The Catcher in the Rye Plot Summary
The Catcher in the Rye is the story of teenager Holden Caulfield's turbulent last few days before his Christmas vacation. During these days, Holden leaves Pencey Prep, a boys' school he's been kicked out of, and takes off for a few nights alone in New York City. Holden tells the story as a monologue, from some sort of a mental facility where he's recovering from the stress of the experiences he retells.
Holden's tale begins at Pencey, which he despises for its prevailing "phoniness." Holden finds a lot of people and attitudes unbearably phony. It's the day of the big Pencey football game, something that Holden has little interest in. In lieu of watching, Holden takes a walk to the house of his history teacher, old Mr. Spencer. This isn't a particularly satisfying visit, nor is his last evening at Pencey, during which he hangs around with a coarse and dull guy named Ackley and later gets beat up by his own roommate, a ladies' man named Stradlater. The idea of Stradlater taking one of Holden's old friends, Jane Gallagher, out on a date, and the thought of suave Stradlater making the moves on his innocent friend drives Holden to his fists. After the fight, Holden decides to get up and leave Pencey immediately. He finishes packing and leaves campus in the middle of the night.
A train takes Holden to New York City, where his family has lived all his life. Here, he checks into the derelict Edmont Hotel, a place that provides him with several adventures including an evening dancing with three dull tourist girls and a clumsy encounter with a prostitute. Holden sends the prostitute away without services rendered, and although he pays her for her time, it's apparently not enough. For this, Holden gets his second pummeling in as many nights, at the hands of Maurice, the hotel's elevator man/pimp.
Holden spends a total of two days in the city, and these days are largely characterized by drunkenness and loneliness. He meets up with an old acquaintance named Carl Luce and has a date with an off-and-on girlfriend, Sally Hayes, but both experiences leave him more miserable than before. Finally, Holden sneaks into his parents' apartment to visit his kid sister Phoebe, who's about the only person he seems to be able to communicate with. After this, Holden feels a little better, and he heads off to the apartment of his ex-English teacher, Mr. Antolini. The comfort Holden hopes to find there is upset when he wakes up in the middle of the night to find Mr. Antolini petting his head in a way that seems "perverty."
After this, Holden gets awfully depressed. His distress with the phoniness and stupidity of the world focuses as he spends his last afternoon wandering around the city. What bothers him most is that the world seems to have no sanctuary from the phony or perverse in it anymore--it's a cruel place to grow up. This becomes all the more real for Holden as he wanders around his little sister's school building and keeps finding swear words scribbled on the walls. Holden begins to envision himself as a guardian of children, someone who will protect their innocence. This hope is crystallized in a vision of himself as the catcher in the rye--a sort of guard at the edges of a field where children can run free and play, a guardian who can keep these kids from falling, in their exuberance, over the field's edges.
Though Holden tells his little sister he's going to move out West, this doesn't pan out. Instead, after a little fight with Phoebe, Holden ends up accompanying her to the park and watching as she rides the merry-go-round, stretching from her wooden horse to reach a prized brass ring. As he watches with a combination of fear and joy, Holden seems to have decided that there can be no catcher, that all you can do is hope kids develop in the harsh world on their own.
Holden never does give a thorough assessment of his prognosis since his hospitalization. But if his voice in the novel's last few pages is any indication, his time recovering has left him calmer and with more perspective, but still lonely and without direction.