Holden Caulfield is both the narrator and main character of The Catcher in the Rye. He opens the novel by announcing that he will tell us what happened to him over the course of a few days in December, some months before. Holden had just gotten kicked out of Pencey Prep, a boarding school in rural Pennsylvania, only a few days before Christmas vacation. It is Saturday afternoon when the action begins, and Holden plans to stick around at Pencey until Wednesday, when Christmas break begins.
He stops to say goodbye to his favorite teacher, who lectures him on finding direction in life. Holden returns to his dorm room, and thinks about his brother D.B., a talented short-story writer who's sold out to write scripts for Hollywood. After a while Holden's roommate, Ward Stradlater, returns from the football game to get ready for his date. He happens to mention that his date, Jane Gallagher, knows Holden. Holden remembers Jane quite well: he spent a whole summer with her the year before (their families have neighboring summer houses in Maine). Stradlater suggests that Holden go downstairs and say hello - she is waiting for Stradlater downstairs. Holden, however, declines, although he thinks about her and considers calling her throughout the book. When Stradlater's leaving he asks Holden if he will write a composition for him for English class.
Later that evening Holden writes the descriptive composition for Stradlater, deciding to write it about a baseball glove his little brother Allie had owned. Allie died of leukemia several years before, and Holden describes him as the smartest, funniest, nicest person he ever knew. Holden took it very hard when Allie died, broke some windows with his hand, and spent some time in the hospital recovering.
Holden thinks about Stradlater with Jane, on whom he seems to have a crush. When Stradlater returns and won't tell him how the date went, Holden tries to fight him and quickly loses. After Stradlater is asleep, Holden decides to leave tonight rather than wait for Christmas break. He plans to get a hotel room in New York until he's expected home on Wednesday.
After getting off the train in New York, he gets a hotel room, and goes to the bar on the first floor. He tries to get a drink but can't (he's about 16), and dances with some women twice his age. Then he goes to another bar. When he arrives back at his hotel, he accepts the elevator boy's offer to fix him up with a prostitute.
The prostitute arrives but Holden doesn't feel like sleeping with her (he is a virgin, he tells us). In the morning, the elevator boy comes back with the prostitute and beats him up, taking the money he supposedly owes.
The next day he arranges to go to see a theater show with a girl named Sally Hayes, and buys a record for his kid sister, Phoebe. On the way to the show, he and Sally kiss and he suggests they elope to some little cottage in New England. Afterwards, they quarrel and Holden leaves. He meets up with a former classmate at a bar that night and gets drunk (his classmate soon leaves in disgust). He thinks about his brother Allie's grave, but he never visits it because he hates to think of it getting rained on. He walks across Central Park, accidentally breaks the record for his sister, and decides to go home to see his sister.
Phoebe is happy to see him, but gets mad when she realizes he's been kicked out of another school. Phoebe asks him what he wants to do when's he's grown up, and Holden says he pictures a big field of rye, with lots of children playing in it. At one end of the field is a giant cliff, and Holden's job is to catch the little kids if they get close to the edge, so that they don't fall off the cliff. Holden calls a former teacher of his, Mr. Antolini, who says he can spend the night there. Holden sneaks out of his family's apartment without his parents realizing he has been there.
Mr. Antolini has been drinking, and lectures him on his direction in life (as another teacher did earlier, and Phoebe did just an hour before). Holden falls asleep on the couch and Mr. Antolini makes a pass at him (or at least Holden interprets it this way). Holden leaves and sleeps at the train station. That morning (Monday), Holden goes to Phoebe's school to arrange to meet her at lunchtime to say goodbye. He decides to take off to go out west and live in some isolated cabin away from New York and from school. While there, he rubs off where someone has written "Fuck you" on the wall, worried that some kid might see it. On his way out he sees another "Fuck you," and realizes that he can't rub them all out and can't protect all the children. When Phoebe meets him at lunchtime she wants to go with him and cries when he says she cannot. He eventually relents and gives up the idea. He buys her tickets and she rides on the Central Park carousel while he sits on a bench and watches her.
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