Catcher in the Rye Summary

J. D. Salinger

Catcher in the Rye

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Catcher in the Rye Summary

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As the quintessential and perhaps earliest novel of teen angst, J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye has claimed its place in the canon of American literature as a cornerstone of counterculture fiction. While not autobiographical, the book undeniably draws upon some events of the reclusive Salinger’s early life in developing the background of main character Holden Caulfield. With the events in Catcher taking place in post-World War II America, Caulfield’s age does not reflect that of Salinger, who was born in 1919, but the prep school settings, threat of military school, and a Columbia University connection form hint that Holden Caulfield could be Salinger’s alter ego. In spite of being considered a “must read” in high school English classes, the novel has always been controversial.  Rebellion against authority as a theme, language that provokes charges of obscenity, and overt talk of adolescent sexuality frequently land Catcher on banned books lists, and it remains a focal text in debates about censorship and the First Amendment. Whether because of the controversial nature of the book or despite it, Holden Caulfield became and remains a symbol of the inner conflict that occurs when the quest for individuality is threatened by the unwritten rules of society that demand conformity.

Pencey Preparatory Academy in Pennsylvania is the initial setting as first-person narrator Holden relates the events of December 1949. Holden finds himself expelled from the institution due to poor grades. He has a visit at the home of Mr. Spencer, his history teacher. Spencer offers him advice but also harshly criticizes his academic performance.  When Holden returns to his dorm he is asked by classmate Ward Stradlater to write an assignment for him while he goes on a date. It is later revealed that the date was with Jane Gallagher, on whom Holden had a crush. When Stradlater does not appreciate the essay Holden wrote for him about Holden’s late brother Allie and a baseball glove, and will not discuss whether or not he had sex with Jane, a fight ensues in which Holden is easily defeated. Holden decides he is through with Pencey and gets a train to New York City, planning to stay at a hotel until Wednesday, when he will return home. Once in the city he takes a taxi to a rundown hotel, the Edmont. He dances with female tourists, visits Ernie’s Nightclub in bohemian Greenwich Village, and invites a prostitute named Sunny to his room. Once alone with her, however, he is not comfortable and only wants to talk.  She is angered by this and leaves having been paid the agreed-upon amount, but she and Maurice, her pimp, come back demanding more money, and forcibly take it from Holden.

As the next day breaks Holden feels depressed and, wanting company, calls a friend, Sally Hayes. They decide to meet and go to a play. While passing time, Holden purchases a record, “Little Shirley Beans,” for his younger sister Phoebe. His spirits are raised when he hears a boy singing “Comin’ Thro the Rye.” He and Sally attend the play then go skating in Rockefeller Center. Their date comes to an end when he asks her to run away with him. Holden then goes to a bar and gets drunk, following this with a walk in Central Park, where the record he bought gets broken. At this point he is broke and tired, so he sneaks into his parents’ apartment and wakes up his sister who, despite only being ten years old, is the only person he can be himself with. He tells her that he imagines himself as the caretaker of thousands of children in a field of rye that is on a cliff and from which they will fall if he does not catch them. A misunderstanding of the song “Comin’ Thro the Rye” has led him to this fantasy in which he is a “catcher” who will save the innocence of the children.

Once his parents return Holden sneaks out and visits Mr. Antolini, a former English teacher he looks up to. Mr. Antolini gives Holden advice and puts him up for the night, but during the night Holden awakes to find the teacher caressing his head, which makes him uncomfortable, so he leaves in the morning to spend the day wandering around the city. He next decides that he will go West and live a secluded life. When he discusses this with Phoebe she asks to go along and is upset when he refuses, which prompts Holden to change his mind. He takes his sister to the zoo in Central Park, where seeing her riding the carousel makes him happy. In an epilogue Holden tells the reader that he spent some time in an institution in California and will be going to a new school in the fall. He tells his readers that he has told enough and has found that he misses his old classmates, and uses this as a warning to his audience about sharing their own experiences.

Catcher in the Rye was unique at the time of its publication. Not only did it challenge the values of mainstream America but it did so through the voice of a young protagonist who used the teenage vernacular of the time, including hundreds of profanities along the way.  Further adding to the ever-present controversy surrounding the book is the infamy it acquired by seeming to hold a great appeal to public figures known for notorious acts.  John Hinckley, Jr. who attempted to kill President Ronald Reagan in 1981, called it his favorite book and it was among his possessions when police searched his room. Mark David Chapman, who in 1980 assassinated John Lennon, similarly called it his favorite book and had it on his person on the night of the attack. In 1989, when he killed actress Rebecca Schaffer, Robert John Bardo also carried a copy of the novel. All of the killers felt they could relate to Holden Caulfield.