'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 perfectly combines an accessible and modern narrative style with rich symbolism, subtle clues to the truth behind the narrator’s words, and a clear link to traditional coming-of-age novels in the literary canon. Salinger captured the overly dramatic, self-centered point-of-view of the American teenager perfectly, and uses that voice to express the isolation and dissatisfactions that the modern day was just beginning to inflict on the population. The resulting work has retained its hold on the reading public’s imagination ever since.

Fast Facts: The Catcher in the Rye

  • Title: 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: There’s a prequel story, The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls, that tells the story of Allie Caulfield’s death (though he’s named Kenneth in the story). Salinger almost published it in 1948 but withdrew it and donated the story to Princeton University on the condition it not be published until 50 years after his death—the year 2060.

Plot Summary

Holden Caulfield begins the story as a student at Pencey Prep. He has been expelled because he has failed most of his classes. His roommate, Stradlater, wants him to write an essay for him so he can go on a date with an old friend of Holden’s. Holden writes the essay about the baseball glove his brother Allie once owned; Allie died years before of leukemia. Stradlater does not like the essay, and refuses to tell Holden whether he and his date had sex.

Upset, Holden leaves and goes 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 feels sorry for her and just talks to her. They demand more money and Holden gets punched in the stomach.

Holden gets drunk and finally sneaks into his family’s apartment and talks to his little sister, Phoebe, who he loves and regards as innocent. He tells her he has a fantasy of being "the catcher in the rye" who catches children when they fall off a cliff while playing. His parents come home and Holden leaves. He goes to a former teacher, Mr. Antolini and falls asleep. When he wakes up, Antolini is stroking his head and Holden is disturbed and leaves. The next day he takes Phoebe to the zoo and watches as she rides the carousel, and experiences the first truly happy moment of the story. He then implies that he is in fact in a mental health facility.

Main Characters

Holden Caulfield

Holden is sixteen years old and is very clearly an unreliable narrator. He is intelligent and emotional. It is equally clear that Holden is desperately lonely. Holden is obsessed with death, especially that of his younger brother Allie, who died of leukemia years before the events of the novel establishing a family history of cancer. Holden struggles to present himself as a cynical, intelligent, and worldly person.

Ackley

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

Stradlater

Stradlater is Holden’s roommate at Pencey and represents everything Holden wishes he was. While Holden is very smart and deeply emotional, Stradlater is an idealized adolescent boy—handsome, confident, athletic, and popular.

Phoebe Caulfield

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

Allie Caulfield

Holden’s younger brother does not appear in the novel, being dead by the time the story begins. It is pretty clear that Holden experienced a nervous breakdown of sorts when Allie died.

Major Themes

Innocence vs. Phoniness. "Phony" is Holden’s insult of choice and a word he uses to describe most of the people he meets and much of the world he encounters. For Holden, the word implies artifice, a lack of authenticity—pretension. He views phoniness as a sign of growing up, as if adulthood were a disease and phoniness its most obvious symptom.

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.