The Catcher in the Rye begins with seventeen-year-old Holden Caulfield jumping right in – with a lot of attitude and dated profanity – to tell us about "this madman stuff" that happened to him "around last Christmas." His story begins on a December Saturday at Pencey Prep School in Pennsylvania, where he's just been given the ax (read: kicked out) for failing all his classes except English. Turns out, getting the ax is a recurring theme in Holden's past. He visits a friendly teacher of his, Mr. Spencer, who lectures him about the "future."
Back in the dorm, Holden goofs around with Robert Ackley, a pimply and annoying kid. We're introduced to Holden's distinctive red hunting hat, and we meet his roommate, Stradlater, who is a "sexy bastard" getting ready for a date with Jane Gallagher, an old friend (and sort-of-romantic-interest) of Holden. Holden is none too happy about this impending date, but agrees anyway to write an English composition for Stradlater, who, in addition to being attractive and athletic, is also a "moron".
Holden's composition gives us some insight into his character; he writes about his younger brother Allie, who died three years earlier of leukemia. More specifically, the composition is about Allie's left-handed baseball mitt, which had poems written all over it in green ink (so that Allie would have something to read while out in the field). Holden reveals that on the night Allie died, Holden broke all the windows in the garage with his bare hand. As a result, he still can't make a good fist with his hand.
Stradlater comes back and Holden tries to figure out if anything happened (in the sex sense of "anything") with Jane. Stradlater is evasive, so Holden tackles him and gets the worse end of the scuffle (a bloody nose). He tries to chat with Ackley for company, but ends up so fed up with everyone and everything that he decides to leave Pencey, right then and there. Everyone leaves for Christmas break on Wednesday, so he has to bum around New York for a few days before going home (otherwise his parents will know he's gotten the ax).
On the train away from Pencey, Holden has a conversation with the mother of one of his classmates, Ernie Morrow. She's quite an attractive older woman. While Holden knows that Ernie is a "phony bastard" (by the way, Holden thinks everyone is a "phony bastard"), he pretends that Ernie is God's gift to the world to make his mother happy. Holden also pretends his name is Rudolf.
Holden gets off at Penn Station in New York, wants to call someone but can't decide whom, and ends up taking a cab to the Edmont Hotel. On the way, Holden asks the cabbie if he knows where the ducks in the park go when the water freezes over. The driver doesn't know.
Once he's gotten a room at the Edmont, Holden tries calling a girl who he knows is a good time, but fails to make a date with her. In the hotel lounge, he dances with three "moron" girls, only one of whom is attractive. He isn't allowed to drink, since he's obviously a "goddamn minor." This, among every other person, event, and place in the novel, Holden finds to be depressing. The girls take off, and Holden reminisces about Jane Gallagher.
What Holden describes is some sort of puppy love; he and Jane used to golf together, play checkers, go to the movies, and hold hands and so forth, but there wasn't much in the way of anything sexual. One instance he reveals suggests that Jane may have been molested by her stepfather. We can start to see why Holden was so upset about her and "sexy" Stradlater on a date.
Holden gets into a cab with a guy named Horwitz, asks him about the ducks (seems he's really concerned about them), and goes to "Ernie's," since he knows he'll be able to drink there. When he runs into an old and annoying acquaintance, he leaves to avoid having to spend time with her.
Back in his own hotel, he somehow ends up with a prostitute named Sunny in his room. He's more into talking than sex, and Sunny, who's quite young herself, gets confused and leaves his room with a little of Holden's money but no sex. She comes back later with her pimp, Maurice the elevator man, and Holden ends up with a punch in the stomach (they wanted more money than he paid Sunny).
The next day Holden leaves his hotel, makes a date with an old friend named Sally Hayes, and meets two nuns while he's having breakfast. One of the nuns is an English teacher, so they talk about literature – Romeo and Juliet, in particular. Holden has a hard time talking about a "sexy play" like that with nuns. He makes a donation to their collection. After he leaves, he buys a record for his little sister, Phoebe, and overhears a boy singing, "If a body catch a body coming through the rye." More on this soon.
Holden heads to the park to kill some time before his date with Sally. He chats with a girl in the park as it becomes increasingly clear that Holden likes children a lot more than adults. Thinking on the museum he used to visit as a child, he remarks on how the displays behind the glass cases always stay the same, but the children that visit are different every time.
He meets Sally for a "phony" matinee show and then goes skating with her. By now, he's pretty fed up with the general craziness of city life and shares with Sally his fantasy of running away, living in a log cabin, and doing log-cabin-y things for the rest of his life. When Sally is not so partial to running away with him, Holden flips out.
Alone yet again for the evening, Holden calls up an old acquaintance from school, Carl Luce, and arranges to meet him for drinks. At the bar, Carl takes the annoying "I'm soooo mature" attitude, so the night ends early. Well, it ends early for Carl. Holden stays alone at the bar and drinks himself into fuzzy oblivion. After trying to make a date with the coat-check girl, he goes to the park to look for the ducks. Seeing no ducks, he heads home to visit his sister Phoebe, who we've been told is the greatest girl in the world.
Phoebe does in fact appear to be the greatest girl in the world. She's the first person we see Holden have any sort of genuine interaction with; they talk about her schoolwork and then, quite cheerily, the fact that Holden doesn't like anything or anyone except his dead brother Allie. Of course, he finds this depressing. He says all he wants to do with his life is be the catcher in the rye – if there were a bunch of children playing in a field of rye next to a big cliff, he'd be the guy to catch them before they go off the edge. Phoebe informs him that the "song" he heard about the catcher in the rye is actually a poem by Robert Burns, and it's about bodies meeting bodies, not catching bodies.
Holden leaves home (to avoid his parents) and visits an old teacher, Mr. Antolini. He gets another long lecture on the importance of education, and experiences what may be a sexual come-on from his former teacher. Holden bolts, and reveals that "perverty" stuff like that has happened to him a lot. He spends the night in the train station, and gets even more depressed.
Holden decides to run away, informs his sister Phoebe of as much via a note left at her principal's office, tries to rub several "fuck you" signs off the walls of an elementary school, and finally meets up with Phoebe. She has decided that she wants to run away with him.
Holden explains this isn't possible. Phoebe gets angry and pulls a "Fine, I'm not talking to you anymore." Fortunately, being mad at someone doesn't mean you won't go to the zoo with them, which she does. They end up at the carousel, where Holden promises Phoebe that he won't run away after all. As he watches her go around and around on the carousel, he declares he's happy, which is the first time we've heard him say that in the novel.
At last, we pull out of the narrative and back to the Holden of one year later, the one who was telling us this story. He's clearly in therapy for getting "sick" in some way. He says he's supposed to go back to school in September, but he's not sure whether or not things will be any different (that is, any better) this time around. He concludes that he sort of wishes he hadn't told us this story at all, since relating it makes him miss all the people he'd met.