This coming-of-age book by J.D Salinger is published by Little, Brown and Company, a division of Hachette Book Group, and written for kids ages 14 years and up. The age range reflects readability and not necessarily content appropriateness.
Seventeen-year-old Holden Caulfield begins narrating the story of some trouble he experienced during the previous year. In his narration of the past December, Holden is a student at Pencey Prep, an all-boys school. He is about to be dismissed from school because he is failing four of his five classes. Holden knows that his parents will be upset about his expulsion since Pencey is the fourth school he has attended. Holden goes to visit his history teacher, Mr. Spencer, who encourages Holden to think of his future and do what is expected of him as a student. Holden is not interested in receiving a moral lecture from Mr. Spencer, and he leaves Mr. Spencer’s house.
Holden returns to his dorm room and is forced to talk to annoying schoolmate Ackley, a boy with bad skin and hygiene problems. Ackley’s intrusive behavior irritates Holden, but Holden is generally tolerant and considerate toward Ackley. Ackley leaves the room when Holden’s roommate, Stradlater, returns. Stradlater asks Holden to write an English composition for him, as a favor. Holden is upset when he learns that Stradlater’s date for the evening is Jane Gallagher, a girl Holden knows well. Holden is nervous about the idea of Stradlater dating Jane because Stradlater views girls with sexual intent.
Later that night, Holden writes the descriptive English essay for Stradlater. He is supposed to describe a room or a house, but instead he describes the baseball glove of his deceased younger brother, Allie. Allie had used green ink to write lines of poetry all over his glove so he would have something to read during the dull parts of the game. Allie died of leukemia a few years earlier, and Holden misses him.
Stradlater returns to the dorm after his date with Jane, and he is disappointed with Holden’s essay about the baseball glove. Holden tears up the essay and asks Stradlater about his date with Jane. Stradlater refuses to share any details, and Holden punches him. Stradlater does not want to continue the fight, but Holden keeps insulting Stradlater’s intelligence, intentionally provoking more violence. Stradlater leaves the room, and Holden inspects his own bloody face in the mirror. Holden walks to the neighboring room to visit Ackley. He tries to sleep on Ackley’s roommate’s bed, but is tormented by wondering what Stradlater might have done with Jane.
Since he has already been expelled from Pencey Prep, Holden decides to leave the school a few days before his parents come to fetch him. He boards a late-night train for New York and coincidentally meets Mrs. Morrow, the mother of one of his classmates. Holden lies and tells Mrs. Morrow that her spiteful son Ernest is a wonderful person. When Mrs. Morrow expresses her concern that Holden is leaving on his winter break too early, he lies again and tells her he is going to New York to have a brain tumor removed.
When Holden leaves the train, he wants to call someone on the pay phone at the train station, but he can't think of anyone to call. He does not want to contact his parents, and most of his friends are asleep at that hour. Holden takes a taxi and checks into the Edmont Hotel. He looks out his window and sees a man and woman in another room taking turns spitting their drinks into each other’s faces, and this sight makes him think about sex. He telephones a girl who is known to be promiscuous, but the girl does not want to meet with him because it is so late.
Holden considers calling his 10-year-old sister, Phoebe, whom he adores. Instead, Holden goes down to the lounge of the Edmont Hotel, which is called the Lavender Room. He dances with an older woman and tries to have a conversation with her, but she and her friends barely pay attention to him because they are hoping to spot movie stars in the Lavender Room. Holden eventually dances with all three ladies and buys them alcoholic drinks while he drinks sodas. The ladies leave, and Holden becomes depressed.
Holden reminisces about spending time with Jane Gallagher in the past, when they lived in the same neighborhood. Holden and Jane were good friends, who shared an almost romantic attachment. Holden is still angry about Stradlater taking Jane out on a date. Holden takes a cab to a club called Ernie’s, where he is served a scotch and soda. He soon leaves Ernie’s and returns to the Edmont Hotel.
An elevator operator asks Holden if he’d like to be visited by a prostitute, and Holden agrees. When the girl, Sunny, arrives in his room, Holden feels more depressed than aroused. He pays Sunny for her time and sends her away without having sex, but Sunny and her pimp, Maurice, return to demand more money. Sunny takes an extra $5 from Holden’s wallet. When Holden protests, Maurice punches him in the stomach.
The next morning, Holden goes out and has a pleasant conversation with a pair of nuns. He gives the nuns $10 to contribute to a charity. In the afternoon, Holden meets his friend Sally Hayes for a date at the theater. They watch a play, which Sally enjoys but Holden dislikes, and Holden becomes angry with Sally for flirting with a college boy, who was also at the play. The two go ice-skating. Then Holden asks Sally if she will run away with him to live in a cabin in the woods. He says he is tired of living in his fake world and wants to escape. When Sally points out the logical flaws in his plan, Holden insults her and makes her cry. The two part ways.
Holden calls his old schoolmate Carl Luce and arranges to meet with him. Holden’s childish question about sex annoy Carl Luce when the two of them meet, and Luce leaves Holden after suggesting that he be psychoanalyzed. Holden sits by himself at the Wicker Bar and gets drunk before walking out to visit the Central Park duck pond. It is freezing cold by the duck pond at night in December, and Holden wonders what would happen if he died of pneumonia. He recalls the death of his younger brother and remembers how he missed Allie’s funeral because he was in the hospital with broken hands.
Holden walks to the apartment complex where his parents live. His parents are out at a late-night party, but his 10-year-old sister, Phoebe, is sleeping peacefully. Phoebe is thrilled to see Holden when she wakes up, and she enthusiastically tells him all the details of her life at school. Phoebe is upset to learn that Holden is only visiting her because he has been kicked out of another school. She asks him what he wants to do with his life. Holden replies that he wants to be a catcher in the rye. He references the children’s song "Coming Thru’ the Rye,” based on a poem by Robert Burns, and misquotes the song. Holden says that in his own interpretation, the song is about children playing in a rye field on the edge of a cliff, and it is his duty to protect the children and catch them if they stray too far near the cliff.
Holden leaves his family’s apartment and goes to visit his former English teacher, Mr. Antolini, and his wife. Mr. Antolini welcomes Holden into his apartment and tries to figure out why Holden is failing all but one of his subjects at Pencey Prep. Mr. Antolini is worried that Holden is about to experience some horrible kind of breakdown because he has become disillusioned with life. Mr. Antolini says that Holden is not the first person to feel disgusted by human behavior, but that if he keeps applying himself to his schoolwork, he will discover that many great thinkers have been in his exact situation, mentally and spiritually.
Holden briefly falls asleep at Mr. Antolini’s apartment, but wakes up to find Mr. Antolini patting his head. Holden believes that Mr. Antolini is making a sexual advance, so he leaves the apartment and spends the night at Grand Central Station. The next morning, Holden walks along Fifth Avenue, imagining a future where he abandons his life in New York and travels west to live a simple life. Holden walks to Phoebe’s elementary school and leaves a note asking her to meet him at the art museum.
Holden feels sick most of the day, and he faints while waiting for Phoebe at the museum. When Phoebe meets Holden, she is dragging a suitcase because she has decided to run away with her brother. Holden angrily tells Phoebe that she can't come with him, and then he says he has changed his mind about going away. The two of them visit the zoo and look at the animals before walking to a carousel. Holden buys a ticket for Phoebe and enjoys watching her as she rides it.
In the epilogue, Holden mentions that he has been in a resting home recovering from a serious sickness, but he will be going to a new school in September. He plans to apply himself to his schoolwork this time.
Students at Pencey Prep attend chapel. A wealthy alumnus of Pencey Prep named Ossenburger disgusts Holden. Ossenburger once gave a speech to Pencey students about the importance of praying to God. Ossenburger says that he himself is never ashamed to kneel and ask God for help, and he encourages the students to talk to God and to think of Jesus as their buddy. Holden finds Ossenburger’s faith insincere, apparently because Ossenburger seems very concerned about obtaining wealth through his undertaking business.
Ackley is upset that Holden and Stradlater’s fight woke him up because he has to attend Catholic Mass early the next morning. Holden says he is toying with the idea of joining a monastery and asks Ackley if a man must be Catholic in order to join a monastery. Ackley angrily wonders if Holden is making jokes about his religion, but Holden replies that he was simply curious. When he was attending the Whooton School, Holden remembers drinking scotch in the school chapel on a Saturday night.
At his hotel, Holden feels the need to pray, but can't do it. He says that he is an atheist and that all the children in his family are atheists since their parents belong to two different religions. Holden says he likes Jesus but dislikes the disciples, whom he describes as being useless. He remembers arguing with a devout Quaker schoolmate about whether Judas went to hell. His schoolmate said yes, but Holden asserted that Jesus would never send Judas to hell. Holden says he does not like ministers because they speak in fake holy voices instead of talking like regular people.
Holden has a very pleasant conversation with two nuns he meets, and he is surprised that they do not ask him if he is Catholic. His father was once Catholic, and since Holden’s last name is Irish, many people assume he is Catholic. Holden recalls a depressing conversation with a new acquaintance at school: The boy asked Holden if he knew the location of the Catholic church in town. Holden saw the boy’s question as an attempt to discover if Holden went to church, and it displeased Holden to think that his acquaintance might only like him if they belonged to the same religion.
At Radio City, Holden watches a brief Christmas pageant, which involves actors coming on stage carrying crucifixes and singing "Come All Ye Faithful.” Holden thinks that Jesus would be disgusted to see this fancy spectacle. Mrs. Caulfield makes sure that Phoebe says her prayers at night.
Holden says that his parents are nice people, but they would be incredibly upset if he shared any personal information about them. He seems to respect his parents, enough to worry that his expulsion from Pencey Prep will hurt them. Holden is concerned about his mother’s emotional well-being because he knows she has never fully recovered from Allie’s death.
Holden says that Headmaster Thurmer of Pencey Prep is a phony slob. He also says that Mr. Haas, the headmaster of Elkton Hills, is a phony even worse than Thurmer because he showed favoritism toward his students’ parents. Ossenburger, a wealthy alumnus of Pencey, is also deemed a phony because he is wealthy and pretentious.
Holden likes Mr. Spencer, his history teacher, but does not respect him enough to listen to his advice about life. Holden says that Jane Gallagher’s stepfather used to do nothing but drink alcohol, listen to radio programs and walk around the house naked.
Mrs. Morrow, the mother of one of Holden’s nastier classmates, seems to be a genuinely nice woman, and Holden wonders whether she understands what an unpleasant person her son truly is. Holden says that all mothers are slightly crazy and self-deceived about the goodness of their children.
Mr. Antolini shows genuine care and concern for Holden’s temporary wellbeing and for his future. Holden believes that Mr. Antolini makes a sexual advance toward him by patting his head while he is sleeping.
Other belief systems
Holden says his mother is psychic: She always seems to know it is Holden calling her, even if he hangs up before speaking. Carl Luce mentions that Eastern philosophy appeals to him. Holden begins to fantasize that he is disappearing, and he prays to his deceased brother, Allie, to keep himself from vanishing.
There are many uses of the words crap, h--/h---uva, d--n , a--, half-a--ed, b--tard, sonuvab--ch, backa--wards, b--ches and the f-word. Holden once says the weather is "cold as a witch’s teat.” God's name and Jesus or Jesus Christ are taken in vain a lot with other words such as d--n, sake, swear to, sake and h---.
Holden jokes that his unique hat is not a deer shooting hat, as his schoolmate Ackley claims, but a people shooting hat. The night Allie died, Holden smashed all the windows in his family’s garage with his fist. His hand is broken so badly that even three years later he is unable to make a tight fist and his hand hurts when it rains.
Holden punches Stradlater, and Stradlater kneels on Holden’s chest to keep him from attacking again. After Holden insults him repeatedly, Stradlater gives Holden a punch hard enough to knock him to the ground and make his nose bleed profusely. Holden believes that those who are afraid to fight other guys are cowards. He would rather push another guy out a window or behead him with an axe than punch him in the face.
When Maurice hits Holden in the stomach, Holden vividly imagines being shot. He envisions clutching his bloody stomach before shooting Maurice in revenge. He mentions wanting to commit suicide by jumping out of his hotel window, but decides against it because people would stare at his gory corpse. Holden remembers a bullied boy at his former school who committed suicide by jumping out of a window. No one would approach the boy’s mangled body until Mr. Antolini put his own coat over him.
Holden refers to his brother DB as a prostitute, but this is a figure of speech. DB writes movies instead of fiction, and Holden equates this misuse of DB’s talent with prostitution.
Holden says that Stradlater is only interested in sexy topics, and if something inappropriate is not being discussed, Stradlater stops paying attention to the conversation. Regarding Stradlater’s date with Jane, Holden asks if Stradlater gave her the time, a euphemism for sex. Stradlater refuses to say whether he did. Holden is horrified to think that Stradlater might have had any kind of physical intimacy with Jane. Holden says that most boys at Pencey Prep only claim to have had sex, but Holden personally knows two girls who have had sex with Stradlater.
Holden recalls going on a double date with Stradlater when Stradlater and his date were in the back seat. The girl kept asking Stradlater to stop his advances, but Stradlater continued to persuade her in a sincere voice until she stopped protesting. Holden is not sure what happened in the backseat, but he thinks Stradlater came very close to having sex with the girl.
Ackley tells Holden a story about a girl he had sex with, but Holden says that Ackley has told him this story many times and that the tale changes every time. Ackley claims to have had sex with an unnamed girl in a car and under a boardwalk. Holden is certain that these stories are lies, and he believes that Ackley is a virgin.
Holden briefly describes himself as quite sexy, but not oversexed. He seems to imply that he is fond of women but does not want to be considered a pervert. He notes that Mrs. Morrow is a beautiful woman with a good smile, and later mentions that she has a lot of charm and sex appeal.
At the Edmont Hotel, Holden looks out his window and sees a man in the opposite room put on women’s stockings, high heels, a bra, a corset and a black evening dress. Holden is shocked at this behavior.
Holden says that in his own mind, he is a sex maniac. When Holden sees a man and woman spitting water in each other’s faces, the sight fascinates him, even though he thinks it is degrading to treat a girl that way. Holden thinks that if a man does not like a girl, he should not engage her in any sexual play, but if he does like the girl, he should not do anything degrading to her. Even so, he finds the water-spitting couple very engrossing to watch.
It is not clear exactly what kinds of sexual activity Holden has been involved with in the past, but he makes references to horsing around and necking. At one point, Holden had resolved not to be physically involved with any girls whose personalities he disliked, but he almost immediately broke his resolution and found himself kissing a girl he couldn’t stand. Holden tries to meet with Faith Cavendish, a girl known for her promiscuity, but his plans do not work out.
In the Lavender Room of the Edmont Hotel, Holden kisses a girl on the forehead. As they dance together, he pays extra attention to her backside as she turns around.
Holden says that his relationship with Jane Gallagher was intimate but not sexual. They held hands frequently, and he recalls kissing her face, but not her lips, when she was crying about her unpleasant stepfather.
Holden mentions that a girl he talks to, Lillian Simmons, has huge breasts.
The elevator operator at Holden’s hotel asks if Holden would like to have a prostitute visit him in his room. Holden agrees, though he thinks to himself that this sort of situation goes against his moral principles. When the girl arrives, Holden is no longer interested in having sex with her. She removes her dress and sits on his lap to try to arouse him, but Holden pays her for her time and sends her away without having sex.
Holden mentions that he is a virgin because he always respects girls when they tell him to stop his advances. Holden says that while other guys will just continue pushing past a girl’s boundaries, he is not aggressive enough to have sex with a girl when she is saying no. He mentions kissing girls and removing a girl’s bra.
Holden remembers that when he went to a museum as a child, all the boys and girls in his class were interested in a topless figure of a woman in the Indian exhibit at the Museum of Natural History.
Holden and Sally Hayes kiss in the back of a taxi. Sally puts on a short skirt to go ice-skating, and Holden appreciates watching her walk ahead of him.
Holden uses the term flit to refer to homosexual men. Holden’s former schoolmate Carl Luce used to give talks to all the underclassmen at their school about perverted sex, and he liked to tell them about which people in Hollywood were secretly homosexuals or lesbians. Holden has always thought that Luce himself displayed some homosexual characteristics.
Mr. and Mrs. Antolini kiss. Holden says they are always kissing each other in public. While Holden is sleeping, Mr. Antolini wakes him up by patting his head. Holden interprets this touch as a sexual advance, and he leaves the Antolinis’ apartment. Holden does not mention any details, but he says that other guys have often exhibited perverted behaviors around him, and it makes him nervous.
When Holden finds the f-word written on a wall inside Phoebe’s school, he is terrified that someone will explain to the children what the phrase really means. Holden rubs the words off the wall.
If your children have read this book or someone has read it to them, consider these discussion topics:
- Holden is upset that Mr. Haas, his former headmaster at Elkton Hills, avoided socially awkward parents and instead spent all his time charming parents who were good looking and well dressed.
Why does Holden label this behavior as phony?
Why might this be an easy trap to fall into?
Have you ever treated someone better because of his or her outward appearance or wealth?
- What good things does Holden say about Stradlater when Ackley is saying negative things about him?
What is the difference in the way Holden treats the socially awkward Ackley and the way Stradlater treats Ackley?
In what ways does Holden think Stradlater and Ackley are similar?
How does Holden treat Ackley and Stradlater when they are annoying him?
When Holden goes to town with Mal Brossard, why does he invite Ackley to accompany them, even though he does not enjoy Ackley’s company?
Is Ackley equally generous with Holden?
How do you talk about and treat your friends?
Do you treat them in a similar way as Holden treated his friends?
- Why does Holden lie to Mrs. Morrow about her son Ernest?
How does he stop himself from telling more lies to Mrs. Morrow on the train?
What might have compelled him to do this?
Have you ever found yourself in a situation like this? Explain.
Smoking: Holden says he was a very heavy smoker before he went to the rest home, where they made him quit his smoking habit. Several times, he mentions that he is out of breath after only mild physical activity, due to his smoking. He smokes frequently throughout the novel.
Alcohol: Holden invites Mrs. Morrow to the club car of the train to have cocktails with him. He says he can normally get people to serve him alcohol because he is very tall for 16, and he has premature gray hair. Mrs. Morrow declines the drinks. Holden later asks two different taxi drivers to join him for cocktails, but the drivers decline. He asks Faith Cavendish out for cocktails, and she declines. At the Lavender Room of the Edmont Hotel, Holden orders a scotch and soda but is politely refused service because he looks under 21. He asks the waiter to put a little bit of rum in his coke, but this request is also denied. At a club called Ernie’s, Holden is finally served a few scotch and sodas. Holden remembers drinking scotch in the chapel at his previous school, then vomiting afterward. Holden is denied access to alcohol at the skating rink, but gets a scotch and soda at the Wicker Bar. Many other characters drink alcohol.
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