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The Catcher in the Rye tells the story of Holden Caulfield, a teenage slacker who has perfected the art of
underachievement. The novel begins with Holden flunking out of school for the fourth time. During the last
days before his expulsion, he searches for an appropriate way to conclude his school experience, but he endsup getting so annoyed with his school and schoolmates that he leaves in the middle of the night on the nexttrain home to New York City. Arriving home a few days earlier than his parents expect him, he hangs out in the city to delay the inevitable confrontation with his parents When his money runs out, he considers
hitchhiking out west, but he ultimately returns home, mainly to be with his younger sister Phoebe.
The first few chapters describe Holden's last days at Pencey Prep School in Agerstown, Pennsylvania.
Advertisements portray Pencey as an elite school that grooms boys into sophisticated men, but Holden sees itas a nightmare of adolescence run amok. Fed up with everything about Pencey, Holden skips the football
game against Pencey's rival to say good-bye to his history teacher, Mr. Spencer. He vaguely hopes that
Spencer might give him some comfort and useful advice, but Spencer is a sick old man who simply lectures
him with a thousand platitudes about not applying himself. Like Spencer, the other teachers and
administrators rarely spend any time mentoring boys because they are too busy spouting off platitudes or
kissing up to the wealthy parents visiting the school.
Moreover, Pencey's students do not fit the prep school ideal any more than its teachers do. Holden's classmateRobert Ackley, for example, is the quintessential adolescent nerd. His acne and unbrushed teeth make himphysically repulsive, while his annoying social habits—such as barging into the room uninvited, askingannoying questions, and refusing to leave when asked—make him a general nuisance. Other students, likeHolden's roommate Ward Stradlater, initially appear sophisticated, but even they are really phonies. Stradlaterseems good-looking, but he is secretly a slob who never cleans his rusty old razor. He also appears to be asuccessful student, but he is really an ungrateful egotist who gets other people to do his assignments.Nevertheless, Holden still feels a certain affection even for these annoying phonies. He is annoyed by Ackleybut still invites him to the movies, and he sees through Stradlater's phoniness but also notices his occasionalgenerosity.
The tension between Holden and his classmates eventually climaxes in a fight between Holden and Stradlater.Stradlater annoys Holden by asking him to write his English paper, so he can go on a date with JaneGallagher, an old friend of Holden's. Stradlater really angers Holden, however, when he returns from the dateand begins insinuating that he did all kinds of stuff with Jane in the back seat of a car. Fed up with Stradlater'sphony nice-guy image, Holden picks a fight. Stradlater easily defeats the weaker Holden and gives him abloody nose. After the fight, Holden retreats into Ackley's room to forget about Stradlater, but Ackley onlymakes Holden more lonely. Then Holden goes into the hall to escape Ackley, but the hall is just as lonely.
Surrounded by Pencey's all-pervasive loneliness, Holden decides to return home immediately instead of
waiting for school to finish. He quickly packs and heads for the train station late at night, but before departing
he vents his frustration with his schoolmates one last time. Yelling loud enough to wake everyone, he screams
his final farewell to his moronic classmates.
The middle section of the novel describes Holden's adventures in New York City. As soon as he arrives in
New York, he looks for something to do, since it is too late to call his friends. He calls Faith Cavendish, a
stripper recommended by a friend, but she does not want to meet a stranger so late. After a failed attempt to
get a date with some girls in the hotel bar, he takes a cab to another bar in Greenwich Village. When he
returns to his hotel, a pimp named Maurice sets him up with a prostitute named Sunny, but Holden is too
nervous to do anything with her. The next day Holden asks his old girlfriend, Sally Hayes, to a show. While
waiting to meet her, he has breakfast with two nuns and buys a blues record for his sister. When he finally
meets Sally, they go to a concert and go skating, but they eventually get into a fight and split up. After their
fight, Holden meets an old classmate, Carl Luce, at the Wicker Bar, where they have a brief discussion until
Holden gets drunk and starts asking inappropriately personal questions. After Carl leaves, the still-drunk
Holden calls up Sally and makes a fool of himself.
The last section of the novel describes Holden's return home. At first, Holden only wants to briefly say
good-bye to his sister, Phoebe, so he sneaks into his house late at night in hopes of avoiding his parents. He
successfully sneaks into the room where his sister sleeps, aided by the lucky coincidence that his parents are
not home. At first, Phoebe is delighted to see Holden, but she gets upset when she realizes that he has flunkedout again. She asks him why he flunked out, and he blames it on his terrible school. After listening to Holden'sexcuses, Phoebe criticizes him for being too pessimistic. Holden tries to deny this by explaining how he likeslots of things, but he can only think of a few: his dead brother Allie, a kid named James Castle who died atone of his schools, and Phoebe. In the end, Phoebe forces Holden to admit that he is a rather pessimisticfailure. In the passage that gives the book its title, Holden explains that he cannot imagine himself fitting intoany of the roles that society expects him to perform, like growing up to be a lawyer or scientist. Instead, hecan only imagine being a catcher in the rye who stands at the edge of a large rye field watching over andprotecting little kids from danger.