Summary: Chapter 1
Holden Caulfield writes his story from a rest home to which he has been sent for therapy. He refuses to talk about his early life, mentioning only that his brother D. B. is a Hollywood writer. He hints that he is bitter because D. B. has sold out to Hollywood, forsaking a career in serious literature for the wealth and fame of the movies. He then begins to tell the story of his breakdown, beginning with his departure from Pencey Prep, a famous school he attended in Agerstown, Pennsylvania.
Holden’s career at Pencey Prep has been marred by his refusal to apply himself, and after failing four of his five subjects—he passed only English—he has been forbidden to return to the school after the fall term. The Saturday before Christmas vacation begins, Holden stands on Thomsen Hill overlooking the football field, where Pencey plays its annual grudge match against Saxon Hall. Holden has no interest in the game and hadn’t planned to watch it at all. He is the manager of the school’s fencing team and is supposed to be in New York for a meet, but he lost the team’s equipment on the subway, forcing everyone to return early.
Holden is full of contempt for the prep school, but he looks for a way to “say goodbye” to it. He fondly remembers throwing a football with friends even after it grew dark outside. Holden walks away from the game to go say goodbye to Mr. Spencer, a former history teacher who is very old and ill with the flu. He sprints to Spencer’s house, but since he is a heavy smoker, he has to stop to catch his breath at the main gate. At the door, Spencer’s wife greets Holden warmly, and he goes in to see his teacher.
Summary: Chapter 2
“Life is a game, boy. Life is a game that one plays according to the rules.”
(See Important Quotations Explained)
Holden greets Mr. Spencer and his wife in a manner that suggests he is close to them. He is put off by his teacher’s rather decrepit condition but seems otherwise to respect him. In his sickroom, Spencer tries to lecture Holden about his academic failures. He confirms Pencey’s headmaster’s assertion that “[l]ife is a game” and tells Holden that he must learn to play by the rules. Although Spencer clearly feels affection for Holden, he bluntly reminds the boy that he flunked him, and even forces him to listen to the terrible essay he handed in about the ancient Egyptians. Finally, Spencer tries to convince Holden to think about his future. Not wanting to be lectured, Holden interrupts Spencer and leaves, returning to his dorm room before dinner.
Analysis: Chapters 1–2
Holden Caulfield is the protagonist of The Catcher in the Rye, and the most important function of these early chapters is to establish the basics of his personality. From the beginning of the novel, Holden tells his story in a bitterly cynical voice. He refuses to discuss his early life, he says, because he is bored by “all that David Copperfield kind of crap.” He gives us a hint that something catastrophic has happened in his life, acknowledging that he writes from a rest home to tell about “this madman stuff” that happened to him around the previous Christmas, but he doesn’t yet go into specifics. The particularities of his story are in keeping with his cynicism and his boredom. He has failed out of school, and he leaves Spencer’s house abruptly because he does not enjoy being confronted by his actions.
Beneath the surface of Holden’s tone and behavior runs a more idealistic, emotional current. He begins the story of his last day at Pencey Prep by telling how he stood at the top of Thomsen Hill, preparing to leave the school and trying to feel “some kind of a good-by.” He visits Spencer in Chapter even though he failed Spencer’s history class, and he seems to respond to Mrs. Spencer’s kindness. What bothers him the most, in these chapters and throughout the book, is the hypocrisy and ugliness around him, which diminish the innocence and beauty of the external world—the unpleasantness of Spencer’s sickroom, for instance, and his hairless legs sticking out of his pajamas. Salinger thus treats his narrator as more than a mere portrait of a cynical postwar rich kid at an impersonal and pressure-filled boarding school. Even in these early chapters, Holden connects with life on a very idealistic level; he seems to feel its flaws so deeply that he tries to shield himself with a veneer of cynicism. The Catcher in the Rye is in many ways a book about the betrayal of innocence by the modern world; despite his bitter tone, Holden is an innocent searching desperately for a way to connect with the world around him that will not cause him pain. In these early chapters, the reader already begins to sense that Holden is not an entirely reliable narrator and that the reality of his situation is somehow different from the way he describes it. In part this is simply because Holden is a first-person narrator describing his own experiences from his own point of view. Any individual’s point of view, in any novel or story, is necessarily limited. The reader never forgets for a moment who is telling this story, because the tone, grammar, and diction are consistently those of an adolescent—albeit a highly intelligent and expressive one—and every event receives Holden’s distinctive commentary. However, Holden’s narrative contains inconsistencies that make us question what he says. For instance, Holden characterizes Spencer’s behavior throughout as vindictive and mean-spirited, but Spencer’s actions clearly seem to be motivated by concern for Holden’s well-being. Holden seems to be looking for reasons not to listen to Spencer.
Summary: Chapter 3
“This is a people shooting hat,” I said. “I shoot people in this hat.”
Holden lives in Ossenburger Hall, which is named after a wealthy Pencey graduate who made a fortune in the discount funeral home business. In his room, Holden sits and reads Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa while wearing his new hunting hat, a flamboyant red cap with a long peaked brim and earflaps. He is interrupted by Ackley, a pimply student who lives next door. According to Holden, Ackley is a supremely irritating classmate who constantly barges into the room, exhibits disgusting personal habits and poor hygiene, and always acts as if he’s doing you a favor by spending time with you. Ackley does not seem to have many friends. He prevents Holden from reading by puttering around the room and pestering him with annoying questions. Ackley further aggravates Holden by cutting his fingernails on the floor, despite Holden’s repeated requests that he stop. He refuses to take Holden’s hints that he ought to leave. When Holden’s handsome and popular roommate, Stradlater, enters, Ackley, who hates Stradlater, quickly returns to his own room. Stradlater mentions that he has a date waiting for him but wants to shave.
Summary: Chapter 4
Holden goes to the bathroom with Stradlater and talks to him while he shaves. Holden contrasts Stradlater’s personal habits with Ackley’s: whereas Ackley is ugly and has poor dental hygiene, Stradlater is outwardly attractive but does not keep his razor or other toiletries clean. He decides that while Ackley is an obvious slob, Stradlater is a “secret slob.” The two joke around, then Stradlater asks Holden to write an English composition for him, because his date won’t leave him with time to do it on his own. Holden asks about the date and learns that Stradlater is taking out a girl Holden knows, Jane Gallagher. (Stradlater carelessly calls her “Jean.”) Holden clearly has strong feelings for Jane and remembers her vividly. He tells Stradlater that when she played checkers, she used to keep all of her kings in the back row because she liked the way they looked there. Stradlater is uninterested. Holden is displeased that Stradlater, one of the few sexually experienced boys at Pencey, is taking Jane on a date. He wants to say hello to her while she waits for Stradlater, but decides he isn’t in the mood. Before he leaves for his date, Stradlater borrows Holden’s hound’s-tooth jacket.
After Stradlater leaves, Holden is tormented by thoughts of Jane and Stradlater. Ackley barges in again and sits in Holden’s room, squeezing pimples until dinnertime.
Analysis: Chapters 3–4
These chapters establish the way Holden interacts with his peers. Holden despises “phonies”—people whose surface behavior distorts or disguises their inner feelings. Even his brother D. B. incurs his displeasure by accepting a big paycheck to write for the movies; Holden considers the movies to be the phoniest of the phony and emphasizes throughout the book the loathing he has for Hollywood.
Unfortunately, Holden is surrounded by phonies in his circa- prep school. Preening Ackley and self-absorbed Stradlater act as his immediate contrasts. But, despite their flaws, he acts with basic kindness toward them, agreeing to write Stradlater’s English composition for him in Chapter , even though Stradlater is out with Jane Gallagher, a girl Holden seems to care for very deeply. The pressure of adolescent sexuality—an important theme throughout The Catcher in the Rye—makes itself felt here for the first time: Holden’s greatest worry is that Stradlater will make sexual advances toward Jane.
Stradlater and Ackley sound like appallingly unsympathetic characters, but this is completely the result of the tone in which Holden describes them. For instance, Holden indicates his awareness that Ackley behaves in annoying ways because he is insecure and unpopular, but instead of trying to imagine what Ackley wants or why he does things, he focuses on Ackley’s surface—literally, his skin. By describing in minute detail Ackley’s nail trimming and pimple squeezing, Holden makes him seem disgusting and subhuman.
Holden’s interactions also reveal how lonely he is. He describes Ackley as isolated and ostracized, but it’s easy to see the parallel between Ackley’s and Holden’s situations. Holden notes that he and Ackley are the only two guys not at the football game. Both are isolated, and both maintain a bitter, critical exterior in order to shield themselves from the world that assaults them. In Ackley especially, we can see the cruelty of the situation. Ackley’s isolation is perpetuated by his annoying habits, but his annoying habits protect him from the dangers of interaction and intimacy. Ackley’s situation greatly illuminates Holden’s own inner landscape: intimacy and interaction are what he needs and fears most.
Holden’s new hunting hat, with its funny earflaps, becomes very important to him. Throughout the novel, it serves as a kind of protective device, which Holden uses for more than physical warmth and comfort. When he wears the hat, he always claims not to care what people think about his appearance, which might be a source of self-conscious embarrassment for Holden—he is extremely tall for his age, very thin, and, though he is only sixteen, has a great deal of gray hair. But it is also important to note when Holden does not wear the hat. Part of him seems to want to display his rebelliousness, but another part of him wants to fit in—or, at least, to hide his unique personality. Although he mentions the freezing temperature, Holden does not wear the hat near the football game or at Spencer’s house; he waits for the privacy of his own room to put it on.
Summary: Chapter 5
After a dry and unappetizing steak dinner in the dining hall, Holden gets into a snowball fight with some of the other Pencey boys. He and his friend Mal Brossard decide to take a bus into Agerstown to see a movie—though Holden hates movies—and Holden convinces Mal to let Ackley go with them. As it turns out, Ackley and Brossard have already seen the film, so the trio simply eats some burgers, plays a little pinball, and heads back to Pencey.
After the excursion, Mal goes off to look for a bridge game, and Ackley sits on Holden’s bed squeezing pimples and concocting stories about a girl he claims to have had sex with the summer before. Holden finally gets him to leave by beginning to work on the English assignment for Stradlater. Stradlater had said the composition was supposed to be a simple description of a room, a house, or something similarly straightforward. But Holden cannot think of anything to say about a house or a room, so he writes about a baseball glove that his brother Allie used to copy poems onto in green ink.
Several years before Allie died of leukemia. Though he was two years younger than Holden, Holden says that Allie was the most intelligent member of his family. He also says that Allie was an incredibly nice, innocent child. Holden clearly still feels Allie’s loss strongly. He gives a brief description of Allie, mentioning his bright red hair. He also recounts that the night Allie died, he slept in the garage and broke all the windows with his bare hands. After he finishes the composition for Stradlater, he stares out the window listening to Ackley snore in the next room.
Summary: Chapter 6
Home from his date, Stradlater barges noisily into the room. He reads Holden’s composition and becomes visibly annoyed, asserting that it has nothing to do with the assignment and that it’s no wonder Holden is being expelled. Holden tears the composition up and throws it away angrily. Afterward, he smokes a cigarette in the room just to annoy Stradlater. The tension between the two increases when Holden asks Stradlater about his date with Jane. When Stradlater nonchalantly refuses to tell Holden any of the details, Holden attacks him, but Stradlater pins him to the floor and tries to get him to calm down. Holden relentlessly insults Stradlater, driving him crazy until he punches Holden and bloodies his nose. Stradlater then becomes worried that he has hurt Holden and will get into trouble. Holden insults him some more, and Stradlater finally leaves the room. Holden gets up and goes into Ackley’s room, his face covered in blood.
Analysis: Chapters 5–6
Holden’s kindness to Ackley in Chapter comes as a surprise after the disdain that Holden has displayed for him in the previous two chapters. Though he continues to complain about Ackley, the sympathy he feels for his next-door neighbor is evident when he convinces Mal Brossard to let Ackley join them at the movies. Equally surprising is Holden’s willingness to go to the movies after his diatribes against their superficiality. Holden’s actions are inconsistent with his opinions, but instead of making him seem like a hypocrite, this makes him more likable: he is kind to Ackley without commenting on it, and he shows himself capable of going to the movies with his friends like a normal teenager.
The most important revelation in these chapters comes about when Holden writes the composition for Stradlater, divulging that his brother Allie died of leukemia several years before. Holden idealizes Allie, praising his intelligence and sensitivity—the poem--covered baseball glove is a perfect emblem for both—but remaining silent about his emotional reaction to Allie’s death. He alludes to his behavior almost in passing, saying that he slept in the garage on the night of Allie’s death and broke all the windows with his bare hands, “just for the hell of it.” He tried to break the car windows as well, but could not because his hand was already fractured from smashing the garage windows. Throughout the novel, it becomes increasingly clear that Allie’s death was one of the most traumatic experiences of Holden’s life and may play a major role in his current psychological breakdown. Indeed, the cynicism that Holden uses to avoid expressing his feelings may result from Allie’s death.
Holden seems to feel increasing pressure as he moves toward leaving school, and Salinger manipulates the details of Holden’s physical environment to match his protagonist’s feelings. Holden cannot get a moment alone; Ackley continues to barge in with his made-up sex stories, and when Holden writes the very personal composition about his brother Allie, Stradlater criticizes it and then taunts Holden about Jane. When Holden finally snaps and attacks his roommate, Stradlater easily overpowers him, and when he tries to seek refuge in Ackley’s room, Ackley is so unpleasant that Holden cannot relax. He leaves abruptly, as though trying to escape the torment of his environment. What Holden does not yet realize, however, is that he carries his torment with him, inside himself.
Summary: Chapter 7
Holden talks for a while with Ackley and then tries to fall asleep in the bed belonging to Ackley’s roommate, who is away for the weekend. But he cannot stop imagining Jane fooling around with Stradlater, and he has trouble falling asleep. He wakes Ackley and talks with him some more, asking whether he could run off and join a monastery without being Catholic. Ackley is annoyed by the conversation, and Holden is annoyed by Ackley’s “phoniness,” so he leaves. Outside, in the dorm’s hallway, he decides that he will leave for New York that night instead of waiting until Wednesday. After passing a few days there in secret, he will wait until his parents have digested the news of his expulsion before he returns to their apartment. He packs his bags, dons his hunting hat, and begins to cry. As he heads into the hallway, he yells “Sleep tight, ya morons!” to the boys on his floor before stepping outside to leave Pencey forever.
Summary: Chapter 8
Holden walks the entire way to the train station and catches a late train to New York. At Trenton, an attractive older woman gets on and sits next to him. She turns out to be the mother of his classmate, Ernest Morrow. He dislikes Ernest immensely but tells extravagant lies about him to his mother, claiming that he is the most popular boy on campus and would have been elected class president if he’d let the other boys nominate him. Holden tells her his own name is Rudolph Schmidt, which is actually the school janitor’s name. When she asks why he is leaving Pencey early, Holden claims to be returning to New York for a brain tumor operation.
Summary: Chapter 9
At Penn Station, Holden wants to call someone but cannot think of anyone to call—his brother D. B. is in Hollywood; his sister, Phoebe, is young and probably asleep; he doesn’t feel like calling Jane Gallagher; and another girl, Sally Hayes, has a mother who hates him. So, Holden takes a cab to the Edmont Hotel. He tries to make conversation with the driver, asking him where the ducks in the Central Park lagoon go in the winter, but the driver is uninterested. In his room at the Edmont, he looks out across the hotel courtyard into the lighted windows on the other side and discovers a variety of bizarre acts taking place. One man dresses in women’s clothing, and in another room a man and a woman take turns spitting mouthfuls of their drinks into each other’s face. Holden begins to feel aroused, so he calls Faith Cavendish, a promiscuous girl recommended to him by a boy he met at a party, and tries to make a date with her. She refuses, claiming she needs her beauty sleep. She offers to meet him tomorrow, but he doesn’t want to wait that long, and he hangs up without arranging to meet her.
Analysis: Chapters 7–9
The Catcher in the Rye is a chronicle of Holden Caulfield’s emotional breakdown, but Holden never comments on it directly. At no point in the story does he say that he is undergoing an emotional strain; he simply describes his increasingly desperate behavior without much explanation. Salinger cleverly manipulates Holden’s narrative to signal to the reader that there is more to the story than what Holden admits or describes. In the previous sections, Holden exhibited a number of behaviors that might indicate a troubled mind: running through the snow to Spencer’s house, writing Stradlater’s English composition about Allie’s baseball glove, attacking Stradlater for joking about Jane, leaving his dorm forever in the middle of the night, and yelling an insult down the hallway on his way out. In this section, Holden’s frantic loneliness and constant lying further the implication that he is not well mentally or emotionally.
As soon as he gets off the train in New York in Chapter , Holden wants to call someone and seems especially to want to call Jane, but he is apparently too nervous (he suspiciously claims not to “feel like it” and runs through a long list of people he could contact instead). This seems particularly strange given Holden’s cynicism and evident dislike for most people; in Chapter , for instance, he describes enjoying the solitude of late-night train rides. His desire for human contact becomes even more intense as the section progresses: he begins to feel sexually aroused and tries to make a date with a stranger whose number he was given at a party, then goes to a nightclub to flirt with older women. Holden’s constant lying, in this section and throughout the novel, is a mark of immaturity and imbalance. As soon as he meets Mrs. Morrow on the train, Holden begins telling ridiculous lies, claiming to be named Rudolph Schmidt and to be going to New York for a brain tumor operation. He feels guilty for lying, but the only way he can stop is to stop talking altogether. There is no particular rhyme or reason to the lies he tells Mrs. Morrow—his intentions toward her may be kind, or cruel, or simply careless. What does seem clear is that he lies to deflect attention from himself and what he is doing.
In his reactions to the other guests in the hotel, whom he refers to as “perverts,” Holden reveals a great deal about his attitudes toward sex and toward what makes him uncomfortable about sexuality. He admits that he is aroused by the idea of spitting in someone’s face and that the couple across the courtyard seems to be having fun. But he thinks that people should only have sex if they care deeply for one another, and “crumby” behavior such as this seems disrespectful. What bothers him is his perception that sexual attraction can be separate from respect and intimacy, and that sex can be casual or kinky. He knows this from his own experience with a former girlfriend, from observing Stradlater’s mating habits, and from watching his new neighbors. As he tells his story, Holden never seems particularly concerned about his own behavior or that of those around him. He often seems angry, but he rarely discusses his feelings. By combining what we know about Holden from his narration with his actions in the story, we can piece together the desperation, the pressure, and the trauma he endures during this difficult time in his life.
Summary: Chapter 10
Still feeling restless, Holden changes his shirt and goes downstairs to the Lavender Room, the Edmont’s nightclub. Before he leaves his room, he thinks again about calling his little sister, Phoebe. Referring to her as “old Phoebe,” he gives a description of her character that is remarkably similar to the description he gave of Allie in Chapter . Like Allie, she has red hair and is unusually intelligent for her age. He recalls the time he and Phoebe went to see Hitchcock’s The Steps (despite his professed loathing for the cinema, he has clearly seen many movies and has strong opinions about them). He notes Phoebe’s humor and cleverness, and mentions that she writes never-ending fictional stories that feature a character named “Hazle” Weatherfield. According to Holden, Phoebe’s one flaw is that she is perhaps too emotional.
In the Lavender Room, Holden takes a table and tries to order a cocktail. He explains that due to his height and his gray hair, he is often able to order alcohol, but, in this case, the waiter refuses. He flirts and dances with three women who are visiting from Seattle. They seem amused but uninterested in this obviously young man who tries to appear older and debonair. After tolerating him for a while, they begin to laugh at him; they also depress him by being obsessed with movie stars. When Holden lies to one of them about having just seen Gary Cooper, she tells the other two that she caught a glimpse of Gary Cooper as well. Holden pays for their drinks, then leaves the Lavender Room.