The Catcher in the Rye begins with 17-year-old Holden Caulfield getting quickly into the action with a rather jaded attitude towards the world – to talk about some “madman stuff” that happened to him sometime during the last Christmas season. It was a random day in the month of December at Pencey Prep School in Pennsylvania, where he’s just been kicked out of school for failing all his classes except English. Holden is no stranger to rejection, as this has always been the story of his life. He decides to drop by the place of his friendly teacher Mr. Spencer, who has a discussion with him about his future and then finally wishes him luck.
Later on, Holden is spending some idle time with his friend Ackley, who is made to appear as an annoying kid (who had a face full of pimples). They were at the dorm when Stradlater, who is actually Holden’s roommate, suddenly appears. Stradlater was preparing for his date with Jane Gallagher, whom Holden has some subtly intimate feelings for. Certainly, Holden does not approve of this date between his old friend Jane and his “sexy bastard” roommate. Somehow he manages to be kind enough to write an English paper for Stradlater despite his disapproval.
Holden’s composition reveals the kind of personality he had. In his paper he talks about his younger brother Allie and how he died of leukemia three years before. He focuses on his recollection of Allie’s left-handed baseball mitt which had many poems written all over it. Here we find out that Holden did not take his brother’s death lightly at all. He made a wreck of the windows in his garage using his hand, which was quite injured to the point that he couldn’t even make a normal fist with it ever again.
As soon as Stradlater arrives, Holden is curious as to what had gone on in the date. He really wanted to know if anything sexual happened between him and Jane. Stradlater refused to say anything consequential and this irked Holden. To Holden’s dismay, he was obviously no match for the rather athletic and well-built Stradlater. He ended up with a bloody nose. Holden tried to have some company with Ackley but on a whim, Holden decided that Pencey was not the place to be for him at that time. He decided to leave right away because he was so frustrated with everyone. Holden’s dilemma was that everybody else was not leaving for Christmas break until Wednesday, which meant that he had to stay in New York for a couple of days so that his parents would not know that he had gotten the ax.
On the train he took as he left Pencey, he bumped into the mother of one of his classmates named Ernie Morrow. Deciding not to let her know his real name, Holden introduced himself as Rudolf. Holden’s opinion of Ernie is that he was a “phony bastard”, a term which recurs many times in the story. In fact, Holden thinks everyone is a phony. But when he was speaking with Mrs. Morrow, he spoke very highly of Ernie, so as not to give the woman any disappointment.
Holden got off at Penn Station in New York. Not having any idea who to call, Pencey took a cab and ended up in Edmont Hotel. Holden was curious about where the ducks in the park go and so he asks the driver. The driver didn’t know either.
Holden eventually found an available room in Edmont and he tried to call a girl to ask her out on a date. He was not successful in his attempt. In the hotel lounge, he chances upon three “moron” girls instead. He was particularly attracted to only one of them. Because Holden was still a minor, he was not able to get himself a drink. All of these things were one too many for Holden and this caused him to feel bad and he was quite depressed. He ended up thinking of Jane Gallagher.
Reminiscent of the past, Holden went back to think of his infatuation with Jane. He went on thinking about the things they used to do together. There was nothing sexual about it though. We find out here that Jane might have been molested by her stepfather. This part explains why Holden reacted negatively towards Stradlater going on a date with Jane.
Holden ends up in a cab along with a fellow named Horwitz. Holden asks him about the ducks. He decides to go straight to “Ernie’s” because he was certain that he would have more luck being able to get a drink there.
Holden goes back to his hotel room with a prostitute named Sunny. He did not want to have sex with her but rather, he just wanted to talk. This leaves Sunny a bit confused and eventually she leaves the hotel with a little money that Holden gave her, but no sex at all. She comes back with Maurice, who happens to be her pimp, and Holden was punched in the stomach precisely because they wanted more than what he paid Sunny.
Holden leaves his hotel room the following day and he is able to schedule a date with Sally Hayes. As he is having his breakfast, he meets two nuns. He talks to one of them about the story of Romeo and Juliet, as this nun was also an English teacher. It was not easy for Holden to talk about a “sexy play” like that, especially with nuns. He ends up giving a donation to them. He leaves and then goes on to purchase a record for his younger sister Phoebe. While he was at it, he overhears a boy singing something about “a body catching a body coming through the rye.”
Holden had some time to spare before his date with Sally and so he went to the park. He was able to have a short chat with a girl in the park and in here it is revealed that Holden liked children more than adults. He thought about the times he often went to the museum when he was much younger. He made the observation that the displays behind the glass cases have always remained the same, and yet the children who come and go to look at the displays are different all the time.
Holden eventually meets Sally and they go on to watch a “phony” matinee show. After which, they go skating. By that time, he was quite intoxicated with all of the action that went on in the city and so he went on to share to Sally his thoughts about running and getting away from it all. He said that he had a fantasy of living in a log cabin for the rest of his life. But Sally was not inclined to think the way that Holden did and this affected Holden. He even called her a “pain in the ass”.
He was all alone when evening time came and he called an old friend named Carl Luce whom he hooked up with for a couple of drinks. Carl inadvertently flaunted his annoying attitude of being overly mature and this did not go well with Holden’s immature remarks about homosexuals and Carl’s Chinese girlfriend and so Carl left. Holden gets drunk at the bar. Shortly afterwards, he tries to go to the lagoon in Central Park. He decides to sneak into his old apartment where he wakes up his sister Phoebe.
They talk about school and Holden is forced to admit that he was kicked out of school and this got Phoebe angry. Holden explains why he didn’t like school and Phoebe criticized him for not liking anything. He shares with her his fantasy of being “The Catcher in the Rye” and he wanted to be the savior of little children by being there before they would fall off the edge of a cliff. This was the image built in his head when he heard the young boy singing the song mentioned above. Phoebe is quick to correct him by saying that it came from a poem by Robert Burns. And it went “if a body meet a body coming through the rye” and not “catch a body”.
Afraid to face his own parents, Holden went straight to his old teacher Mr. Antolini. He is lectured about the importance of education and he gets counseling regarding his plans for the future. As he was very sleepy, Mr. Antolini put him to bed on the couch. He wakes up as soon as he notices Mr. Antolini stroking his forehead and he interprets this as somewhat of a homosexual gesture from his old teacher. He rushes to the train station, very depressed, and spends the night there.
Holden decides to run away and he leaves a note for his little sister Phoebe telling her to meet him at the train station during lunch, which he left at her principal’s office. He also tried to erase some “fuck you” signs that he saw and thought to be rather inappropriate to be seen at an elementary school. He finally meets Phoebe who came with a suitcase full of clothes. She had decided to run away with him.
Holden told her that he did not want her to come along. Phoebe was quite dejected and she ended up crying and she refused to speak with Holden. He then decides to go to the zoo, thinking that she will only follow him. He later walks across the street to a park where there was a carousel which Phoebe rode. For the first time, Holden reveals that he is happy seeing his sister so happily going round and round the carousel as it starts to rain heavily.
Holden ends his narrative here, by saying that he is not going to tell the story of how he went home and got “sick.” He says that he plans to go back to school and he shows a little bit of optimism about the future.