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Plot Summary

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Plot Summary
From what is implied to be a sanatorium, Holden, the
narrator and protagonist, tells the story of his adventures
before the previous Christmas. The story begins with
Holden at Pencey Prep School on his way to the house
of his history teacher, Spencer, so that he can say
goodbye. He reveals to the reader that he has been
expelled for failing most of his classes. After he visits
Spencer, he encounters his roommate, Ward Stradlater,
who asks Holden to write an essay for English class for
him while he goes on a date with a longtime friend of
Holden’s. Having agreed, Holden writes about the
baseball glove of his younger brother, Allie, who died of
leukemia. When Stradlater returns, he tells Holden that
the essay isn’t good, and Holden gets angry when
Stradlater refuses to say whether he had sex with his
date. This causes Holden to storm out and leave Pencey
for New York City a few days earlier than planned for
Christmas break. Once he arrives in New York, he
cannot go home, as his parents do not yet know that he
has been expelled. Instead, he rents a room at the
Edmont Hotel, where he witnesses some sexually
charged scenes through the windows of other rooms.
His loneliness then causes him to seek out human
interaction, which he does at the Lavender Room, the
hotel’s nightclub. After interacting with some women
there, he goes to another nightclub, only to leave after
seeing his elder brother’s ex-girlfriend. When he gets
back to the hotel, he orders a prostitute to his room, only
to talk to her. This situation ends in him being punched
in the stomach.
The next morning, Holden calls Sally Hayes, an exgirlfriend of his. They spend the day together until
Holden makes a rude remark and she leaves crying.
Holden then meets up with a former schoolmate, Carl
Luce, at a bar, but Luce leaves early because he
becomes annoyed by Holden’s immature comments.
Holden stays behind and gets drunk by himself. After he
leaves, he wanders in Central Park until the cold drives
him to his family’s apartment. He sneaks in, still not
prepared to face his parents, and finds his 10-year-old
sister, Phoebe. She is upset when she hears that Holden
has failed out and accuses him of not liking anything. It
is at this time that Holden describes to his sister his
fantasy of being “the catcher in the rye,” which was
inspired by a song he heard a little boy singing: “If a
body catch a body comin’ through the rye.” Phoebe tells
him that the words are “If a body meet a body coming
through the rye,” from a poem by Robert Burns. (Burns’s
poem, “Comin thro’ the Rye,” exists in several versions,
but most render the lines as “Gin a body meet a body /
Comin thro’ the rye.”) Soon they hear their parents come
home after a night out, and Holden sneaks away. He
calls his former English teacher, Mr. Antolini, who tells
Holden he can come stay at his apartment. Holden falls
asleep on Antolini’s couch and awakes to Antolini
stroking his forehead, which Holden interprets as a
sexual advance. He immediately excuses himself and
heads to Grand Central Station, where he spends the
rest of the night. When he awakes, he goes to Phoebe’s
school and leaves a note telling her that he plans to run
away and asking her to meet him at a museum during
lunch. She arrives with a packed bag and insists on
going with him. He tells her no and instead takes her to
the zoo, where he watches her ride the carousel in the
pouring rain. This is where the flashback ends. The
novel closes with Holden explaining that he has fallen
“sick” but is expected to go to a new school in the fall.
Interpretation
The Catcher in the Rye takes the loss of innocence as
its primary concern. Holden wants to be the “catcher in
the rye”—someone who saves children from falling off a
cliff, which can be understood as a metaphor for entering
adulthood. As Holden watches Phoebe on the carousel,
engaging in childlike behaviour, he is so overcome with
happiness that he is, as he puts it, “damn near bawling.”
By taking her to the zoo, he allows her to maintain her
childlike state, thus being a successful “catcher in the
rye.” During this time, however, watching her and the
other children on the carousel, he has also come to
accept that he cannot save everyone: “If they want to
grab for the gold ring, you have to let them do it, and not
say anything. If they fall off, they fall off.”
Holden’s name is also significant: Holden can be read as
“hold on,” and Caulfield can be separated into caul and
field. Holden’s desire is to “hold on” to the protective
covering (the caul) that encloses the field of innocence
(the same field he wishes to keep the children from
leaving). Holden desperately wants to remain true and
innocent in a world full of, as he puts it, “phonies.”
Salinger once admitted in an interview that the novel
was semi-autobiographical.
Publication And Initial
Reception
The Caulfield family was one Salinger had already
explored in a number of stories that had been published
by different magazines. Holden appeared in some of
those stories, even narrating one, but he was not as
richly fleshed out in them as he would be in The Catcher
in the Rye. The novel, unlike the other stories of the
Caulfield family, had difficulties getting published.
Originally solicited by Harcourt, Brace and Company, the
manuscript was rejected after the head of the trade
division asked whether Holden was supposed to be
crazy. It was then that Salinger’s agent, Dorothy Olding,
approached Little, Brown and Company, which
published the novel in 1951. After Little, Brown bought
the manuscript, Salinger showed it to The New Yorker,
assuming that the magazine, which had published
several of his short stories, would want to print excerpts
from the novel. The New Yorker rejected it, however, as
the editors found the Caulfield children too precocious to
be plausible and Salinger’s writing style exhibitionistic.
The Catcher in the Rye’s reception was lukewarm at
first. Many critics were impressed by Holden as a
character and, specifically, by his style of narration.
Salinger was able to create a character whose
relatability stemmed from his unreliability—something
that resonated with many readers. Others, however, felt
that the novel was amateur and unnecessarily coarse.
Legacy
After publishing The Catcher in the Rye, Salinger
became a recluse. When asked for the rights to adapt it
for Broadway or Hollywood, he emphatically declined.
Despite Holden’s never having appeared in any form
subsequent to that in Salinger’s novel, the character has
had a long-lasting influence, reaching millions of
readers, including two particularly notorious ones. In
1980 Mark David Chapman identified so wholly with
Holden that he became convinced that murdering John
Lennon would turn him into the novel’s protagonist. The
Catcher in the Rye was also linked to John W. Hinckley,
Jr.’s attempted assassination of U.S. Pres. Ronald
Reagan in 1981. The novel remained influential into the
21st century; indeed, many American high schools
included it in their curriculum. The novel has been
banned numerous times because of its salty language
and sexual content.
Biography of the writer:
J.D. Salinger, in full Jerome David Salinger, (born January 1,
1919, New York, New York, U.S.—died January 27, 2010, Cornish, New
Hampshire), American writer whose novel The Catcher in the Rye (1951)
won critical acclaim and devoted admirers, especially among the postWorld War II generation of college students. His corpus of published
works also consists of short stories that were printed in magazines,
including the The Saturday Evening Post, Esquire, and The New Yorker.
Character List
Holden Caulfield - The protagonist and narrator of the novel, Holden is a
sixteen-year-old junior who has just been expelled for academic failure from
a school called Pencey Prep. Although he is intelligent and sensitive,
Holden narrates in a cynical and jaded voice. He finds the hypocrisy and
ugliness of the world around him almost unbearable, and through his
cynicism he tries to protect himself from the pain and disappointment of the
adult world. However, the criticisms that Holden aims at people around him
are also aimed at himself. He is uncomfortable with his own weaknesses,
and at times displays as much phoniness, meanness, and superficiality as
anyone else in the book. As the novel opens, Holden stands poised on the
cliff separating childhood from adulthood. His inability to successfully
negotiate the chasm leaves him on the verge of emotional collapse.
Read an IN-DEPTH ANALYSIS OF HOLDEN CAULFIELD.
Ackley - Holden’s next-door neighbor in his dorm at Pencey Prep. Ackley
is a pimply, insecure boy with terrible dental hygiene. He often barges into
Holden’s room and acts completely oblivious to Holden’s hints that he
should leave. Holden believes that Ackley makes up elaborate lies about
his sexual experience.
Stradlater - Holden’s roommate at Pencey Prep. Stradlater is handsome,
self-satisfied, and popular, but Holden calls him a “secret slob,” because he
appears well groomed, but his toiletries, such as his razor, are disgustingly
unclean. Stradlater is sexually active and quite experienced for a prep
school student, which is why Holden also calls him a “sexy bastard.”
Read an IN-DEPTH ANALYSIS OF STRADLATER.
Jane Gallagher - A girl with whom Holden spent a lot of time one summer,
when their families stayed in neighboring summer houses in Maine. Jane
never actually appears in The Catcher in the Rye, but she is extremely
important to Holden, because she is one of the few girls whom he both
respects and finds attractive.
Phoebe Caulfield - Phoebe is Holden’s ten-year-old sister, whom he loves
dearly. Although she is six years younger than Holden, she listens to what
he says and understands him more than most other people do. Phoebe is
intelligent, neat, and a wonderful dancer, and her childish innocence is one
of Holden’s only consistent sources of happiness throughout the novel. At
times, she exhibits great maturity and even chastises Holden for his
immaturity. Like Mr. Antolini, Phoebe seems to recognize that Holden is his
own worst enemy.
Read an IN-DEPTH ANALYSIS OF PHOEBE CAULFIELD.
Allie Caulfield - Holden’s younger brother. Allie dies of leukemia three
years before the start of the novel. Allie was a brilliant, friendly, red-headed
boy—according to Holden, he was the smartest of the Caulfields. Holden is
tormented by Allie’s death and carries around a baseball glove on which
Allie used to write poems in green ink.
D. B. Caulfield - Holden’s older brother. D. B. wrote a volume of short
stories that Holden admires very much, but Holden feels that D. B.
prostitutes his talents by writing for Hollywood movies.
Sally Hayes - A very attractive girl whom Holden has known and dated for
a long time. Though Sally is well read, Holden claims that she is “stupid,”
although it is difficult to tell whether this judgment is based in reality or
merely in Holden’s ambivalence about being sexually attracted to her. She
is certainly more conventional than Holden in her tastes and manners.
Mr. Spencer - Holden’s history teacher at Pencey Prep, who
unsuccessfully tries to shake Holden out of his academic apathy.
Read an IN-DEPTH ANALYSIS OF MR. SPENCER.
Carl Luce - A student at Columbia who was Holden’s student advisor at the
Whooton School. Luce is three years older than Holden and has a great
deal of sexual experience. At Whooton, he was a source of knowledge
about sex for the younger boys, and Holden tries to get him to talk about
sex at their meeting.
Read an IN-DEPTH ANALYSIS OF CARL LUCE.
Mr. Antolini - Holden’s former English teacher at the Elkton Hills School.
Mr. Antolini now teaches at New York University. He is young, clever,
sympathetic, and likable, and Holden respects him. Holden sometimes finds
him a bit too clever, but he looks to him for guidance. Like many characters
in the novel, he drinks heavily.
Read an IN-DEPTH ANALYSIS OF MR. ANTOLINI.
Maurice - The elevator operator at the Edmont Hotel, who procures a
prostitute for Holden.
Sunny - The prostitute whom Holden hires through Maurice. She is one of
a number of women in the book with whom Holden clumsily attempts to
connect.
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