Setting of The Catcher in the Rye

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  • 0:01 Importance of Setting
  • 0:41 The 1950s
  • 1:24 Pencey Prep in Pennsylvania
  • 2:18 New York City
  • 4:03 Institution in California
  • 5:03 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jennifer Mallett Smith

Jennifer has taught high school English for eight years and has a master's degree in curriculum and assessment.

This lesson will provide background about the setting of J.D. Salinger's novel 'The Catcher in the Rye,' written in 1951. We'll look more into the time period and places he writes about and how they shape the plot and themes of the novel.

Importance of Setting

Do you ever wonder how a novel or movie would be different if the setting were to change? The entire story of Batman would be almost comedic if the story were set in a rural farming community. That's why the setting, or time and place of the novel, is an important decision for an author. The readers may miss hidden messages or holes may develop in the plot if the setting does not fit the story. How might The Catcher in the Rye have differed if it were set in a small town in Maine in 2015? The time period of the 1950s combined with the geographic location of New York City make the setting of this novel important to the story line and thematic topics within the novel.

The 1950s

The novel's time period has great implications for the plot. In the 1950s, young adults were transitioning from the pre-WWII notions of getting married and having a job right out of school, to focusing on education and working toward higher learning. Many people valued conformity and desired to be mainstream. However, the protagonist of the novel, Holden Caulfield, is a non-conformist and rejects many of those ideals of the time. He curses and chain-smokes cigarettes throughout the novel. Smoking and drinking were commonly associated with rebellious teenagers called greasers. The popular culture included poodle skirts, jukeboxes, and dances like The Twist. Cars were more affordable because of the post-war economic boom, so teenagers were allowed more freedom.

Pencey Prep in Pennsylvania

Holden tells of his time at the prep school, which is a school generally used to prepare young people for college. He often feels isolated from the other students and seems to find a kinship with one of his teachers, Mr. Spencer. Holden is disgusted by many of the boys in his dormitory like his roommate, Stradlater. Getting into a fight with Stradlater results in his leaving the school.

Pencey Prep is at least the third prep school that Holden has attended. He knows he's being kicked out for failing four of his classes. This aligns with Holden's representation of non-conformity. The school's flyer even states that the school is 'molding boys into splendid, clear-thinking young men.' He has been attending prep schools that stress conformity and is miserable there. In response, he isolates himself and fails his classes so he can leave that environment. In the case of Pencey Prep, Holden leaves before he is officially supposed to and goes on a 4-day adventure into New York City.

New York City

Holden explores New York City on his parent's money. We know that his father is a lawyer. Paired with his frequent misadventures in prep schools, the reader understands that his family is middle-upper class and does not seem to worry about money. The fact that Holden has money makes his time in New York City more exciting. He's able to explore the city and get into trouble much more easily than a teenager with little money could.

Holden goes to several bars and clubs while he is in New York. He also takes us on a tour of some of the more notable parts of the city. He takes Sally, a girl he dates sometimes, to an ice skating rink at Rockefeller Center and a live show at Broadway. He also frequents Central Park. After an awkward encounter with Mr. Antolini, a former teacher, he spends the night at Grand Central Station. Finally, he tries to meet with his sister, Phoebe, at the Museum of Natural History. In Holden's mind, these are just places he's experienced as he grew up. For some readers, these are places that we have never been.

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