The novel “The Catcher in the Rye” by the American author Jerome David Salinger was published in 1951. The protagonist and narrator is the sixteen-year-old Holden Caulfield. With youthful idealism he goes in search of decency and truth. Holden describes his failure in the lying world of adults and his physical and mental breakdown. The action takes place in New York City for three days before Christmas in 1949 (Saturday through Monday).
In the framework in Chapters 1 and 26 it becomes clear that Holden Caulfield is in a kind of sanatorium. There he tells his story in retrospect in the summer of 1950. The novel consists of 26 chapters and can be divided into three sections.
Farewell to Prencey (Chapters 1 – 7)
Narrator Holden Caulfield was expelled from school for poor performance. After the Christmas break beginning Wednesday, he will no longer be allowed to return to Pencey Prep in Agerstown, Pennsylvania. He says goodbye to his history teacher, Mr. Spencer, who accuses Holden of lack of commitment. The conversation bores Holden. His mind is with the ducks in Central Park. He wonders how they survive the winter.
Holden’s roommate, Stradlater, goes out that evening with Jane Gallagher, a valued friend of Holden’s. It makes Holden nervous that the girl surrenders to the unscrupulous Stradlater. Nevertheless, he finds himself ready to do some homework for Stradlater. A description of the object is required and Holden chooses his younger brother Allie’s old baseball glove. Allie died of leukemia three years earlier; Holden describes him as kind and gifted.
When Stradlater later refuses to give details about the date with Jane, a fight breaks out between him and Holden. During the night, Holden decides to leave school early to escape the uncomfortable atmosphere there. He is not expected in his parents’ house until Wednesday. So he plans to spend a few nights alone in a hotel in New York.
Wandering aimlessly in New York City (Chapters 8-20)
On the train to New York, Holden meets Mrs. Morrow, the mother of a classmate. He wins her sympathy by telling her lies about her supposedly popular son.
Holden is staying in a shabby hotel in New York. Disgusted, he watches residents of the house across the street playing what he thinks is perverted games. He tries in vain to get a former stripper to meet him by phone. He would love to talk to his little sister Phoebe. She is ten and he admires and loves her.
In the hotel bar, Holden dances with three women whom he finds both attractive and stupid. When they left, he remembers the summer with Jane and the familiarity between them. Because he can’t sleep, he has him taken to the Ernie’s nightclub. On the way he discusses the ducks in Central Park with the taxi driver. All the people in the club seem conceited, selfish and mendacious to him. He despises and pities her.
Holden is sexually inexperienced and insecure. He just wants to talk to the prostitute who is later forced on him in the hotel. At the end of a pay dispute, Holden is beaten up. Still, he feels like the hero in a movie.
The next morning, Holden leaves the hotel and puts his luggage in a locker. At the train station he meets two nuns with whom he talks. He finds them credible and donates money to them. While walking to Broadway, he hears a little boy singing. The song is about a “catcher in the rye”. For the first time, Holden is happy and less depressed. He buys a record for Phoebe. In Central Park he looks in vain for his sister. He hopes to meet her at the natural history museum. On the way there, he ponders that everything in the museum will remain as it is. He wishes that for life too.
In the afternoon, Holden has an appointment with his old school friend Sally Hayes. She doesn’t want to hear about his problems. Suddenly he suggests that she run away with him. She refuses; then Holden becomes insulting. Sally is shaken and doesn’t accept an apology. Holden doesn’t understand himself.
He tries in vain to call Jane several times.
When he goes to the cinema, he is depressed by the superficiality of the industry, the audience and the actors. The encounter with Carl Luce from a previous school also fails: Carl has grown up and Holden’s adolescent remarks about sexuality annoy him. He goes and leaves Holden to his loneliness.
In his desperation, Holden gets drunk. Exhausted and discouraged, he makes his way to Central Park to check on the ducks. He is completely confused and freezes. He longs for his sister Phoebe and decides to go home.
On the Way Home (Chapters 21-26)
Holden sneaks into his parents’ house and his sister’s room. Phoebe sees through the reasons for his sudden appearance. But she is happy and the two talk and dance together. Holden gives Phoebe the now broken record. He tells her that he would like to be the “catcher in the rye”. He is referring to Robert Burns ‘poem “Comin’ Through the Rye”. In a rye field full of children playing, Holden imagines that as a catcher he wanted to prevent them from getting near the cliff and falling down. Phoebe realizes that he misunderstood the poem.
When the parents come home, Holden flees unnoticed to his former English teacher, Mr. Antolini. He expressed concern and compassion for Holden’s situation and offered him a place to sleep. During the night Holden wakes up when Mr. Antolini strokes his head. Holden interprets this as an attempt at sexual advances. He leaves the house in a hurry.
Overnight, with a headache and diarrhea, Holden strolls through the Christmas city the next morning. He decides to go to the West and look for work. Before that, he wants to say goodbye to Phoebe. Phoebe appears at the agreed meeting point and wants to go with him. Holden refuses. To make her forgiving, he takes her to the zoo. He happily watches her play on a carousel and then goes home with her.
In the last chapter it becomes clear that Holden is in a mental health facility, from where he tells his story. The end remains open.
“The Catcher in the Rye” is one of the most popular novels in American literature of the 20th century. His main character, Holden, is ambivalent in many ways, but this is not exceptional at the end of puberty. He suffers from the superficiality of his surroundings and questions the materialism of his time. If at all possible, Holden would stick with childhood and reject the adult world. As a first-person narrative, the novel reproduces Holden’s flow of speech: He uses the youth language of the 1940s as well as an idiosyncratic grammar and keeps digressing.
The novel has a single main character, namely Holden. In addition, a few other characters appear personally. The reader only gets to know this from Holden’s perspective.
- Main character and first-person narrator of the novel
- comes from a wealthy family in Manhattan
- 16 years old (in the frame story 17)
- on the of growing up
- intelligent and sensitive
- generous and helpful
- lazy and a school failure
- thinks most people are “phony”
- is disoriented, doesn’t know whether to stay or leave
- feels lonely; finds no balance between closeness and demarcation
- feels affection for his sister Phoebe and for children in general
- ten year old sister of Holden
- intelligent and successful in school
- clever and emphatic
- Interlocutor for Holden, someone he listens to
- Brother of Holden and Phoebe
- died of leukemia in July 1946 at the age of eleven
- played baseball and loved poetry
- friendly, intelligent and popular
- loved and missed by Holden
- Holden’s former neighbor, friend and confidante
- has no contact with Holden, but is a kind of inner refuge for him
- goes out with Stradlater
The “Prencey Prep” is a fictional boarding school. Prep is an abbreviation for “Prepratory School”, a type of school typical of the east coast of the USA. The aim here is to prepare students of wealthy parents for college or university. “Prep” is also used as a synonym for teenagers who are conformist, uncritical, and ambitious.
The word “phony”
For Holden, all people are “phony”, that is, insincere, false and lying. The only exceptions are his girlfriend Jane Gallagher, his late brother Allie and his little sister Phoebe.
Holden’s worldview is summed up at the end of Chapter 12: “People are always ruining things for you” – “People always break something.”
Robert Burns (1759–1796) was a Scottish romantic poet. In 1782 he wrote the poem “Comin Thro’ the Rye”. It’s about an encounter in the rye field: a disappointed lover doesn’t understand why the girl Jenny doesn’t want to be kissed.