'The Catcher in the Rye' Summary

A plot summary of J.D. Salinger's classic novel

J.D. Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye follows the young protagonist Holden Caulfield, who narrates a three-day stint after being kicked out of prep school sometime in the 1950s. Holden decides to leave before the end of the semester and travel to Manhattan, where he spends his time wandering the city and trying to connect with old friends and family.

Part 1: Pencey Prep

Holden begins his story the day he leaves Pencey Prep, the all-boys boarding school he attends in Pennsylvania. It’s Saturday, and there’s a football game against Saxon Hill. Holden decides to go see his history teacher Mr. Spencer instead of watching the game. We learn Mr. Spencer tries to talk some sense into him; Holden’s flunking all of his classes besides English, which is why he is being kicked out. He knows that Mr. Spencer will never understand his point of view on the matter and so he leaves to go back to the dorms.

Back in his room reading, Holden is interrupted by Robert Ackley, the guy who lives next door to him. Ackley is rather unpopular, and Holden expresses some annoyance at Ackley’s unhygienic personal habits. Stradlater, Holden’s more popular roommate, comes in to get ready for a date. Holden thinks that Stradlater is a “phony,” and finds out that he is going out with a girl named Jane Gallagher. Holden remembers her from two summers ago, when they were neighbors. Holden is displeased with Stradlater taking her out, because he likes Jane and because he knows that Stradlater is a womanizer and won’t treat her with respect.

Stradlater asks Holden to do his homework for him and write a descriptive composition before he leaves. Holden acquiesces, and after he goes out for hamburgers and pinball with Ackley and his friend Mal Brossard, he goes back to the dorm to write. His essay is about the baseball glove of his younger brother Allie. Holden reveals that Allie died of leukemia in 1946, and Holden is wrapped up in memories of Allie while writing. When Stradlater returns to the dorms after his date, he's mad that Holden did not follow the assignment's directions and shows no consideration toward Holden regarding the essay's personal nature. He also won't say whether or not he slept with Jane, and Holden is so angry that he punches his roommate. Stradlater pins him to the ground and gives him a bloody nose in retaliation. Holden then decides to leave school early and head to NYC. He sells his typewriter to Frederick Woodruff, a guy down the hall. Between that sum and the amount his grandmother sent him, he figures he has more than enough money to last him for a couple of days.

Part 2: New York

On the train, Holden meets the mother of Ernest Morrow, a fellow student that Holden calls the "biggest bastard" at school. Holden tells the woman that his name is Rudolf Schmidt, and makes up a story about how shy, modest, and popular Ernest is. Once they arrive at New York, Holden says goodbye to Mrs. Morrow and takes a taxi to Edmont Hotel. On the way, he becomes preoccupied with the whereabouts of the ducks at Central Park during wintertime. He asks the driver, but this only seems to annoy him.

Once at Edmont Hotel, Holden thinks about phoning Jane, but ends up going to the bar and trying to buy a drink instead. He dances with three older women who are on vacation in NYC. He thinks it's pathetic and sad that they are so excited by their trip to the Radio City Music Hall and catching sight of celebrities. When they leave, Holden starts thinking about Jane again. He decides to head to Ernie’s, a popular spot for prep-school and college-age kids. He runs into Lillian Simmons, who used to date his older brother D.B. She invites him to sit with her but he hates how affected she is behaving, so he leaves and walks back to his hotel.

On his way up to his room, the elevator boy, Maurice, offers to send up a prostitute named Sunny for five dollars. Once she arrives, Holden changes his mind on the matter. He sees how young and nervous she is and he truly just wants someone to talk with. She decides to leave then, but first she tells Holden that her visit costs ten dollars instead of five. Holden refuses to pay more than he agreed to, and so Maurice and Sunny come back to his room, beat him up, and take the money.

The next day he calls up Sally, an old girlfriend, for a date in the afternoon. Holden goes to a sandwich bar for breakfast first. He talks with two nuns about their work and about the books he's reading for school, enjoying their company. He donates ten dollars for their collection. Then he leaves to meet Sally to go see the play I Know My Love at the Biltmore Theater. On the walk there, Holden buys a record for his younger sister Phoebe called “Little Shirley Beans,” knowing that she’ll love it.

Holden expresses how much he hates how “phony” plays and movies are, though Sally loves the matinee. He grows increasingly annoyed when Sally runs into an old friend and carries on a loud conversation with him about various acquaintances. Then Holden and Sally leave and go ice-skating in Central Park, mainly because Sally loves the skating costume she gets to wear. Holden has a sort of epiphany, and grows excited inviting Sally to run away with him and live in a cabin in the woods in New England. She panics at his rather manic behavior and they get into a fight. Holden calls her a "pain in the ass," and Sally gets to be so upset that they part ways on terrible terms.

Holden tries to call Jane again but hangs up when she doesn’t answer. He goes to see a movie, hating how cheesy it is, before going to see an old classmate of his named Carl Luce. They meet up at the Wicker Bar. Holden makes too many jokes about Luce’s sex life, and their conversation sours pretty quickly. After he leaves, Holden remains at the bar and gets very drunk. He calls Sally that night very late to attempt to make amends, but her mother answers the phone and Sally gets on the line only to tell him to go home. Holden doesn't go home though; first he decides to walk in Central Park, and breaks the record he bought Phoebe by accident.

Part 3: Home

Holden decides to go home after the record breaks, in order to see his sister Phoebe, who is only ten years old. He is careful to sneak into her room to avoid being detected by his parents, who still think he’s at school and do not know about his expulsion. Holden loves talking with Phoebe, but when she finds out that he’s been expelled she grows angry with him. She asks him if he likes anything, and he can’t think of anything other than this boy, James Castle, who fell out a window at school and died. He tells Phoebe that he likes Allie, and she retorts that he’s dead. Then he relays his fantasy to her, about how he wishes he could be the “catcher in the rye.” He pictures a bunch of kids running around in a field of rye at the edge of the cliff, and he pictures himself standing there saving the kids from falling off—effectively preventing them from going through their loss of innocence.

Holden leaves when his parents return from a party. He rings up his old English teacher, Mr. Antolini, who now lives in the city and teaches English at NYU. Mr. Antolini tries to give Holden life advice, and warns him about caring too much about the wrong things so as to not be able to function in society. He and his wife set up the couch for Holden to spend the night on. Holden is quickly woken up by Mr. Antolini patting his head, and is so uncomfortable that he leaves. He ends up sleeping at Grand Central Station. He spends the next day wandering around Fifth Avenue.

Holden fantasizes about leaving the city and pretending to be a deaf-mute, so he can work as a gas station attendee out West and not have to interact with people. He then visits Phoebe’s school to leave a note for her at the front office. He wants to say goodbye to her in person during her lunchtime. Upon seeing an expletive scribbled on the wall, he grows angry thinking about the innocent kids who will see it and learn what the bad word means. He tries to rub it off, but it's permanent. Phoebe then meets him at the museum of art, lugging her suitcase with her, as she wants to run away with him. Holden refuses and she gets so angry she won’t walk next to him. They go the Central Park Zoo, and Holden tells her he will stay, and he buys her a ticket for the carousel. He is genuinely happy watching her go around and around.

Holden ends the story by alluding to the time that has lapsed since the events in the novel. He got sick, is currently in California close to D.B., has been visiting with a psychoanalyst, and is going to start a new school in September. Holden ends the novel by expressing how much he misses his old classmates and all the random people in his life because he’s been talking about them.