J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye: Summary and Analysis

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  • 0:02 Who Is Holden Caulfield?
  • 2:15 Holden in New York City
  • 4:02 What Is the Catcher in…
  • 6:57 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Stacy Redd

Stacy has taught college English and has a master's degree in literature.

J.D. Salinger's novel tells the story of Holden Caulfield, a literary figure you'll either love or hate. Watch this video to find out which camp you fall into!

Who Is Holden Caulfield?

There may not be a more polarizing figure in American literature than Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye . Some people identify with Holden so strongly that they practically idolize him, some find his antics and attitudes so selfish and immature that they can't stand him and some just want to give him a hug. I, personally, fall into the last category, though I'll admit I might want to follow up that hug with a smack upside the head.

So, who is this Holden Caulfield, and why does he yield such strong emotional responses from readers? So glad you asked. We meet young Holden at a fancy Pennsylvania prep school called Pencey, and we can almost tell instantly he's unhappy. The novel is told from Holden's point of view and begins like this: '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.'

So, we learn two things right off the bat: first, Holden is telling us a story from some point in the future - at least he's not telling us of the events as they happen. Second, he's irritated at the reader for wanting to know his story, but it sounds like he's going to tell us anyway.

Holden's attitude towards the reader is pretty representative of how he feels about everyone. He frequently refers to people he doesn't like (and that's most people) as 'phonies.' Holden can't abide phonies, and it seems like he finds them everywhere. He's so unhappy with the people he encounters in life that he's already on his fourth prep school at the age of 16. Things don't appear to be going great for him at this school either; Holden learns he's going to be expelled from Pencey and will have to go home to New York City and share the disappointing news with his parents.

After getting into a fight with his roommate, Stradlater (an excellent name in my opinion), Holden decides to leave school early to go back to New York but not tell his parents he's there yet. Most normal teens would wonder how he'd be able to pull this off, but we're to understand that Holden's family has a lot of money, and a few days in a Manhattan hotel is well within Holden's financial capability. I was excited to get a Mexican pizza from Taco Bell when I was in high school, so I found Holden hard to relate to right off the bat.

Holden is expelled from his prep school, thus beginning his adventures in NY.
Holden Expelled From Prep School

Holden in New York City

One thing that's important to note about Holden's arrival in New York is a conversation he has with a cab driver. He asks the cabbie where the ducks (that hang out in the pond at Central Park) go when it gets cold and the pond is frozen over. The cabbie does not seem to know or care and probably just wants this weird, chatty teenager out of his car. This interaction may seem inconsequential, especially since by this point, the reader has already witnessed some pretty weird interactions between Holden and the people he encounters (the guy seems to love lying for lying's own sake). But this particular exchange shows that, beyond his outward bravado and disregard for most people, Holden does think about the well-being of least of ducks.

Holden can seem really unlikable, selfish and overly judgmental, but Salinger drops little clues along the way to indicate that there's more to Holden's personality than we might realize. The first clue actually comes quite early in the novel, when Holden talks about a paper he wrote describing his brother, Allie's, baseball mitt, which his brother Allie had written poems all over. Holden's fondness for Allie is a great contrast to the disdain he feels for just about everyone else.

Anyway, back to his time in Manhattan. He goes around, having weird interactions with a lot of different people, some friends, some strangers and, memorably, one prostitute. Holden assures us that he is not a virgin for lack of opportunity and that he was always respectful when a girl didn't want to sleep with him. When he sets up this meeting with Sunny, the prostitute, he discovers he's unable to sleep with her (emotionally, not physically) and instead pays her just to talk. Sunny is surprised by this, since I assume this is not how her general workdays progressed, and actually returns later with her pimp, Maurice, to get more money from Holden. This little encounter results in Holden getting punched by a Maurice, one of the more memorable scenes in the novel.

While in NY, Holden interacts with many interesting characters.
Holden Meets People in NY

What Is the Catcher in the Rye?

Holden continues to make weird choices, like inviting this girl Sally to see a play only to first ask her to run away with him and then insult her, or making racist and homophobic comments to one of his old school friends. He also keeps doing sweet things like buying a record for his sister Phoebe (though he accidentally breaks it later) or continuing to worry about the fate of the Central Park ducks come winter.

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