The novel The Catcher in the Rye is set in the 1950s and is told by Holden Caulfield, a young man. While telling the story, Holden is vague about his location, but he makes it clear that he is receiving treatment in a mental hospital or sanatorium. When Holden is sixteen years old, the events he recounts take place in the short days between the end of the autumn school term and Christmas.
Holden’s story begins on the Saturday after classes at the Pencey prep school in Agerstown, Pennsylvania, have ended. Holden is at his fourth school, and he has already failed three of them. He has failed four out of five classes at Pencey and has been warned that he will be expelled, but he is not expected to return to Manhattan until Wednesday. Holden pays a visit to his elderly history instructor, Spencer, to say goodbye, but he becomes irritated when Spencer tries to scold him for his low academic achievement.
Holden is angered even more by his unsanitary neighbour, Ackley, and his own roommate, Stradlater, back at the dorm. Stradlater goes on a date with Jane Gallagher, a girl who used to date Holden and whom he still admires. Holden becomes increasingly concerned about Stradlater’s bringing Jane out throughout the evening, and when Stradlater returns, Holden interrogates him about whether he tried to have sex with her. Holden becomes enraged and strikes Stradlater when Stradlater teases him. Holden is pinned down by Stradlater, who bloodies his nose. Holden decides he’s had enough of Pencey and chooses to return to Manhattan three days early, stay in a hotel, and not notify his parents.
Holden encounters the mother of one of his fellow Pencey classmates on the train to New York. He tells the wife made-up stories about how shy her son is and how well respected he is at school, despite the fact that he believes this student is a terrible “bastard.” When he gets at Penn Station, he enters a phone booth and considers calling multiple people, but he decides against it for a variety of reasons. When he gets into a cab, he asks the driver where the ducks in Central Park go when the lagoon freezes, but the driver is irritated by his query. Holden orders a cab to take him to the Edmont Hotel, where he checks in.
Holden can look into the rooms of several of the visitors on the other wing of the Edmont from his room. He notices a man putting on silk stockings, high shoes, a bra, a corset, and a gown. He also notices a man and a woman in another room laughing wildly while spitting mouthfuls of their drinks into one other’s faces. He sees the couple’s actions as a type of sexual play, which irritates and arouses him. He calls Faith Cavendish, a lady he has never seen but whose number he obtained through a Princeton acquaintance, after smoking a couple of cigarettes. Holden believes he remembers hearing she was a stripper and that he can get her to have sex with him. He calls her, and she offers that they meet the next day, despite her initial irritation at being phoned at such a late hour by a complete stranger. Holden isn’t willing to wait that long, so he hangs up without setting up a meeting.
Holden sits at a table in the Lavender Room, but the waiter recognises him as a child and refuses to serve him. He flirts with three thirties ladies who appear to be from out of town and are mostly interested in catching a peek of a celebrity. Despite this, Holden joins them in dancing and declares that he is “half in love” with the blonde after seeing how well she moves. They leave after making some jokes about his age and allowing him to pay the entire bill.
Holden begins to think about Jane Gallagher as he walks out to the lobby, and in a flashback, he describes how he met her. They met while on vacation in Maine, where they played golf and checkers and watched movies together. Her stepfather walked onto the porch where they were playing checkers one afternoon, and Jane began to cry as he left. Holden took a seat next to her and kissed her all over her face, but she refused to allow him kiss her on the lips. They came the closest to “necking” at that point.
Holden exits the Edmont and hails a cab to Greenwich Village’s Ernie’s jazz club. He asks the cab driver where the ducks in Central Park go in the winter once more, and this time the cabbie is much angrier than the first. Holden sits alone at a table in Ernie’s, disapproving of the other customers. He meets Lillian Simmons, a former girlfriend of his older brother, who invites him to sit with her and her companion. Holden excuses himself, claims he has to meet someone, and heads back to the Edmont.
For five dollars, Maurice, the Edmont’s elevator operator, offers to send a prostitute to Holden’s room, and Holden accepts. A young woman introduces herself as “Sunny” and knocks on his door. Holden begins to feel “odd” and attempts to converse with her when she removes her dress. He claims he recently had a spinal operation and isn’t yet recovered enough to have sex with her, but he still offers to pay her. She gets on his lap and speaks to him in a filthy manner, but he insists on giving her $5 and showing her the door. Sunny reappears, accompanied by Maurice, who demands another $5 from Holden. Maurice strikes Holden in the stomach and throws him to the ground when he refuses to pay, while Sunny grabs five dollars from his wallet. Holden retires to his bed.
He gets up at ten a.m. on Sunday and dials Sally Hayes, an attractive girl he has previously dated. They make plans to meet during a matinée performance of a Broadway play. He gets breakfast at a sandwich shop, where he talks about Romeo and Juliet with two nuns. He hands over ten dollars to the nuns. He tries to call Jane Gallagher, but she is already on the phone with her mother, so he hangs up. He takes a cab to Central Park in search of his younger sister, Phoebe, but she is nowhere to be found. He assists one of Phoebe’s classmates in tightening her skate, and the girl informs him that Phoebe might be at the Natural History Museum. He travels to the museum even though he knows Phoebe’s class won’t be there on a Sunday, but when he gets there, he decides not to go in and instead takes a cab to the Biltmore Hotel to meet Sally.
Holden is irritated by Sally’s subsequent conversation with a boy she knows from Andover after the play. They went ice skating at Radio City at Sally’s suggestion. They both have bad skating skills and opt for a table instead. Holden tries to explain why he is dissatisfied at school to Sally, and even suggests that they run away to Massachusetts or Vermont and live in a hut together. He calls her a “pain in the ass” and laughs at her when she reacts furiously when she refuses. She walks away, refusing to accept h
Holden dials Jane’s number again, but she does not respond. Carl Luce, Holden’s student advisor at the Whooton School and now a Columbia University student, is the person he phones. Holden passes the time by seeing a movie at Radio City, and Luce plans to meet him for a drink after dinner. Holden and Luce meet at the Seton Hotel’s Wicker Bar. Luce had talked openly about sex with some of the boys at Whooton, and Holden wants to reintroduce him to the subject. Holden’s juvenile remarks about gay men and Luce’s Chinese girlfriend upset Luce, so he makes an excuse to leave early. Holden keeps sipping Scotch while listening to the pianist and singer.
Holden calls Sally Hayes while inebriated and babbles about their Christmas Eve preparations. He then proceeds to Central Park’s lagoon, where he used to watch the ducks as a boy. He takes a long time to locate it, and by the time he does, he is shivering. He then proceeds to break into his own building and wake up his sister, Phoebe. He is compelled to tell Phoebe that he was expelled from school, which enrages her. She accuses him of not loving anything as he attempts to explain why he despises school. He tells her about his fantasy of becoming “the catcher in the rye,” a person who saves youngsters from falling off a precipice. Phoebe informs him that he misremembered the poem from which he drew the image: “If a body meet a body, coming through the rye,” says Robert Burns, not “catch a body.”
Mr. Antolini, Holden’s former English instructor, answers the phone and invites him to his flat. Mr. Antolini inquires about Holden’s expulsion and offers advice on his future. Mr. Antolini puts Holden to bed on the couch because he can’t hide his tiredness. Mr. Antolini strokes Holden’s forehead when he wakes up. Holden rushes out of the room, mistaking Mr. Antolini’s performance for a sexual proposition, and sleeps for a few hours on a Grand Central Station bench.
Holden visits Phoebe’s school and writes her a note informing her that he is leaving home permanently and that she should meet him at the museum for lunch. Phoebe appears with a suitcase full of clothes, and she requests that Holden take her with him. She cries and then refuses to speak to him after he refuses furiously. He walks to the zoo, then across the park to a carousel, knowing she will follow him. He buys her a ticket and stands there watching her take it. Although it begins to rain severely, Holden is near to tears as he watches his sister ride the carousel.
Holden concludes his account by warning the reader that he will not share the story of how he returned home and became “sick.” In the fall, he hopes to transfer to a new school and is cautiously enthusiastic about his prospects.