J.D. Salinger "The Catcher in the Rye" Summary and Plot Overview

“The Catcher in the Rye” Summary

“The Catcher in the Rye”, published in 1951 is American author J.D. Salinger’s most famous and influential work.
Marissa L.
min read
Feb 10, 2023

The story about adolescent angst resonated with millions around the world. The story follows Holden Caulfield, a depressed 16-year-old in the late 1940s, and chronicles his disturbing experiences in New York City. Enjoy this “The Catcher in the Rye” short summary.

“The Catcher in the Rye” Plot Overview

The summary of Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger begins with the protagonist Holden Caulfield declaring that he won’t talk about his childhood because the details are boring, rather he’ll talk about the crazy things that happened to him last Christmas. He seems to be recuperating somewhere, possibly a sanatorium. He mentions his brother D.B. comes to visit once a week and he’s a “prostitute” in Hollywood, writing scripts there for movies rather than focusing on short stories. Holden despises movies and anything he considers ”Phony”. 

Holden starts his narration on the day he left Pencey Prep. Standing on a hill looking at a football game, he watches alone from a distance. He reveals that today is his last day at the school since he’s been expelled for failing four classes. He is on his way to meet his History teacher, Mr. Spencer. 

Holden hates the dilapidated condition of Mr. Spencer’s room and how frail Mr. Spencer appears. He tells Mr. Spencer about his conversation with the headmaster Dr. Thurmer where the headmaster told him that “life is a game” and that one should “play it according to the rules” - a statement Mr. spencer agrees with. Holden is annoyed by the whole conversation but casually chats while thinking about what happens to ducks in Central Park in the winter.

Holden heads back to his room and claims to be a phenomenal liar as he puts on his red cap and starts reading. Soon after, he is interrupted by fellow classmate Robert Ackley who disgustingly clips his nails in front of Holden and badmouths Holden’s roommate Ward Stradlater. He leaves quickly as Stradlater enters. 

Stradlater asks to borrow Holden’s hound’s tooth jacket for a date. As he is getting ready, he further asks Holden to write an English composition for him. Holden says he will if he has the time. Stradlater tells Holden his date is Jane Gallagher, a girl Holden knew when the two lived next to each other a few summers ago. Holden asks him not to tell Jane that he’s been expelled again. 

Holden and a few classmates head into town to eat dinner. They come back around 9 and Holden decides to write a descriptive essay about his dead younger brother Allie’s baseball mitt. Allie was loved by everyone, and the day he died Holden slept in the garage and broke all the windows.

Holden stays up worrying about what Stradlater was doing with Jane. Stradlater comes back late and asks Holden for the composition which he reads says Holden did terribly. Holden tears up the composition and nervously asks him what he did with Jane. Stradlater says that it’s a secret. Holden gets angry and hits him, but Stradlater pins him to the floor. Holden continues insulting him till Stradlater knocks him out. 

Holden puts on his red cap and heads to Ackley’s room, still bloody, asking if he can sleep there. Ackley says he can’t and Holden continues worrying about what happened between Stradlater and Jane. He decides to leave Pencey that night itself and spend a few days in New York at a hotel. He sells his typewriter to a fellow student for 20 dollars, packs up, and leaves, saying  "Sleep tight, ya morons!". 

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On the train to New York City, a woman sits next to Holden who turns out to be the mother of one of Holden’s classmates, Ernest Morrow. Holden remembers him as the biggest bastard he knew but lies to her saying that her son was very popular. He gives her a fake name and invites her to join him for a drink which she declines. He further lies to her saying that he is leaving Pencey early because he needs an operation for a brain tumor and he can’t accept her invitation to visit in the summer because he will be with his grandmother in South America. 

In New York City, Holden gets a cab to the Edmont Hotel. He asked the cabbie about the ducks in Central Park and invites him for a drink which he declines. From his shabby room, he sees a man wearing women’s clothing and a couple spitting their drinks at each other. Holden thinks about sex and concludes that he doesn’t really know anything about it at all. He considers calling Jane, but eventually calls a woman named Faith Cavendish and asks her to meet for a drink which she declines. 

Holden considers calling his 10-year-old sister Phoebe but is worried his parents might pick up, so he decides to go to the club at the hotel called the Lavender Room. Holden dislikes the band that’s playing and gets denied alcohol,  but a group of three women catches his eye. He dances with them and buys them drinks, but they leave saying they need to get up early. Holden ends up spending 13 dollars and feeling miserable. 

Holden sits in the lobby of the hotel and thinks about Jane Gallagher. He admits that he was attracted to her and remembers her fondly. The only time they did anything physical was when she started crying after a fight with her father. Thinking about her makes him sad so he decides to go to another nightclub, Ernie’s.

Holden asks the cab driver about the ducks in Central Park, but the cabbie, Horwitz, finds his questions annoying. He also declines Holden’s invitation for a drink. Ernie himself is playing the piano as Holden enters the nightclub which Holden thinks is show-offy. He is disappointed by the crowd which he describes as a prep school and college jerks. He bumps into his brother D.B.’s ex-girlfriend Lillian, who he always disliked. He tells her that he was just leaving, and despite being lonely, decides to go. 

On the walk to his hotel, Holden puts on his red cap and wonders who stole his gloves at Pencey. He reflects that even if he did find out, all he would do was yell at the person and that he was a coward and wouldn’t have the courage to hit the person. At the hotel, Maurice, the elevator attendant, offers to send him a prostitute for 5 dollars. Up in the room, Holden prepares for her arrival and admits that he is a virgin. The prostitute, Sunny arrives and tries to seduce him, but he claims to have had an operation and would prefer to talk. He pays her 5 dollars even though she demands 10 as she leaves. 

Holden sees the sun come up and reminisces about his brother Allie. He thinks about praying but states that he is “sort of an atheist” He claims to like Jesus but finds the disciples annoying. Maurice and Sunny arrive at the door at demand 5 more dollars. Holden refuses but they barge in and steal it from his wallet. Holden starts crying and insults Maurice who punches him as he leaves. Holden makes his way to the bathroom imaging that he had been shot in the stomach and fantasizes about shooting Maurice. He contemplates jumping out the window but doesn’t like the thought of people seeing his gory body on the sidewalk.

When Holden wakes up he calls Sally Hayes and she agrees to watch a show with him. He goes to a sandwich bar for breakfast where he notices some nuns. Holden chats with the nuns and gives them a 10 dollar donation. He offers to pay for their meal as well but they decline. He reflects that he enjoyed the conversation and wishes that he could have given more. 

While buying a record for his sister Phoebe, he sees a somewhat poor family and overhears the six-year-old boy sing the lyrics “If a body catch a body coming through the rye.” Hearing the boy and seeing the family makes Holden feel better. He buys the record and tickets for the matinee and takes a cab to an ice skating rink where Phoebe usually spends her Sunday afternoons. He asks some girls if they know Phoebe and they tell him that she might be at the museum. Holden reminisces about going to the museum as a child and liking that while the people who go to the museum may change, the museum never changes. Upon arriving at the museum he decides not to go in and takes a cab to meet Sally instead. 

Holden thinks he loves Sally when they meet, even though he doesn’t like her as a person. During the show, she mentions that she knows one of the boys there. Holden tells her to go talk to him and by the end of the conversation decides he hates her. They go skating at Radio City but since they are both terrible skaters quickly go to a bar for drinks. Holden asks Sally if she ever gets fed up with New York phoniness and proceeds to vent about everything he hates. She asks him not to shout and agrees with him when he says he’s in lousy shape. He asks her to drive with him to New England, get married, and live in the woods - which she refuses. Holden gets depressed and insults her making her cry.

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Holden considers calling Jane again and thinks about a time she saw her dancing with someone else. He calls, but nobody picks up. He then makes plans to meet an old classmate Carl Luce for drinks in the evening. To kill time he decides to go watch a movie. The war movie makes him think about his brother D.B. and his experiences in World War II.

Holden meets Carl Luce in the evening and annoys him by asking him personal questions about his sex life with his girlfriend. Luce tells Holden to grow up and reminds him that the last time they met he’d advised Holden to see a psychiatrist. Holden asks Luce to stay for another drink because he’s lonely but Luce declines.

Holden stays at the Wicker bar and gets drunk. He thinks about calling Jane again but ends up calling Sally who realizes he’s drunk and tells him to go to bed. In the restroom, he asks the piano player to get a drink with him but he also tells Holden to go home. Holden walks to the park to check on the ducks despite the cold and almost starts crying as the record he bought for Phoebe drops and shatters. He sits on a bench and fantasizes about catching pneumonia and dying. He decides to go see his sister. 

Holden sneaks into his family’s house and finds Phoebe asleep in D.B’s room. He goes over her school books and feels better. He wakes up Phoebe who is thrilled to see him. He gives her the broken record and she keeps the pieces. He tells her that he was expelled from Pencey and Phoebe reacts with worry, covering her head with a pillow. Holden tells her not to worry, he’s going to go work on a ranch in Colorado. She doesn’t budge and he goes to find more cigarettes. 

When Holden comes back to the room, Phoebe tells him his Colorado plan is stupid and asks him why he was expelled. Holden launches into an explanation of all the reasons he hates Pencey. She tells him that he hates everything and challenges him to name one thing he likes. Holden thinks intensely and determines that there are two things he likes, the nuns he met earlier, and a boy named James Castle who committed suicide, but he tells Phoebe he likes talking to her and he like Allie. Dissatisfied with the answer Phoebe asks him what he would like to do. Holden says he would like to be a Catcher in the Rye. He pictures children playing in a rye field next to a cliff and himself catching them before they fell off the edge. He puts her to bed and decides to call a former English teacher, Mr. Antolini. 

Mr.Antolini invites Holden to come over. Holden returns to Phoebe and they dance to music, but their parents return and Holden hides in the closet. After his mother leaves, Holden asks Phoebe for some money. She proceeds to give him all her Christmas money. Holden starts crying and his sister tells him not to go, but he says he has to. 

Holden arrives at Mr. Antolini’s fancy apartment. His former teacher tells him that he recently had lunch with Holden’s father and that he is worried about him. He tells Holden that he is heading for a terrible fall. Holden falls asleep on the couch but awakens to find Mr. Antolini stroking his head. Holden quickly gets dressed and says he has to go. 

Holden makes his way to Grand Central station and sleeps briefly on a bench. He walks around and starts feeling sick. Though he isn’t hungry he tries to eat breakfast but only manages to drink coffee. He walks around but starts feeling as if every time he steps off a curb he won’t make it to the other side, instead, just going “down down down”. He sits on a bench and comes up with a plan of hitchhiking west and starting a new anonymous life. Excited, he writes a note to Phoebe asking her to meet him at the museum and goes to her school to give it to her. At the school he sees two Fuck you’s graffitied on the wall which enrages him. 

At the museum, he helps two boys find the ancient Egypt wing but they run off scared. Holden see’s another Fuck you graffitied on the museum’s walls and feels sick. He passes out briefly in the bathroom, but recovers and waits for Phoebe. Phoebe arrives wearing Holden’s cap and carrying a suitcase, she announces that she wants to go with Holden. Holden refuses and Phoebe gets angry and throws his hat at him. Holden says he won’t go west and walks to the zoo with Phoebe following him. Holden buys her a ticket to ride the carousel and starts crying with happiness in the rain as she takes back his hat and rides the carousel. 

Holden ends his narration of events and doesn’t give any more details about what happened. He says many people have asked him if he plans on applying himself when he gets better and admits to missing people like Stradlater, Ackley, and even Maurice. D.B. visits often and Holden regrets telling people so much, advising the reader “Don’t tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.” This concludes our “Catcher in the Rye” book summary.

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