have flunked out of school again, and then she hides her head under her pillow and refuses to talk to him. Holden decides to call a former teacher, who now teaches at NYU, even though it is past one o'clock in the morning. Mr. Antolini has kept in touch with Holden. They have played tennis together with him and his wife. He checks up on Holden and is concerned about his academic progress. Mr. Antolini says, "Good God," when Holden tells him he has flunked out of Pencey. He tells Holden to come right over.

Phoebe takes her head out from under the pillow finally, and she dances with Holden. Holden had taught Phoebe how to dance, but he said she became advanced on her own. The two siblings discuss his plans for the future. Holden tells Phoebe that the only thing he wants to be is a Catcher in the Rye. He explains that there is this song, "When a body catch a body coming through the Rye." Phoebe corrects him and says it is a poem, and it is "when a body meet a body, coming through the Rye". Holden says well he thought it was "catch a body" and he would imagine a bunch of little kids playing in a field. Holden would be standing at the edge of a cliff. He would catch the little kids if they ran too close to the edge of the cliff. Phoebe does not say much to this idea. The fact that Holden wants to be a catcher in the rye further indicates Holden's grief at not being able to save his little brother, Allie from death.

When their parents return, Holden hides in the closet. As he is sneaking back out of the apartment, he admits he almost wishes they would catch him.

The visit with Mr. Antolini turns ugly when Holden wakes from sleeping on the Antolini's couch. He feels someone stroking his hair and when he opens his eyes, sees it is Mr. Antolini. Holden is shocked and leaves immediately. He tells Mr. Antolini that he is going to get his suitcase from Grand Central Station, and he will be right back. Holden is very upset because he thinks that maybe Mr. Antolini is some kind of pervert and was going to try something perverted with him. Once he gets to Grand Central Station, he wonders if he overreacted. After all, Mr. Antolini was only stroking his hair. He recalls how Mr. Antolini was giving Holden a solemn talk about his future before Holden let out a big yawn. Holden feels depressed after he realizes he may have gotten the wrong idea about Mr. Antolini's intentions.

Holden begins to feel dizzy and nauseous. He has passed out briefly earlier. Holden has not slept or eaten very much since leaving Pencey, and it is starting to make him ill.

Holden has a fantasy where he hitchhikes out west and works in a gas station. He buys a little cabin just outside the woods. He decides to pretend he is a deaf mute, so nobody talks to him. This fantasy seems like the perfect solution to Holden, and he decides he will leave that afternoon. However, he cannot leave without saying goodbye to Phoebe, so he leaves a note at her school for him to meet her at the Museum of Natural History after her lunch. He knows Phoebe goes home for lunch and has to pass by the Museum on her way back to school.

When Phoebe meets him, she is carrying her suitcase. She has decided that she will go with him out West! Phoebe is only ten years old, and Holden refuses to let her go with him. Phoebe cries. Holden tells Phoebe he will not go away, and he does not.

The novel finishes with Holden back in the present as he finishes telling us the story of a year ago. He is still at the Mental Health facility. He talks of plans in autumn to go to another school. We see that Holden had been getting better because he is talking positively about people, whereas before he just thought everyone was a big phony. He is more charitable and less judgmental. The novel ends on a hopeful note as we see that this story is something that Holden went through as he was mourning the death of his little brother and coming into his own, leaving childhood behind him.



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