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The Catcher in the Rye
A Novel by J.D. Salinger
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2006

Type of Work and Year of Publication

The Catcher in the Rye is a coming-of-age novel (or apprenticeship novel). Such a novel centers on the period in which a young person is struggling to grow up and attempts to adapt to life around him. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) pioneered this type of novel in Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship). An apprenticeship novel can also be identified by its German name, bildungsroman, meaning novel of educational development. The Catcher in the Rye was first published in Boston on July 16, 1951, by Little, Brown and Company.


The Catcher in the Rye begins in 1950 in California, where the main character, Holden Caulfield, is undergoing psychiatric therapy. It then flashes back to a day in December 1949, when Holden Caulfield leaves Pencey Prep in the fictional town of Agerstown in southeastern Pennsylvania after flunking out. Pencey Prep is a boarding school for boys of well-to-do parents. Caulfield leaves Pencey Prep late at night on a train bound for New York City, via Trenton, N.J. In New York, Caulfield checks into a hotel and spends several days going to nightclubs and roaming the streets before going home (an apartment in a Manhattan building). Salinger may have based Pencey Prep on Valley Forge Military Academy in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, from which he graduated in 1936. 


Protagonist: Holden Caulfield
Antagonist: Holden's Internal Conflicts

Holden Caulfield: Intelligent but insecure high-school junior who is expelled from Pencey Prep—the fourth boarding school he has attended—for failing four out of five subjects. Although Holden seems likable and has a good sense of humor, he has difficulty facing his shortcomings, in particular his inability to adjust to his peers and society in general. In short, his emotional growth is stunted; he has trouble growing up and maturing. But instead of accepting blame for his shortcomings, he projects them onto others, calling them phonies. Caulfied is 6 feet, 2½ inches tall. He has a patch of gray hair on the right side of his head. 
Phoebe Caulfield: Holden's ten-year-old sister, the only person with whom he can communicate while feeling completely at ease . He loves and admires her, and she seems destined for success in all of her endeavors because of her precocity. However, Phoebe exhibits some of the qualities of Holden. For example, she writes books about a girl detective but never finishes them. Her failure to complete them parallels Holden's failure to complete school. Moreover, when Holden decides to run away, Phoebe impulsively follows him and insists that he allow her to accompany him. 
D.B. Caulfield: Holden's older brother, a writer in Hollywood. He served in the U.S. Army during World War II, participating in the D-Day landing.
Allie Caulfield: Holden's younger brother. When still only a child, he died of leukemia. Allie's death devastated Holden. At the time the novel begins, Allie has been dead about four years. 
Ward Stadlater: Holden's conceited roommate, a senior. 
Robert Ackley: Pencey Prep senior whom Holden befriends even though Ackley annoys him with his habit of poking through Holden's personal belongings. 
Jane Gallagher: Friend from back home whom Holden befriended when he was growing up. He likes her and worries that Stadlater, who had a date with her, may have tried to compromise her virtue. 
Sally Hayes: Girl Holden once dated. He calls her in New York, and they attend a play and go ice skating. 
Mr. and Mrs. Caulfield: Holden's parents, who live in an apartment building in New York City. Mr. Caulfield is a corporation lawyer 
Mr. Spencer: Holden's history teacher. Before Holden leaves Pencey Prep, Spencer scolds Holden about his poor performance in his studies and attempts to inspire him with concern for his future. 
Mr. Antolini: Holden's English teacher at Elkton Hills. He allows Holden to stay at his apartment in New York City. However, after Holden falls asleep, he awakens moments later after Antolini begins stroking his head. Shocked, Holden makes an excuse and leaves.
Maurice: Elevator operator who sends a prostitute named Sunny to Holden's room. 
Sunny: A prostitute.
Mrs. Morrow: Woman Holden meets on the train to New York. Her son, Ernest, attends Pencey Prep.
Two Nuns: Members of a Roman Catholic religious order. Holden has a pleasant conversation with them and gives them $10. 
Lillian Simmons: Young woman Holden encounters in New York. She once dated Holden's brother, D.B.
Other Characters: Students, cab drivers, nightclub patrons, people on the street, including a boy singing "Comin' Thro' the Rye."

Plot Summary
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2006
The year is 1950. Teenager Holden Caulfield introduces his story by speaking directly to his readers: 

“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.”

In other words, Holden will not do what author Charles Dickens did when he wrote David Copperfield: Start at the beginning of his life, then tell about his childhood, his family, his home life, etc. Rather, Holden will tell readers about “the madman stuff that happened to me around last Christmas before I got pretty run-down and had to come out here and take it easy.”

Holden does not say—at least at this point—where “here” is or what is wrong with him. The only other person who knows what happened to him is his brother, D.B., a writer in Hollywood. D.B. will be driving Holden home from “here,” in about a month or so.

Holden, seventeen, begins his story by flashing back to a Saturday in December of the previous year, 1949, when he was a sixteen-year-old junior at Pencey Prep in Agerstown, Pennsylvania. He has just flunked out after failing four of his five courses. He is scheduled to return home on Wednesday, for good. He has not yet told his parents that he has been kicked out and does not plan to. He will let a letter being mailed from the school do that. Holden has just returned from New York with the fencing team, which he has been managing. Pencey is the fourth boarding school he has attended. 

Holden walks past the football stadium, where a game is under way, to the house of Mr. Spencer, his history teacher, who wants to see him before he leaves the school. He and Spencer exchange pleasantries before Spencer gives him a lecture. 

"I flunked you in history because you knew absolutely nothing."

"I know that, sir. Boy, I know it. You couldn't help it."

Spencer reads excerpts from Holden’s examination paper, then notes that Holden also had problems at the Whooton School and Elkton Hills. Actually, Holden says, he did not flunk out of Elkton; he quit. He doesn’t tell Spencer why—namely, because Holden thought the school was full of phonies. The headmaster, Mr. Haas, was the kind of person who would talk with impressive-looking parents but ignore parents who were plain or “corny-looking.” Spencer continues lecturing Holden, saying he’s trying to help, and Holden finally excuses himself and returns to his dorm room. 

After removing his coat and tie, he puts on a hat he bought for a dollar that morning in New York.

“It was this red hunting hat, with one of those very, very long peaks,” Holden tells the reader. He likes it even though it looks odd, especially the way he wears it—with the peak in the back. “I looked good in it that way.”

Holden picks up a nonfiction book, Out of Africa, by Isak Dinesen, which he has been re-reading. He likes the book, but his favorite authors are his brother, D.B., and Ring Lardner. He also reads novels like The Return of the Native, as well as war books and mysteries, although they don’t “knock me out.” 

Robert Ackley, an annoying fellow from the next room, comes in. He’s a tall fellow with a pimply face who’s a slob in his personal habits. Holden can’t remember ever seeing him brush his teeth. Ackley, a senior, has a talent for aggravating Holden, always going around his room and picking up personal items or standing in his light when he is reading. He asks about the fencing match, but Holden says nobody won because he absentmindedly left all the fencing foils on the subway. After he and Ackley talk for a while, Holden’s roommate, Ward Stradlater, comes in from the football game and asks to borrow Holden’s hound’s tooth jacket. Holden says okay as long as Stradlater doesn’t stretch it out of shape with his big shoulders. 

Holden dislikes Stradlater because, Holden says, he’s a phony. He’s a conceited ladies’ man who thinks he’s doing someone a favor by talking to him. He’s also a slob, a “secret slob”—that is, he always looks good to the girls but leaves a mess behind in the bathroom.

“For instance,” Holden says, “you should’ve seen the razor he shaved himself with. It was always rusty and full of lather and hairs and crap.”

Because Stradlater has a date, he asks Holden to write an English composition for him—something descriptive. Holden doesn’t want to, but he agrees to write it anyway. While Stradlater is putting Vitalis on his hair—Holden’s Vitalis—he tells Holden his date is a girl from a nearby school. When he identifies her as Jane Gallagher, Holden is surprised. She was a neighbor of Holden’s who used to play checkers with him. After Stradlater leaves, Holden sits in a chair and thinks about Jane with Stradlater. The idea of Jane, a nice girl, with Stradlater makes him nervous. When Ackley barges back in, Holden is actually glad to see him, because he takes Holden’s “mind off everything.” 

Later, Holden, Ackley, and another friend of Holden’s, Mal Brossard, decide to take in a movie in Agerstown. But when Ackley and Brossard find out that they have already seen the movie, they all just get hamburgers, play a pinball machine, and return to the dorm about nine. Holden writes Stadlater’s essay and finishes it about 10:30. It’s about Holden’s brother Allie’s lefthanded baseball mitt, which had poems written in green ink on the fingers and pocket. Allie died of leukemia a few years back, and Holden tells the readers, “You’d have liked him.” He was two years younger than Holden but “fifty times as intelligent” and was also the nicest member of the family. 

After Stradlater returns and reads the essay, he flies into a rage because it is about a baseball glove, saying it was to be about “a room or a house or something.” 
They argue, and Holden rips up the paper. Moments later, Holden wondering about Stradlater’s date with Jane, asks, “What’d you do? Give her the time in Ed Banky’s car?” 

“That’s a professional secret, buddy,” Stradlater says. 

Holden swings at him, striking a glancing blow. A fight ensues and Holden winds up with a bloody face. 

That night, feeling lonely, Holden decides to leave, four days ahead of schedule, and return to his hometown, New York. There, he will get a hotel room, rest up, and settle his nerves. In two minutes, he has his bags packed and a short while later is on a train to New York. At Trenton, a woman who boards and sits near Holden notices the Pencey sticker on his bags. When she asks whether he knows her son, Ernest Morrow, Holden tells her Morrow is in his class. Holden thinks Morrow is one of the most hateful guys at Pencey. Nevertheless, because Mrs. Morrow seems nice, he praises him: "He adapts himself very well to things. He really does. I mean he really knows how to adapt himself." When Mrs. Morrow adds that her son is a sensitive boy, Holden thinks—yes, about as sensitive as a “toilet seat.” 

After his arrival at Penn Station, Holden feels like telephoning someone—maybe his brother or his little sister—or Jane Gallagher’s mother to find out when Jane’s vacation started. Then he thinks of Sally Hayes, a girl he used to see. In the end, though, he decides not to make any calls. If he called his sister, his parents might answer. If he called Sally Hayes, her mother might answer and then blab to his parents about the call. It’s also getting pretty late. So he takes a cab to the Edmont Hotel and checks in. It is a depressing place that is full of perverts and “screwballs all over the place.” The hotel gives him a “crumby room” with a view out the window that looks onto the other side of the hotel. 

After smoking a few cigarettes, Holden calls a girl named Faith Cavendish. At a party, a Princeton student, Eddie Birdsell, had given Holden her address and phone number. She was supposed to be hot stuff. When Holden gets her on the phone, he identifies himself as a friend of Birdsell and asks her out for cocktails. She warms to him after he talks in a deep voice, but she declines his invitation, saying it’s the middle of the night and she has to get her “beauty sleep.” When Holden proposes to go to her place—another hotel in New York—she says her roommate is sick and cannot entertain a guest. 

Holden decides to go down to the Edmont’s Lavender Room. While changing his shirt to look presentable, he thinks about his little sister, Phoebe, age 10. According to Holden, she is the smartest, prettiest little thing you ever saw. She writes books about a person named Hazel Weatherfield, a detective. But she never finishes them. He thinks too about the times he and Allie used to take her to Central Park on Sundays. 

In the Lavender Room, Holden orders a scotch and soda but settles for a Coke after the waiter discovers that he is under age. Holden dances with three women, one quite ugly. When the Lavender room begins to close, Holden leaves. In the lobby, he begins to think about Jane Gallagher again—the times they played checkers and tennis. They didn’t do much in the way of love, but Holden says, “She was terrific to hold hands with.” 

Holden takes a cab to another bar, Ernie’s. There, he orders a scotch and soda and gets it. He observes the people and listens to their conversations and decides that they are phonies. A girl named Lillian Simmons, who once dated D.B., approaches and says, “Holden Caulfield! . . . How marvelous to see you!” She asks how Holden’s big brother (D.B.) is doing, and Holden tells her he is in Hollywood writing. That news impresses her, Holden thinks, and she keeps talking to him while ignoring people that she is holding up in an aisle even though her date, a Navy man, tells her that people are waiting for her to move on. When she compliments Holden on his looks, he concludes that she is only trying to get in good with him so that he will tell D.B. about her. In other words, she’s a phony. She invites Holden to her table, but he doesn’t want to “be bored to death” listening to her. So he makes an excuse and leaves. 

After Holden walks back to his hotel, the elevator attendant offers to send a girl to his room for $5, and Holden says okay. “It was against my principles,” he tells the readers, “but I was feeling so depressed I didn’t even think.” 

In his room, he’s feeling nervous, because he’s a virgin. When the girl arrives, Holden introduces himself as Jim Steele and begins to feel depressed. So all he does is talk with her for a while, then pays her $5. When she says he owes her $10, he tells her the elevator man, Maurice, quoted a price of $5, and that’s all he gives her. Later, the girl returns with Maurice, who pushes Holden around, hits him, and goes away with another $5. 

In the morning, Holden calls Sally Hayes and asks her to a movie. 

“I’d love to. Grand.” 

What a phony word, grand, Holden thinks. 

After checking out of the hotel, Holden has breakfast in a restaurant at Grand Central Station. He’s to meet Sally nearby, at the Biltmore Hotel, at 2 o’clock. While eating, he talks with two nuns, whom he finds pleasant, and he donates $10 to help them with their work. After breakfast, he kills time walking around the city, then returns to the Biltmore. When Sally arrives, she looks lovely in a black coat and black beret, and in their taxi ride to the theater Holden has a hard time keeping his hands off her. They see a play with Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontaine. At intermission, they go out for cigarettes, like just about everybody else, and Sally sees a guy she knows from Andover College. When he comes over and talks with her, Holden pegs him for a phony. Sally and the guy—George something, Holden says—talk about people they knew and places they’ve been to. 

“The jerk had one of those very phony, Ivy League voices, one of those very tried, snobby voices,” Holden observes. 

After the play, they go skating and have Cokes in a bar where they can watch other skaters. Holden talks about how much he hates school. In fact, he talks about how much he hates everything—New York, taxicabs, buses, phony people. At his school, he says, people learn just enough to earn money to buy a Cadillac, “and all you do is talk about girls and liquor and sex all day.” 

Then, out of nowhere, he asks Sally to go away with him to Massachusetts or Vermont, telling her he has $180 in the bank. They could live in cabin camps, and “we could have a terrific time.” She refuses, of course, saying “we’re both practically children.” After they argue about Holden’s idea, he calls her “a royal pain in the ass” and she leaves. 

Holden calls Carl Luce, a friend from the Whooton School who now attends Columbia University, and they agree to meet at 10 o’clock at the Wicker Bar on 54th Street for a few drinks. To kill time, Holden sees a movie, then walks to the Wicker and has a couple of scotches with soda. After Luce arrives, Holden makes inane, immature wisecracks that annoy Luce. 

“Same old Caulfield,” he says. “When are you going to grow up?” 

After Holden asks very personal questions—many having to do with the woman Luce is dating, a Chinese sculptress in her late thirties—Luce becomes further annoyed.  Luce, whose father is a psychiatrist, answers several questions Holden poses about what would take place if Holden made an appointment with Dr. Luce. But conversation goes nowhere, and Luce excuses himself and leaves. Holden stays and has more drinks and gets so drunk “I could hardly see straight.” He calls Sally Hayes. When she answers, he tells her he wants to come over on Christmas Eve and help her trim her tree. Realizing how drunk he is, she pacifies him for a while by saying it’s okay to come over on Christmas Eve, then hangs up. 

Holden goes to Central Park to watch ducks in a lagoon, as he did as a child. He always wondered what happened to them in the winter. Later, he goes home—which is actually an apartment in a building—so he can talk with his kid sister Phoebe. He enters the apartment very quietly so as not to wake his parents. When he awakens Phoebe, she throws her arms around him. They talk for awhile. Phoebe says she’s in a school play, acting the role of Benedict Arnold. 

“It starts out when I’m dying. This ghost comes in on Christmas Eve and asks me if I’m ashamed and everything. You know. For betraying my country and everything.” 

Phoebe tells Holden, to his relief, that their parents are at a party in Norwalk, Connecticut, and won’t return until very late. Then Phoebe, aware that Holden was not due home until Wednesday, realizes he has been expelled from school—again. Holden admits that he flunked out. 

"Daddy'll kill you," she says.

But Holden says he plans to go away. 

"What I may do, I may get a job on a ranch or something for a while, " he says. "I know this guy whose grandfather's got a ranch in Colorado. I may get a job out there." 

Deeply disappointed in Holden, she accuses him of being too hard to please: “You don’t like any schools. You don’t like a million things.” Then she challenges him to name one thing that he likes. After concentrating for a while, Holden says, “I like Allie.” He also says, “And I like doing what I’m doing right now. Sitting here with you, and talking, and thinking about stuff, and—“ 

Phoebe is not satisfied with the answer, noting that Allie is dead, but she moves on to another question: “Name something you’d like to be.” Holden rules out several occupations—including that of his father, lawyer—but then thinks of “something crazy.” 

“You know what I’d like to be?” he says. 

Then he asks, “You know that song ‘If a body catch a body comin’ through the rye’? I’d like—“ 

Phoebe corrects him, saying the word should be meet, not catch, and pointing out that the words are from a poem by Robert Burns.  Holden then reveals what he’d like to be: A person stationed at the edge of a cliff while children are playing in a field of rye. Whenever a child runs over the edge of the cliff, Holden catches him or her. 

“Daddy’s going to kill you,” Phoebe says. 

Not wishing to confront his parents, Holden calls up an English teacher he had at Elkton Hills—Mr. Antolini, who now lives in New York—and asks to stay at his apartment for the night. Antolini says Holden would be welcome.

After his  parents return from Connecticut, Holden hides in the closet while Mrs. Caulfield looks in on Phoebe briefly. He then borrows several dollars from Phoebe and leaves for Mr. Antolini's place. At his classy apartment on Sutton place, Antolini does what Mr. Spencer did—give Holden advice about life. In a short while, though, Holden falls asleep on a couch. Moments later, he awakens when Antolini is “sort of petting me or patting me” on the head. 

“Boy, was I nervous!” Holden says. 

He thinks Antolini might be a “pervert.” After making an excuse, Holden leaves and spends the rest of the night on a bench in Grand Central Station. 

The next day, Holden leaves a note at Phoebe's school. It says: "I can't wait around till Wednesday any more so I will  probably hitch hike out west this afternoon. Meet me at the  Museum of art near the door at quarter past 12 if you can and I  will give you your Christmas dough back. I didn't spend much."

While waiting for Phoebe at the museum, two boys ask him where the mummies are, so he escorts them to the Egyptian exhibits. He explains in simple terms how the Egyptians preserved the dead using a "secret chemical." Shortly after noon, he goes to the main door to wait for Phoebe. While standing there, he muses about his future life in the west, in a cabin. He will not come back east, he says, unless a family member or relative is dying. He would allow Phoebe and D.B. to visit him, but neither would be permitted to do anything phony while under his roof. 

At about 12:35 Phoebe arrives with a suitcase, saying she wants to go away with Holden. He says no, but she pleads with him. He refuses again. They go back and forth on this subject until Holden says, "I'm not going away anywhere. I changed my mind. So stop crying, and shut up." Feeling hurt, Phoebe doesn't talk for a while. To try to pacify her, he takes her to the zoo, where they watch sea lions eating fish, then see the bears. Later, they go to Central Park, where Phoebe rides the carousel while Holden watches her. During the ride, Phoebe and other children reach out to grab the gold ring, and Holden worries that she will fall off the horse. "But I didn't say anything or do anything," Holden says. "The thing with kids is, if they want to grab the gold ring, you have to let them do it, and not say anything. If they fall off they fall off, but it's bad if you say anything to them."

In other words, Holden decides not to be a catcher in the rye after all. Kids have to work things out for themselves; one must let them take chances if they are to grow up right.

After the ride, Phoebe says to Holden, "I'm not mad at your anymore." Then she kisses him before going back for another ride. Holden says, "She looked so damn nice, the way she kept going around and around, in her blue coat and all. God, I wish you could've been there."

“That’s all I’m going to tell about,” Holden says in the final chapter. However, he does talk on, saying: 

“I could probably tell you about what I did after I went home, and how I got sick and all, and what school I’m supposed to go to next fall, after I get out of here . . . .This one psychoanalyst guy they have here keeps asking me if I’m going to apply myself when I go back to school next September.” 

Holden thinks it’s a stupid question. 

When his brother, D.B., visits him, he asks Holden about all the things that happened to him. Holden tells the reader that he didn’t know what to say. But he does mention that he misses the people he told about in his narrative—even Stradlater and Ackley.



Point of View and Style

Salinger writes the novel in first-person point of view from the perspective of the main character, Holden Caulfield. When presenting the narration and dialogue, the author convincingly mimics the language of a bright teenager struggling to grow up. The style, therefore, is conversational, deliberately intended to contain numerous colloquialisms and clichés. In this respect, the style in The Catcher in the Rye differs markedly from the style in such first-person narratives as Moby Dick and David Copperfield. The prose in those two novels is more formal and more grammatically precise, more elegant and decorous. In telling his story, Holden is more akin Huckleberry Finn, who tells his tale in the language of a boy who hates school, than to Melville's Ishmael or Dickens's Copperfield. Holden also shares a characteristic with many first-person narrators of Edgar Allan Poe's short stories: unreliability. Because of his immaturity and his reluctance to see himself as others see him, Holden slants his narrative so that other characters appear more reprehensible than he. Poe's narrators, such as Montresor in the short story "The Cask of Amontillado," are unreliable for another reason: They are deranged, maniacal, moonstruck. 

Bookend Structure 

The story begins and ends at a California treatment center in which seventeen-year-old Holden Caulfield is undergoing therapy for his mental problems. In the first paragraph of Chapter 1—consisting of approximately three hundred fifty words—Holden announces that he is going to tell the reader about the "madman stuff" that happened to him in December of the previous year before he "got pretty run-down." In the second paragraph, he begins telling the story by flashing back to a Saturday in that previous December. He continues his tale until the end of Chapter 25. In Chapter 26, consisting of three short paragraphs, Holden flashes back to the present, when he is undergoing treatment at the California center. Thus, the plot structure resembles a row of books kept in place by bookends on the left and right. The bookends are the beginning and end of the novel, when Holden is undergoing treatment; the books are the chapters that tell his story. Most of the episodes in the novel—such as Holden's encounters with teachers, fellow students, nuns, a prostitute and a pimp, and his sister Phoebe—are self-contained stories, in a manner of speaking, with their own expositions and climaxes. 



Growing Up Is Hard to Do: In terms of psychological and emotional development, Holden Caulfield seems stuck in adolescence, unable to advance. He envies other teenagers and young adults who have less trouble adjusting than he does. But to protect his ego and preserve his self-esteem (which is already low), he refuses to acknowledge his shortcomings and face himself. Rather, he continually harps on the shortcomings of others. He thinks the outer world is at fault for his problems, not his own inner world. Holden's refusal to confront his weaknesses makes it difficult for him to mature and grow emotionally. 
Loneliness and Alienation: Holden has been unable to make any real friends or confidants, save for his little sister, Phoebe, and Jane Gallagher, whom he befriended in childhood. Consequently, he feels lonely and depressed. It is his isolation and depression—along with his failure to face his shortcomings (Theme 1)—that bring about his emotional breakdown. 
Escape: Unable to solve his problems, Holden continually escapes from them. He escapes school by flunking out. He escapes the company of others by arguing with them or insulting them. He even leaves school four days ahead of schedule to have a few days on his own in New York City. There, he asks Sally Hayes to escape with him to Vermont or Massachusetts. He wants her to camp out with him and leave the world behind. When she refuses, he insults her and she walks out on him.
Lack of Commitment: Holden aimlessly drifts from school to school and refuses to commit himself to definite goals for the future. His father was a Roman Catholic but fell away from his religion. D.B. was a writer of promise but abandoned serious writing to produce schlock for big bucks in Hollywood. 
The Search for Identity: In his effort to "find himself," Holden buys a red hunting hat. Wearing it makes him unique. No one else around him has such a hat. Therefore, by wearing the hat, he becomes an individual, sui generis. 
Abandonment: Holden may feel abandoned for the following reasons: (1) Time and again, his parents send him to a boarding school. (2) His brother D.B. lives on the West Coast, nearly 3,000 miles away. (3) His brother Allie died. (4) His childhood crush, Jane Gallagher, has decided to date Ward Stadlater, a Pencey Prep ladies' man. (5) His peers continually reject him because of his abrasive manner. 
Rebellion: Holden has perfected the art of rebellion—against his school, his peers, his parents, and society in general. 
Deception: Holden sees others as phonies because he thinks they pretend to be what they are not. However, Holden himself sometimes pretends to be what he is not. He also lies frequently about his age and his identity in order to overcome adverse circumstances. He also tells Mrs. Morrow, a train passenger with whom he converses, that he has a brain tumor.
Hope: There seems to be a glimmer of hope for Holden. He reads good literature, including works by Ring Lardner, Thomas Hardy, and W. Somerset Maugham. He also loves his parents, in spite of any faults they may have, noting on the first page of the novel that "They're nice and all." In addition, although he too often generalizes about people—calling many of them phonies even though he knows little about them—he does seem to recognize the importance of sincerity, candor, and modesty. 


Most of the episodes in the novel—such as Holden's encounters with teachers, fellow students, a prostitute and a pimp, and his sister Phoebe—are little stories in themselves, with their own expositions and climaxes. However, the climax of the entire novel appears to occur in Chapter 25, when Holden tells Phoebe that he has decided to return home instead of going out west to work on a ranch.

The Title

While walking on a New York street, Holden hears a boy singing the first two lines of a poem by Robert Burns: "If a body meet a body, / Comin' thro' the rye." However, either the boy is singing it wrong or Holden hears it wrong, for Holden later tells the reader that the boy is singing "If a body catch a body." At any rate, Holden tells his sister Phoebe that he would like to become a catcher in the rye. Here is what he envisions: Children are playing in a field of rye near a cliff. Posting himself at the perimeter of the rye field, Holden saves children from falling over the edge of the cliff. It may be that, symbolically, he would be saving children from running headlong into the big bad world of grownups, as he did. Following is the complete poem by Robert Burns

    Comin' Thro' The Rye
    By Robert Burns

    If a body meet a body,
    Comin' thro' the rye,
    If a body kiss a body,
    Need a body cry?
    Every lassie has her laddie,
    Nane, they say, ha'e I;
    Yet a' the lads they smile on me,
    Comin' thro' the rye.

    If a body meet a body,
    Comin' frae the town,
    If a body greet a body,
    Need a body frown?
    Every lassie has her laddie,
    Nane, they say, ha'e I;
    Yet a' the lads they smile on me,
    Comin' thro' the rye.

    Amang the train there is a swain,
    I dearly love mysel'
    But what's his name, or where's his hame,
    I dinna choose to tell.
    Every lassie has her laddie,
    Nane, they say, ha'e I;
    Yet a' the lads they smile on me,
    Comin' thro' the rye.


Red Hunting Hat: Holden's individuality. A red hunting hat is certainly an oddity at Pencey Prep and in New York City. And that is precisely what Holden himself wants to be: different, unique. In short, the hat is his red badge of individuality. Holden's hat could also symbolize his own personal hunting expedition—for himself. Further, its color could symbolize his dead brother, Allie, who had red hair. 
Ducks in the Lagoon: The ducks represent Holden in that they remain isolated, within boundaries, as does Holden. Unable to grow and develop, Holden cannot break free to the adult world. Each year, he ends up at a boarding school, just as the ducks end up at the lagoon. However, when Holden begins to wonder what happens to them in the winter, he also begins to wonder what will happen to him after his latest expulsion from school. Will he "fly off"? Or will he return to begin the cycle of failure all over again.
The Carousel: The carousel (Salinger uses the French spelling, carrousel), or merry-go-round, represents the carefree days of childhood. Holden seems emotionally stuck in childhood, unable to develop into a young man. He goes from one school to another, then another. In effect, he is going in circles. Will Phoebe, whom Holden is watching as she rides the carousel, end up like Holden? 
The Museum: Holden's desire for stability and security. Holden has never forgotten his childhood, during which he enjoyed stability and security and the close friendship of Jane Gallagher. Apparently, he likes to visit the museum because it represents such stability and security. Nothing in it changes; everything remains the same. 
Fencing Foils: As manager of Pencey Prep's fencing team, Holden has charge of the foils. (A foil is a long, thin sword used in sporting competitions. It has a blunted tip to prevent injury .) However, Holden absentmindedly leaves the foils on a subway. Consequently, a match between Pency Prep and its opponent cannot take place. The loss of the foils could represent Holden's reluctance to graduate from school to become part of the competitive business world, which he thinks is run by phonies
Ice Skates: Perhaps the skates Holden's mother bought him, hockey skates, represent society and socialization in that the the user of them is part of a team. On the other hand, the skates Holden wanted, racing skates, may represent his isolation in that the user competes as an individual. 
The Broken Record: Before going home to talk with Phoebe, Holden buys her a record with a song entitled "Little Shirley Beans." However, while walking toward Central Park, he drops it and it shatters. Perhaps the record represents Holden. After his latest failure, he goes home "in pieces," emotionally distraught

Is Holden a Phony?

Holden continually characterizes people around him as phonies. For example, in Chapter 2, he says, "One of the biggest reasons I left Elkton Hills was because I was surrounded by phonies." Oddly, though, Holden himself repeatedly does what phonies do: deceive people. "I'm the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life," he admits to the reader. Nevertheless, he doesn't seem to deserve being called a phony. Here's why: Generally, Holden does not lie to impress people; rather, he lies (or otherwise deceives people) to protect his ego or his identity, to get a drink in a bar, to avoid confrontations, to make an excuse to leave, or to play a joke. The true phony, on the other hand, uses deceit to impress people. Of course, Holden is not averse to telling a whopper, which he does after Mrs. Morrow asks him (on the train ride to New York) why he is going home on a Saturday, four days earlier than the scheduled Wednesday dismissal. Holden answers, "I have to have this operation. . . .It isn't very serious. I have this tiny little tumor on the brain." 

Those Four-Letter Words 

Because The Catcher in the Rye contains numerous profanities, it was controversial when it was published and remains controversial today. Parents frequently oppose its inclusion in high-school curriculums. Why did author Salinger give Holden Caulfield such an offensive tongue? Apparently to show that Holden is trying to sound grown-up in front of his peers—and the reader. Holden mistakenly believes that uttering profanities makes him seem worldly-wise and mature. However, his swearing has the opposite effect, revealing him as a confused adolescent who still has a lot of growing up to do. Thus, Salinger writes profanities into the story to serve a literary purpose. Not all writers are like Salinger in this respect. For example, many Hollywood scriptwriters insert profanities into dialogue solely to obtain an adults-only rating, such as "R," to enhance box-office appeal; the swearing is gratuitous. 

Figures of Speech

Because the narrator of The Catcher in the Rye is a teenager who tells his story in a conversational style, most figures of speech in the novel are clichés, such as strictly for the birds, frozen to death, shoot the bull, for crying out loud, gives me a royal pain, hated his guts, booze hound, sharp as a tack, slept like a rock, and tossed his cookies. Here and there, however, are other types of figures of speech. Among them are the following: 

Anaphora and Metaphor 

It rained on his lousy tombstone, and it rained on the grass on his stomach. It rained all over the place. 
Anaphora occurs with the repetition of it rained at the beginning of clauses. The metaphor compares the grave to a stomach. 


Or you'd just passed by one of those puddles in the street with gasoline rainbows in them. 
The metaphor compares the image in the puddle to a rainbow in the sky. 


crazy cannon
fresh-air fiend
We can smoke till they start screaming at us

Irony and Hyperbole

It's really ironical, because I'm six foot two and a half and I have gray hair. I really do. The one side of my head—the right side—is full of millions of gray hairs. I've had them ever since I was a kid. And yet I still act sometimes like I was only about twelve 
Holden himself explains the irony here. The hyperbole is "millions of gray hairs."

Dramatic Irony

Dramatic irony is a dominating figure of speech in the novel. Although Holden acknowledges that he has faults and weaknesses, he fails to realize how immature and maladjusted he is. However, the careful reader is aware of his immaturity throughout the novel. 

Glossary of Terms From the Novel

Beowulf: Medieval epic poem written in Old English. For further information, see the Beowulf Study Guide on this site.
Biltmore: World-famous luxury hotel between 43rd and 44th Streets in New York. In 1942, the Biltmore hosted a meeting of Jewish leaders in which David Ben-Gurion announced a resolution supporting the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. Ben-Gurion (1886-1973) later became the first prime minister and first defense minister of Israel after it was established in 1948. The Biltmore Hotel was converted into the Bank of America Plaza Building, beginning in 1981. 
Bourgeois: As a noun, member of the middle class; as an adjective, having the qualities or values of a member of the middle class. The word is often used to label a person, place, or thing as ordinary, commonplace, or inferior. Example from the novel: He was always saying snotty things about them, my suitcases, for instance. He kept saying they were too new and bourgeois
Chiffonier (or Chiffonnier): Chest of drawers or bureau, usually with a mirror.
Colored: Term used in the 1950's to describe an Afro-American or black. Example from the novel: Ernie's a big fat colored guy that plays the piano. The terms Afro-American and black did not gain currency in America until the late 1960's. 
David Copperfield: Great coming-of-age novel written by Charles Dickens (1812-1870). Dickens based the book in part on the difficult early years of his own life. For further information, see the David Copperfield Study Guide on this site.
Dope Fiend: Drug addict. 
El Morocco: World-famous nightclub on East 54th Street, between Second and Third Avenues. Its main room was decorated in a zebra-stripe pattern.
Galoshes: Rubber overshoes or boots with a warm lining.
Gladstone Bag: Hinged traveling bag or suitcase that opens flat to reveal two compartments.
Grippe: Widely used term for flu, or influenza. Some Americans of the 1950's would call in sick by saying, "I have the grippe" rather than "I have the flu."
Hamlet: Shakespeare play that Holden Caulfield, his brother D.B., and his sister Phoebe saw in 1948. For complete information on the play, see the Hamlet Study Guide on this site.
Hound's-Tooth Jacket: Jacket printed or woven with a pattern of irregular, jagged checks. 
I Know My Love: This Broadway play, by S.N. Behrman (1893-1973), opened on November 2, 1949, and closed on June 3, 1950. It is the play that Holden Caulfield attends with Sally Hayes. It starred the popular husband-wife acting team of Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne. 
Jitterbug: In the 1940's and 1950's, a lively dance in which a partner did twirls, lifts, or splits while holding one or both of the other partner's hands.
Lardner, Ring: Writer of short stories distinguished in part for their realistic presentation of ordinary American speech and conversation. 
LaSalle: Luxury car manufactured by Cadillac between 1927 and 1940. 
Muckle-Mouthed: Big-mouthed, verbose, long-winded; tending to jabber on. Example from the novel: She was sort of muckle-mouthed. I mean when she was talking and she got excited about something, her mouth sort of went in about fifty directions, her lips and all.
Of Human Bondage: Novel by W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965). It centers on an orphan with a clubfoot who attends several schools, tries several careers, and finally becomes a country doctor after marrying the wife of a friend.
Out of Africa: Nonfiction book by Isak Dinesen (1885-1963), penname of Danish writer Karen Christence Blixen-Finecke. 
Pedagogical: Having the qualities of a pedagogue, a teacher who shows too much concern for minor details; picky, fussy. 
Phony: Fake, artificial; a person who pretends to be more important, talented, or accomplished than he is 
The Return of the Native: Novel by Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) depicting a failing marriage. The characters in this novel and other Hardy novels live in a world Darwinian determinism in which persons are dominated by forces beyond their control. 
Record: As you are no doubt well aware, no music CD's existed in the 1950's. All music recordings were on records, disks that spun on a turntable while a needle on an armlike apparatus was positioned in a circling groove on the disk to produce sound. There were several types of records—some spinning fast on the turntable, some spinning more slowly. Records spinning more slowly were programmed with more music (or speeches, sound effects, etc.). Records spinning at 33 revolutions per minute (rpm) were called LP's—that is long-playing records. Other records would spin at 45 rpm and 78 rpm. Records that would spin at lower speeds were made of vinyl and would not shatter when dropped. Records spinning at 78 rpm were brittle and would shatter when dropped. It is likely that Holden Caulfield's "Shirley Beans" record was a 78 rpm. When he dropped it, it shattered into many pieces. 
Romeo and Juliet: Shakespeare play that Holden Caulfied discusses with nuns. For complete information on this play, see the Romeo and Juliet Study Guide on this site.
Snow Someone: Deceive, mislead, or persuade a person through flattery, glib talk, or specious argumentation. Holden Caulfield says of Ward Stradlater: "What he'd do was, he'd start snowing his date in this very quiet, sincere voice—like as if he wasn't only a very handsome guy but a nice, sincere guy, too. 
Stork Club: World-famous nightclub at 3 East 53rd Street. It opened in 1929 and closed in 1965. 
Swell: 1950's equivalent of cool, awesome, or great. Examples from the novel: swell guy, swell song, swell girls, swell to see you
Tattersall: Fabric pattern of dark squares on a light background. Example from the novel: On my right there was this very Joe Yale-looking guy, in a gray flannel suit and one of those flitty-looking Tattersall vests.
The 39 Steps: 1935 film of mystery and intrigue directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Robert Donat. It is Phoebe Caulfied's favorite movie.
Vye, Eustacia: Character in The Return of the Native. (See above.)
Ziegfeld Follies: Stage show featuring music, beautiful chorus girls, comedians, and elaborate sets. Florenz Ziefeld debuted his follies in New York in 1907.

Salinger and Holden Caulfield

American author J. D. Salinger, who was born in 1919, apparently drew upon his own experiences when bringing Holden Caulfield to life. In the following, note the similarity between events in the life of the fictional Caulfield and events in the life of Salinger. 

Holden Caulfield
Born and raised in New York City
Attends several boarding schools but does not graduate
Parents Are of Different Religious Faiths
Parents Are Well-to-Do
Undergoes Psychiatric Treatment
Isolates Himself From Others

J. D. Salinger
Born and raised in New York City
Graduated from Valley Forge Military Academy; attended several colleges but did not graduate
Parents Were of Different Religious Faiths
Parents Were Well-to-Do
Hospitalized for Stress After Serving in World War II
Lives Reclusively in New Hampshire


Study Questions and Essay Topics

  • Will Holden Caulfield go on to a successful life in a worthy career? Or will he continue to fail? 
  • Will Phoebe grow up like Holden, isolated and lonely, or will she continue to be a good student who looks forward to a promising career? When preparing an answer to this question, consider the following information that Holden discloses about Phoebe: (1) She writes books (the girl-detective stories) but never finishes them. (2) She is very emotional. (3) She impulsively decides to run away with Holden.
  • Why do Holden's parents keep sending him away to boarding schools? 
  • Using passages from the noveland your interpretations of these passageswrite a profile of the Caulfield family as it was when Holden was growing up with Allie and Phoebe. Among the questions you might address in your essay are the following: Was the Caulfield home a happy one? Did Mr. and Mrs. Caulfield devote enough attention to their children? Did they attempt to instill in their children strong moral values? 
  • To what extent did Holden's New York environment shape his character when he was a child. Keep in mind that his home was an apartment on the 12th floor of a building in New York City. Keep in mind, too, the kinds of material advantages (or disadvantages) to which he had access. The novel is full of clues about the financial status of Holden's parents. An example of a clue is this sentence: "The week before that, somebody'd stolen my camel's-hair coat right out of my room, with my fur-lined gloves right in the pocket and all." Holden also points out that his father is a corporation lawyer. 
  • To what extent did author J.D. Salinger base Holden Caulfield's experiences on his own? While researching this question, you will discover that Salinger grew up in New York City (as did Holden), graduated from a boarding school (Valley Forge Military Academy, in the same part of Pennsylvania as fictional Agerstown), and attended several colleges but did not graduate from any of them. (Holden, of course, attends several boarding schools without graduating.) Salinger's background is similar in other respects to Holden's. Find as many of these similarities as you can. (See the table above to get a start.) Then discuss whether Holden Caulfield is actually J.D. Salingeror write an essay on this subject.
  • The Catcher in the Rye was published in the middle of the 20th Century. Is the novel still relevant today? Do some teenagers continue to face the kinds of problems Holden faces?
  • ..