Novel Summary

            The Catcher in the Rye is a story about isolation, loss, maturity and phoniness.  The story takes place in the 1950’s and is told by Holden Caulfield, a sixteen-year-old boy who has recently failed out of another prep school, Pency, two weeks before Christmas break.  He decides to leave school earlier and spend a couple days in New York City, where he lives, before returning home and facing the disappointment of his parents.  

            Although Holden spends a lot of time with many different people, he still spends the majority of the novel feeling lonely.  He constantly wants someone there to share his feelings of alienation and his belief that most people are “phonies.”  The people he feels closest to are his sister Phoebe and his brother Allie, who has passed away.  He refrains from calling Phoebe for these couple of days because he doesn’t want his parents to find out he wasn’t in school.  Instead he spends his time with other people, such as Sally Hayes, the nuns, and a prostitute, and he still can’t seem to make a meaningful connection with any of them.  After finally talking with Phoebe one night, Holden decides that the only answer to his problem would be to run away and establish a new identity.  

            On the verge of a nervous breakdown, Holden changes his mind after realizing how much this decision would affect other people, such as his sister Phoebe.  He decides to rejoin his family and to enter a hospital not far from Hollywood, where he is actually telling his story.  The end of the novel is very ambiguous, leaving it unclear whether Holden has fixed the solution to his problem of alienation.  He leaves the readers with the idea that he has not changed since entering the hospital by telling them that he was sorry for even telling the story in the first place. 


Jerome David Salinger was born in New York City on January 1, 1919, and like the members of the fictional Glass family that appear in some of his works, was the product of mixed parentage—his father was Jewish and his mother was Scotch-Irish. Salinger's upbringing was not unlike that of Holden Caulfield of The Catcher in the Rye, the Glass children, and many of his other characters. Unlike the Glass family with its brood of seven children, Salinger had only an elder sister. He grew up in fashionable areas of Manhattan and for a time attended public schools. Later, the young Salinger attended prep schools where he apparently found it difficult to adjust. In 1934 his father enrolled him at Valley Forge Military Academy near Wayne, Pennsylvania, where he stayed for approximately two years, graduating in June of 1936.

Salinger maintained average grades and was an active, if at times distant, participant in a number of extracurricular activities. He began to write fiction, often by flashlight under his blankets after the hour when lights had to be turned out. Salinger contributed work to the school's literary magazine, served as literary editor of the yearbook during his senior year, participated in the chorus, and was active in drama club productions. He is also credited with composing the words to the school's anthem.

In 1938 Salinger enrolled in Ursinus College at Collegeville, Pennsylvania. While at Ursinus he resumed his literary pursuits, contributing a humorous column to the school's weekly newspaper. He left the school after only one semester. Obviously an intelligent and sensitive man, Salinger apparently did not respond well to the structure and rigors of a college education. This attitude found its way into much of his writing, as there is a pattern throughout his work of impatience with formal learning and academic types.

Despite Salinger's dislike of formal education, he attended Columbia University in 1939 and participated in a class on short story writing taught by Whit Burnett (1899–1973). Burnett, a writer and important editor, made a lasting impression on the young author, and it was in the magazine Story, founded and edited by Burnett, that Salinger published his first story, "The Young Folks," in the spring of 1940. Encouraged by the success of this effort, Salinger continued to write and after a year of rejection slips finally broke into the rank of well-paying magazines catering to popular reading tastes.

Salinger entered military service in 1942 and served until the end of World War II (1939–45; a war in which Allied forces led by Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States fought with the Axis forces of Germany, Italy, and Japan). Salinger participated in the Normandy campaign, when Allied forces landed on French shores and turned the tide of the war, and the liberation of France from the occupying German army. He continued to write and publish while in the army, carrying a portable typewriter with him in the back of his jeep. After returning to the United States, Salinger's career as a writer of serious fiction took off. In 1946 the New Yorker published his story "Slight Rebellion Off Madison," which was later rewritten to become a part of The Catcher in the Rye.

While Salinger's fictional characters have been endlessly analyzed and discussed, the author himself has remained a mystery. Since the publication of The Catcher in the Rye, he has consistently avoided contact with the public, obstructing attempts by those wishing to pry into his personal life. In 1987 he successfully blocked the publication of an unauthorized biography by Ian Hamilton. In his lawsuit, Salinger claimed copyright infringement on private matters Hamilton had discovered in the course of research. Even after revising his material, Hamilton was unable to satisfy Salinger or the court and was forced to withdraw the book. In 1988 an extensively revised version of Hamilton's work was published under the title In Search of J. D. Salinger, which represents a comprehensive study of the author and his work.

Deemed the "Summer of Salinger" by columnist Liz Smith, the summer of 1999 saw the release of the latest Salinger biography and the sale of love letters the author wrote to a former girlfriend, which sold for $156,000. The letters were bought by software millionaire Peter Norton, who returned the letters to the author. Paul Alexander's Salinger: A Biography, published on July 15, 1999, is the first full-length Salinger biography since Ian Hamilton's in 1988. Salinger has not made an effort to limit the release of the book, unlike the Hamilton biography.

In 1997 a rumor surfaced that a Salinger story originally printed in the New Yorker in 1965, "Hapworth 16, 1924," was soon to be released in book form. The publication is still planned but no date has been set.

Today Salinger lives in seclusion in rural New Hampshire, writing for his own pleasure and presumably enjoying his private world.

Review Review  

Since his debut in 1951 as The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield has been synonymous with "cynical adolescent." Holden narrates the story of a couple of days in his sixteen-year-old life, just after he's been expelled from prep school, in a slang that sounds edgy even today and keeps this novel on banned book lists. It begins,

"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 the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them."  

His constant wry observations about what he encounters, from teachers to phonies (the two of course are not mutually exclusive) capture the essence of the eternal teenage experience of alienation.

Historical Links

American Cultural History 

This site presents valuable information involving American life during the 1940s and 1950s.  It contains many links that provide information on specific historical events that took place during these decades, such as the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the effects of WWII after it ended and the baby boom eruption.  These events were happening during the same time period that The Catcher in the Rye takes place.  It would be beneficial to use as a resource while teaching this novel because the historical events that have taken place impacted the society as a whole, including the main character in the story, Holden Caulfield. 

New York City - Culture and History  This website discusses the cultural history of New York City from the past to the present.  It starts off discussing the different immigration patterns from the 1900 to the 1930s and how the city grew more populated throughout the years.  It leads into factual information regarding what New York City was like during the period of the 1950s and how the city emerged from the outcome of WWII.  This site would be useful to refer to when teaching The Catcher in the Rye because it will provide students with an idea of what New York City was like as Holden Caulfield takes his journey throughout the day in the big city. 

Historical Understandings of Depression 

This website is an excellent source of information on how mental depression was discovered throughout our history.  It discusses who discovered the disorder and the many different theories and treatments that have taken place since.  This is a great site to use when discussing Holden’s troubles throughout the novel that seems to be linked to symptoms of depression.  It is a great way to find out what methods the doctors in the hospital could have been using to help him to recover.