The Catcher in the Rye

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Novels

Title The Catcher in the Rye
Author J. D. Salinger
Country United States
Language English
Genre(s) Bildungsroman, Novel,
Publisher Little, Brown
Released 1951-07-16
Media type Print ( Hardback & Paperback)
Pages 277 pp
ISBN ISBN 0-316-76953-3
Preceded by --
Followed by Nine Stories (1953)

The Catcher in the Rye is a novel by J. D. Salinger. First published in the United States in 1951, the novel remains controversial to this day for its liberal profanity and portrayal of sexuality and teenage angst; it was the 13th most frequently challenged book of the 1990s according to the American Library Association. Despite this censorship, or perhaps due to it, the novel has become one of the most famous literary works of the 20th century, and a common part of high-school curricula in many English-speaking countries, such as the United States, Canada, Great Britain, and Australia. Around 250,000 copies are sold each year, with total sales over 10 million.

The novel's protagonist, Holden Caulfield, has become an icon for teenage alienation and fear. Written in the first person, The Catcher in the Rye relates Holden's experiences in New York City in the days following his expulsion from Pencey Prep, a university-preparatory school.

Plot summary

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.

The novel covers a few important days in the life of the protagonist Holden Caulfield, a tall, lanky, highly-critical and depressed sixteen-year-old who decides one night to run away from Pencey Prep boarding school, just before Christmas vacation. Because he is so critical of others, and points out their faults only to exhibit them himself later, Holden is widely considered to be an unreliable narrator, and the details and events of his story are apt to be distorted by his point of view. Nonetheless, it is his story to tell.

His story starts on Holden's last day at Pencey Prep. He is standing on the crest of a hill that overlooks the football stadium. It is the final game of the season, but Holden has never cared much for established tradition. He instead runs across the street to the residence of Mr. Spencer, his history teacher. It is revealed here that Holden has been expelled, and that he doesn't particularly care. Mr. Spencer is disappointed in Holden, and lectures to him about the importance of hard work and education. Holden lies about removing some equipment from the gym to get out of the discussion, says goodbye to Spencer and his wife, and goes to the school dorm.

Back at the dorm, Holden talks to his roommate, Stradlater, a tall, good-looking ladies' man. Holden sees him very differently, describing him as a "phony" and the sort of person who shaves and grooms himself for women, but doesn't bother to clean the dirty, rusty razor he uses to do so. Stradlater returns home early from a date with Jane Gallagher, one of Holden's childhood friends with whom he has had a long-standing infatuation. During Stradlater's date, Holden had been told by Stradlater to write a composition for him on "a room or something." Holden finds inspiration in writing about his late brother Allie's baseball mitt. When Stradlater returns and finds what Holden has written, he is annoyed. Holden tears up the essay. A short while later, Stradlater insinuates that he had sex with Jane Gallagher in response to Holden's question. Holden snaps and tries to hit his unsuspecting roommate. Stradlater quickly wins the fight, as Holden considers himself a pacifist and is not particularly strong.

His neighbour in the dorm, Robert Ackley, is also introduced. Ackley is a pimple-ridden outcast whose relationship with Holden is fairly complex: On the one hand, Holden criticizes Ackley by calling him a " phony", and expresses disgust at his hygiene, acne, and personality. But Holden spends time with him of his own free will; he is drawn to Ackley because there is nobody else, going to movies and having snowball fights with him even though he comments on how abrasive Ackley is.

That night, considering everything, especially the fact that he will be leaving Pencey anyway, Holden packs a suitcase and takes the train to New York City. En route, Holden meets the mother of one of his schoolmates. This schoolmate is an antisocial bully, but Holden decides to lie to the mother. He tells her that her son is a terrific young man and very friendly, and that when other students wanted to nominate him for class president, he humbly refused the honour. Holden also notes many times that although the mother is middle-aged, she is seemingly attractive.

Holden loiters around New York City, drinking heavily and meeting various people. He visits Club Ernie's, but he is disappointed by the "phonies" who visit the club. He becomes increasingly depressed as he spends more time there, observing those around him and judging their hypocrisy.

Holden encounters an elevator boy, Maurice, who offers to send up a prostitute to Holden's room, and Holden claims to have said yes only because he was too depressed to say no. When the prostitute, a young girl named Sunny comes to his room, Holden cannot bring himself to have sex with her. He claims to be too depressed to have intercourse, and only wants someone to talk with and keep him company. He pays her, instead, to talk about life with him. Later, she leaves – but only to return with Maurice, who punches Holden in the stomach after he refuses to pay Maurice the extra five dollars. Sunny takes the money from Holden's wallet, and the two are never seen in the novel again.

The next day, he has a date with one of his previous girlfriends, Sally Hayes. They attend a matinee perfomance of I Know My Love and later go ice skating at Rockefeller Centre, but retire indoors to talk once their ankles tire. The experience leaves him more depressed, as he realizes that they do not have much in common. Holden gets a sudden idea to leave and go Northeast, live off of the land and build a cabin, offering Sally a chance to go with him — get "married or something". Sally rejects him and his idea, especially after Holden plaintively blurts out that she's "a royal pain in the ass."

Holden finally decides to surreptitiously return home to see his younger sister Phoebe, after he gets drunk and almost drowns looking for ducks in Central Park. During a short conversation with Phoebe, Holden reveals the meaning of the novel's title. The idea is based on a misreading of a line in the song "Comin' Thro' the Rye," by Robert Burns, which Holden heard a young boy singing. The young boy mistakenly substituted "When a body catch a body, comin' thro' the rye" for "When a body meet a body, comin' thro' the rye." Holden interpreted the line literally, imagining a field of rye at the edge of a cliff, in which children constantly wandered, and that someone had the job of catching any who might fall. Thus, he says that he wants to be the catcher, because it serves a real purpose in a world that is otherwise so often phony/trivial.

Holden goes to a former teacher's house, Mr Antolini, where his teacher gives him a speech about life and how, in order to live happily, Holden has to be prepared. Holden views Mr. Antolini as a father-figure and holds much respect for him. Mr. Antolini speaks as if he has been in Holden's situation before, hopelessly hating every person he ever sees. After preparing the pull out couch with Mr. Antolini, Holden awakes to find him stroking his head. Holden interprets this as a sexual advance, although the question of whether Antolini is homosexual, drunk, a caring man, or a combination of the three is never answered. Holden leaves confused and even more depressed after Antolini says he was just admiring him.

Holden sleeps in Grand Central Station. In the morning, he decides to hitchhike West and build a cabin for himself away from the people he knows. He plans to pretend he is a deaf-mute, and get an ordinary job. However, he can't leave without saying goodbye to Phoebe and returning her Christmas money to her.

Explaining the situation, Holden gives a message to a person at her school so it could get to her. He tells her to meet him at lunchtime outside the museum so he can give her back the money. At the same time, Holden witnesses a " Fuck You" message etched on the wall, and comments that if you had a million years, you couldn't get rid of half of the "Fuck You" messages on Earth.

When Phoebe arrives at lunchtime, she is carrying one of Holden's old suitcases, full of clothes. Phoebe tells Holden that she no longer wants to be away from her brother, and is going with him. He refuses angrily, feeling that he has influenced her to want to go with him instead of staying in school. She cries and refuses to speak to him. Knowing that she will follow him, Holden walks to the zoo, letting her anger lift. After walking through the zoo, with a short distance between them, they visit a park across the street. Phoebe starts talking to Holden again, and Holden promises to go back home. He buys her a ticket for the carousel in the park and watches her ride an old horse on it. As Holden watches her ride the carousel, his own mood lifts. Soon he is nearly moved to tears with remorse, longing, and bittersweet happiness.

At this point in the book, the reader is given several clues as to the possibility that Holden is narrating the book from a mental hospital in California. He explains that he will be going to another school in the fall again but doesn't know for sure if he will start applying himself. He then finishes talking with the words, "Don't ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody."


  • Holden Caulfield. The protagonist and narrator of the story. Holden is a tall sixteen year old with half a head of white hair making him look more mature, who has just been expelled (for academic failure) from a school called Pencey Prep. Although he is intelligent and sensitive, Holden narrates in a cynical and jaded voice. He finds the hypocrisy and ugliness of the world around him almost unbearable, and through his cynicism he tries to protect himself from the pain and disappointment of the adult world. However, the criticisms that Holden aims at people around him are also aimed at himself. He is uncomfortable with his own weaknesses, and at times displays the exact phoniness, meanness, and superficiality of the people he says he despises.

The most profound aspect of Holden's character is his desire to protect children. Relatedly, Holden fails to view himself as the child that he is. A brief note about Holden’s name: "Caul", in Scottish, means "Rye", thus relating to a major symbol, and ultimately, the title of the book.

Holden's siblings

  • Allie Caulfield. Allie was Holden's brother, two years Holden's junior, who died of leukemia when Holden was thirteen. Allie was mild, considerate, and intelligent. Allie and Holden were very close, and Holden smashed all the windows in the family's garage with his fist the night he died, permanently damaging his hand. Allie's death reflects the underlying theme of the death of innocence and his death is presumably a major cause of Holden's turbulent maturation process.
  • Phoebe Caulfield. Phoebe is Holden's little sister, whom Holden adores. She is in the fourth grade at the time Holden leaves Pencey Prep. Holden holds her as a paragon of innocence, and gets furious at the sight of graffiti in her school that reads "Fuck you", for fear that she'd try and find out what it meant. In some ways, she can be even more mature than he, even criticizing him for childishness.
  • D.B. Caulfield. D.B. is Holden's older brother and lives in Hollywood. There he works as a writer. He also writes plots for films. Holden thinks that's like prostituting himself, which is why he hates films.

Major themes

Given that J.D. Salinger has never commented on the work and its intended meanings, interpretations are fractured and vary from reader to reader. However, there are certainly a few themes which are discussed in the book — it is what Salinger actually meant that is under contention.


A major theme is what Holden calls "phoniness." He feels surrounded by dishonesty and false pretenses, and throughout the book is frequently picking out the "phonies" he sees around him. There is evidence that Holden exhibits much of the same "phoniness" he denounces in others. Holden also puts on pretenses, lies, and makes irrational and contradictory assumptions to mask his feelings and actions from others, which further alienates him from society. However, many others say that this is a misinterpretation of Holden's use of "phoniness", and that while he lies and exhibits other flaws, he doesn't fall into his own category. Possibly, the "phoniness" is about not being honest with yourself about your feelings of pain and disappointment. Holden's "phonies" rarely give the impression of admitting their flaws and insecurities, and this could be what he has in mind when he labels them as such. In contrast, though Holden labels other people as "phonies," Holden reveals much of his own carnality, showing himself to the readers as being self-righteous and judgmental. Either way, Holden believes that he is honest with himself, and the reader, throughout the book.

Loss of innocence

One more significant theme, which may also tie in with the theme about "phoniness" is that the loss of innocence is unavoidable. Holden's idea of a "catcher in the rye" illustrates how he wishes to wipe out corruption from the world and protect children like his sister from becoming like the many "phonies" he hated, i.e adults. This is clearly illustrated by Holden's attack on Stradlater after the date with Jane Gallagher. The fact that Jane always kept her kings in the back row during a game of checkers was significant to Holden because he wanted her to protect her virginity. However, Holden finds it impossible to maintain innocence. After seeing some vulgar graffiti on the walls in his sister Phoebe's elementary school, a bastion of learning and culture, he realizes that he won't be able to erase it all and protect children from the world indefinitely. Also, in Holden's scheme of moving west and building a cabin, he mentions that he may have children, but hide them, probably to maintain their innocence.

Throughout the story Holden tries to maintain the innocence of anything possible. One situation Holden finds himself in is when he is in his dorm in Pencey prep and is ready to leave for the movies and begins to "[pack] a snowball with [his] bare hands…," and then admits "I didn’t throw it at anything, though. I started to throw it. At a car that was parked across the street. But I changed my mind. The car looked so nice and white. Then I started to throw it at a hydrant, but that looked too nice and white, too. Finally I didn’t throw it at anything." When Holden talks about how nice and white the car and hydrant looks Salinger implies the presence of God in the world. The colour white is used as a symbol for chastity or continence. Holden decides not to throw it and puts the snowball down. Another situation where Holden is irritated by the ugliness of the adult world is when he notices a "Fuck You" on a wall. In disgust, after trying to rub it off the wall, he claims, "If you had a million years to do it in, you couldn’t rub out even half the "Fuck You" signs in the world." To Holden, the "Fuck You"s represent the things that remove the innocence of people like his sister Phoebe. Holden believes that society will never get better, and it will always have some sort of flaw.


Running contrary to the desire to maintain innocence is Holden's obviously strong desire to be an adult and live in the adult world, for which he is not prepared. He is immensely frustrated by his repeated attempts to fit into adult society, foiled by his saying something wrong, or simply being seen as an adolescent by the adults around him. He spends much of the novel pursuing women, attempting to lose his virginity. He also tries to drink alcohol in every bar he can, but is turned away because he is too young. Having been rejected, Holden's response is an even stronger rejection of the people with whom he was trying to fit in. This resentment, combined with his observations of "phoniness" in many of the people around him, cause him to be outcast by society and to sometimes view himself as a loner with outsider status. Holden also changes his mind at the end of the book when he lets Phoebe grow up.


Another theme in the book is whether or not Holden's education is important. Holden has failed out of quite a few schools in his career, and exhibits no signs of remorse or promise of change. In the final chapters of the book, his former teacher, Mr. Antolini, tells Holden that it is imperative to his future that he apply himself at school, that he believes that education helps to arrange the ideas of brilliant and creative people — a group to which he presumably believes Holden belongs. Whether this speech is intended to be considered true is convoluted by the ambiguous actions of Mr. Antolini shortly after Holden goes to sleep. At the end of the book, Holden states that he thinks he will apply himself in the next school he's going to, but that he isn't sure and that he won't be until he gets there.


Stream of consciousness

This style, used throughout the novel, refers to the use of seemingly disjointed ideas and episodes used in an apparently random medley, but in fact in a highly structured way, that is used to illustrate a theme. For example, as Holden sits in a chair in his dorm, minor events (such as picking up a book or looking at a table) unfold into long discussions about past experiences.


The Catcher in the Rye has been shrouded in controversy since its publication. Reasons for banning have been the use of offensive language, premarital sex, alcohol abuse, and prostitution.

Mark David Chapman, murderer of musician John Lennon, was carrying the book when he was arrested immediately after the murder and referred to it in his statement to police shortly thereafter. John Hinckley, Jr., who attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan in 1981, was also reported to have been obsessed with the book.

Critics see Holden as a disturbing influence on youths they consider to be "social outcasts." Holden is portrayed as a juvenile who rejects and is rejected by many peers and individuals. Critics hold that people like Chapman and Hinckley come to relate themselves to Holden, the person that nobody understands and that can't understand anybody else.

Thirty years after its first publication in 1951, The Catcher in the Rye was both the most banned book in America as well as the second most taught book in public schools.

It was number 13 on the American Library Association's list of most frequently challenged books from 1990-2000. It was one of the ten most challenged books in 2005.

Notwithstanding the above, the story remains required reading in many U.S. public school English literature curricula.

Dating the story

The Catcher in the Rye takes place in the late 1940s to the early 1950s, which is about the time the novel was written. World War II was over and the atomic bomb, which was mentioned in the book, had already been invented. The death of Allie, Holden's younger brother, is given to be July 18, 1946, and it is stated Holden was 13 at that time. It follows, therefore, that the bulk of the story takes place in approximately December of 1949 and the story's "present" is the summer of 1950. Given that Christmas fell on a Sunday in 1949, the two days that consume most of the novel are most likely December 18 and 19; if it were one week later, the second day of Holden's romp would be Christmas, and if it were one week earlier, Pencey would be letting its students out two full weeks before Christmas.


  • The novel is written in eye dialect
  • Holden Caulfield's middle name is Morrisey. Although it does not appear in this book, Salinger used it in a 1946 short story featuring Caulfield called " Slight Rebellion off Madison," which was published in the New Yorker.
  • An urban legend states that the name "Holden Caulfield" first came to Salinger when he saw a movie theatre's marquee advertising the 1947 film Dear Ruth, which starred William Holden and Joan Caulfield. However, the character of Holden first appeared in the short story " I'm Crazy", published in Collier's on December 22, 1945, a year and a half before Dear Ruth was released.
  • The word " fuck" appears in the book only six times and was sometimes given as reason for it being banned. (In some publications, the word was replaced with a "-".) However, in the context of the novel, Holden is trying to remove the word from the walls of a school and the Museum of Natural History to preserve the children's "innocence."
  • The word "goddamn" appears in the book 252 times.
  • While the novel would seem a natural for the big screen, Salinger has refused to license the film rights to any producer or director. The author, who, before Catcher's publication, had a series of disappointing encounters with Hollywood, said that the reason for his refusal to allow a film version of the novel is, "I would like to see it done, but Holden wouldn't approve"--a reference to Holden's dismissal of Hollywood and the entire motion picture industry as "phony."

Memorable and significant quotes

  • "If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth."
  • "I thought what I'd do was, I'd pretend I was one of those deaf-mutes. That way I wouldn't have to have any goddamn stupid useless conversations with anybody."
  • "The cars zoomed by, brakes screeched all over the place, his parents paid no attention to him, and he kept on walking next to the curb and singing "If a body catch a body coming through the rye." It made me feel better. It made me feel not so depressed any more."
  • "What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff— I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That's all I'd do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it's crazy, but that's the only thing I'd really like to be. I know it's crazy."
  • "Anyway, I'm sort of glad they've got the atomic bomb invented. If there's ever another war I'm going to sit right the hell on top of it. I'll volunteer for it, I swear to God I will."
  • "I think, even, if I ever die, and they stick me in a cemetery, and I have a tombstone and all, it'll say "Holden Caulfield" on it, and then what year I was born and what year I died, and then right under that it'll say "Fuck you." I'm positive, in fact."
  • "If you had a million years to do it, you couldn't rub out even half the "Fuck you" signs in the world."
  • "Did you ask her if she still keeps all her kings in the back row?"
  • Mr. Spencer: "Life is a game, boy. Life is a game that one plays according to the rules."
  • "Game, my ass. Some game. When you get to the side where all the hot-shots are, then it's a game alright - I'll admit that. But if you get on the other side, where there aren't any hot-shots, then what's a game about it? Nothing. No game."
  • "Just because they're crazy about themself [ sic], they think you're crazy about them too, and that you're just dying to do them a favour."
  • "All morons hate it when you call them a moron."
  • "Then she introduced me to the Navy guy. His name was Commander Blop or something. He was one of those guys that think they're being a pansy if they don't break around forty of your fingers when they shake hands with you. God, I hate that stuff."
  • "Goddamn money. It always ends up making you blue as hell."
  • "That's something that annoys the hell out of me – I mean if somebody says the coffee's all ready and it isn't."
  • "But what I mean is, lots of times you don’t know what interests you most till you start talking about something that doesn’t interest you most."
  • "It's funny. All you have to do is say something nobody understands and they'll do practically anything you want them to."
  • "Then just to show you how crazy I am, when we were coming out of this big clinch, I told her I loved her and all. It was a lie, of course, but the thing is, I meant it when I said it. I'm crazy. I swear to God I am."
  • "Don't ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody."
  • "Every time I came to the end of a block and stepped off the goddamn curb, I had this feeling that I'd never get to the other side of the street. I thought I'd just go down, down, down, and nobody'd ever see me again."
  • "What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it."
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