'The Catcher in the Rye' Overview

Salinger’s Classic Made Teen Angst Literary

The Catcher in the Rye
The Catcher in the Rye.

The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger, is one of the most well-known coming-of-age novels in American literature. Through the first-person narrative of teenager Holden Caulfield, the novel explores modern alienation and the loss of innocence.

Fast Facts: The Catcher in the Rye

  • Author: J.D. Salinger
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
  • Year Published: 1951
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Type of Work: Novel
  • Original Language: English
  • Themes: Alienation, innocence, death
  • Characters: Holden Caulfield, Phoebe Caulfield, Ackley, Stradlater, Allie Caulfield
  • Fun Fact: J.D. Salinger wrote a prequel (The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls) that tells the story of Holden's brother's death. Salinger donated the story to Princeton University on the condition it not be published until 50 years after his death—the year 2060.

Plot Summary

The novel begins with the narrator, Holden Caulfield, describing his experience as a student at Pencey Prep. He has been expelled after failing most of his classes. His roommate, Stradlater, wants Holden to write an essay for him so that he can go on a date. Holden writes the essay about his late brother Allie's baseball glove. (Allie died of leukemia years prior.) Stradlater does not like the essay, and refuses to tell Holden whether he and his date had sex.

Upset, Holden leaves campus and travels to New York City. He rents a room in a cheap hotel. He makes arrangements with the elevator operator to have a prostitute named Sunny visit his room, but when she arrives, he becomes uncomfortable and tells her that he just wants to talk to her. Sunny and her pimp, Maurice, demand more money and Holden gets punched in the stomach.

The next day, Holden gets drunk and sneaks into his family’s apartment. He talks to his younger sister, Phoebe, whom he loves and regards as innocent. He tells Phoebe that he has a fantasy of being the "catcher in the rye" who catches children when they fall off a cliff while playing. When his parents come home, Holden leaves and travels to his former teacher Mr. Antolini's house, where he falls asleep. When he wakes up, Mr. Antolini is patting his head; Holden becomes disturbed and leaves. The next day, Holden takes Phoebe to the zoo and watches as she rides the carousel: his first true experience of happiness in the story. The story ends with Holden stating that he got "sick" and will be starting at a new school in the fall.

Major Characters

Holden Caulfield. Holden is sixteen years old. Intelligent, emotional, and desperately lonely, Holden is the epitome of an unreliable narrator. He is obsessed with death, especially the death of younger brother Allie. Holden strives to present himself as a cynical, smart, and worldly person.

Ackley. Ackley is a student at Pencey Prep. Holden claims to despise him, but there are hints that Holden views Ackley as a version of himself.

Stradlater. Stradlater is Holden’s roommate at Pencey. Confident, handsome, athletic, and popular, Stradlater is everything Holden wishes he could be.

Phoebe Caulfield. Phoebe is Holden’s younger sister. She is one of the few people that Holden holds in high regard. Holden views Phoebe as smart, kind, and innocent—almost an ideal human being.

Allie Caulfield. Allie is Holden's late younger brother, who died of leukemia before the start of the narrative.

Major Themes

Innocence vs. Phoniness. "Phony" is Holden’s insult of choice. He uses the word to describe most of the people and places he encounters. To Holden, the word implies artifice, a lack of authenticity, and pretension. To Holden, phoniness is a symptom of adulthood; by contrast, he views the innocence of children as a sign of true goodness.

Alienation. Holden is isolated and alienated throughout the entire novel. His adventures are consistently focused on making some sort of human connection. Holden uses alienation to protect himself from mockery and rejection, but his loneliness drives him to keep trying to connect.

Death. Death is the thread that runs through the story. For Holden, death is abstract; what Holden fears about death is the change that it brings. Holden continuously wishes for things to remain unchanged, and to be able to go back to better times—a time when Allie was alive.

Literary Style

Salinger employs naturalistic, slang-infused language to believably replicate the voice of a teenage boy, and injects the narration with "filler" words to lend it the same rhythm as the spoken word; the resulting effect is the sense that Holden is telling you this story. Holden is also an unreliable narrator, telling the reader that he is "the most terrific liar you ever saw." As a result, the reader can’t necessarily trust Holden’s descriptions.

About the Author

J.D. Salinger was born in 1919 in Manhattan, New York. He burst onto the literary stage with the publication of his famous short story, A Perfect Day for Bananafish in 1948. Just three years later he published The Catcher in the Rye and solidified his reputation as one of the greatest authors of the 20th century. Superstardom did not agree with Salinger, and he became a recluse, publishing his last story in 1965 and giving his last interview in 1980. He died in 2010 at the age of 91.