Study Guide

The Catcher in the Rye Analysis

By J. D. Salinger

  • Tone

    Cynical, Judgmental, Humorous, Compassionate, Sad, Digressive

    Holden is the one telling the story, so his tone is Catcher’s tone. We don't think we need to spin you a large defense for our use of adjectives such as "cynical" and "judgmental"—just pick a page. But how can the tone be both cynical and compassionate? Check out Holden's interaction with Sunny-the-prostitute:

    I took her dress over to the closet and hung it up for her. It was funny. It made me feel sort of sad when I hung it up. I thought of her going in a store and buying it, and nobody in the store knowing she was a prostitute and all. The salesman probably just thought she was a regular girl when she bought it. It made me feel sad as hell—I don't know why exactly. (13.52)

    We know why: he has compassion. He’s cynical—he sees right through Sunny’s pretense of being a seasoned whore, and he makes sarcastic digs about how she’s a bad conversationalist—but he’s compassionate. He sees her as a real person.
    At the same time, Holden finds nearly everything to be depressing. Specifically (deep breath):

    leaving a place without a proper good-bye, leaving a place with a proper good-bye, men in bathrobes, Vicks nose drops, Old Spencer's warnings, people who say "good luck," empty corridors in the dorm, getting ice skates as a present, getting presents in general, girls that travel to New York from Seattle to wear ugly hats and see the first show at Radio City Music Hall, hotel lobbies, people laughing on New York City streets late at night, prostitute's dresses, having money, not having money, inexpensive suitcases, money in general, nuns and their lack of swanky lunches, girls and their potential futures, being drunk, being told he doesn't like anything, sleeping in train stations (although, to be fair, this is objectively depressing), the fact that Mr. Antolini made a pass at him, the fact that Mr. Antolini might have not actually made a pass at him after all, vulgar wall graffiti, the fact that he couldn't take revenge on the person who wrote said graffiti even if given the opportunity, Phoebe or people like her saying the word "please," and … the fact that he has told us any of this at all.

    Where Were We Now?

    And then there are the digressions. Check out his discussion with Mr. Antolini (before the big education lecture) about the Oral Expression class at Pencey. Holden failed the class because he felt digressions were important. He makes a few key statements:

    • "I like it when somebody digresses. It's more interesting and all" (24.19). 
    • "Lots of times you don't know what interests you most till you start talking about something that doesn't interest you most" (24.21). 
    • "You can't hardly ever simplify and unify something just because somebody wants you to" (24.21).

    And notice that what Holden’s doing is … telling us his story. Out loud (supposedly). You might even say that it’s a type of Oral Expression. He's not writing it down and handing it over as an essay; he's telling it to us. And that means, everything he just said to Mr. Antolini, he's actually saying to us. He's not devoting three pages to a random discussion on oral style for nothing; he's defending his narrative technique.

    Why is Holden telling us about Allie's baseball mitt? About the time he played checkers with Jane? About James Castle jumping out the window? Because (1) it's more interesting, (2) he didn't know that was what he needed to talk about until he started, and (3) he couldn't simplify and unify these events just because that would make it easier for us. That’s on us.

  • Genre

    Coming of Age

    Holden’s not quite the right generation to be saying, “Don’t trust anyone over thirty,” but he’d probably agree. While most coming-of-age stories show the main character’s movement from childhood (or youth) to adulthood (or young adulthood), Holden’s is more complicated—after all, growing up is about the last thing he wants to do.

    Maybe what we could say instead is that Catcher in the Rye dumps us straight in the middle of Holden’s maturation: he’s lost his innocence, but he hasn’t quite made it to adulthood. In fact, making it to adulthood—which to him is synonymous with “phonyhood”—is about the last thing he wants to do. Only in the end, when he seems to realize that being an adults doesn’t have to mean being a phony, do we get the hint that he just might grow up after all.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    The first mention we get of this mysterious catcher in this mysterious rye is when Holden overhears a little kid singing, "If a body catch a body coming through the rye." For just a second, it makes him feel not so depressed, in part because Holden is a fan of little children, and we can all agree that the only things better than little kids are singing little kids.

    So that's all well and good until several chapters later when Holden's sister Phoebe corrects him: first of all, it's "if a body meet a body”; second, it's not a song—it's a poem by Robert Burns. Here's the poem itself:

    "Coming thro' the Rye" (1796)

    Coming thro' the rye, poor body,
    Coming thro' the rye,
    She draiglet a' her petticoatie
    Coming thro' the rye.

    O, Jenny's a' wat, poor body;
    Jenny's seldom dry;
    She draiglet a' her petticoatie
    Coming thro' the rye.

    Gin a body meet a body
    Coming thro' the rye,
    Gin a body kiss a body—
    Need a body cry?

    Gin a body meet a body
    Coming thro' the glen,
    Gin a body kiss a body—
    Need the warld ken?

    Uh, what?

    Since you probably don't speak 18th-century Scottish dialect, we'll translate for you: "Draiglet" = drags, "wat" = wet, "Gin" = when, and "ken" = know. In other words, Jenny is out in the rye with a wet body, dragging her petticoat—and she "meets" (has sex with?) someone. Need she cry (i.e., get emotional) about it? Need the world know about it? If not, then casual sex is OK.

    In other words, this whole poem—that Holden romanticizes into big fantasy about protecting little kids—is just asking, “Is casual sex okay?”

    What a shockingly pertinent question to ask in Catcher in the Rye.

    And it’s a tough one for Holden. Holden thinks that to get sexy with a girl is to degrade her, or treat her like an object. Therefore, he can't get sexy with someone he cares about. Casual sex is his only option, but he's not so comfortable with that, either. The solution, it seems, is to avoid sex altogether, and to hang out with little kids and listen to them sing cute, innocent songs about … casual sex. Oops.

    Even more ironic is that Holden says he wants to be the catcher in the rye—he wants to be "catching" all those little children playing in the rye. But the poem isn’t about preserving childhood innocence at all—it’s about sex. Holden exists in a world that is steeped in sexuality. It's on the school walls, across from his window in the hotel, in kids' songs, and even in his seemingly innocent fantasies. Is this a tragedy?

    Well, it depends. You could say that Holden is just a little kid still coming to terms with adult sexuality and seeing it all as gross and perverted, in which case, no: it’s not tragic. It’s just a healthy, normal part of life, and Holden is the one with the problem. Or you could say that Holden is right. Sexuality is inherently perverted and corrupting—in which case, yes. Adulthood is always tragic, because it involves growing into sexuality.

    What do you think?

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    Roll with us: we think the real ending of Catcher comes not at the actual end of the book, when Holden brings us back to wherever he is in his present, but at the end of the second to last chapter, when Holden watches Phoebe go around on the carousel:

    I was damn near bawling, I felt so damn happy, if you want to know the truth. I don't know why. It was just that she looked so damn nice, the way she kept going around and around, in her blue coat and all. God, I wish you could've been there. (25)

    This is actually the single only time that Holden actually says he’s happy—in the entire novel. Watching Phoebe reach out of the ring, he seems to realize that life is about—what? Trying? maintaining some sort of innocence, even when everything seems really bad? Finding little moments of connection with people?

    Whatever moral you take away from Holden’s teeny little character arc, this is the moment when it finally comes to some sort of resolution. And you know what? We’re happy for the guy.

  • Setting

    Pencey Prep School and New York City in either 1948 or 1949

    Holden's story takes place over only three days, from Saturday afternoon to Monday around 1pm. (It only feels longer.) For the exact year, you have to check out Chapter Five when Holden's talking about Allie's baseball mitt. He says Allie died on July 18, 1946 when Allie was eleven and Holden was thirteen. Back in Chapter Two, Holden mentioned that he's seventeen now (as he's telling us the story) and was sixteen "last year around Christmas" when he left Pencey and bummed around the city for a while.

    Ergo, the year of the December New York City escapades is either 1948 or 1949, depending on (1) when Holden's birthday falls and (2) what the exact date is of his story-telling. It follows that the year of seventeen-year-old Holden telling us his story is either 1949 or 1950.

    What's the significance of 1948/1949/1950? Just ask the Greatest Generation. The late 1940s puts us smack in the post-World War II era, with Holden as a product of the war: he talks about the war (and the effect it's had on his brother D.B.) with a slightly detached air, mentions the Atomic bomb (which the U.S. busted out in August of 1945), and—just possibly—stands for a sort of post-war and post-bomb nation-wide "loss of innocence."

    In other words, Holden’s language isn’t the novel’s only historically specific element. His general feelings of isolation and disillusionment are also tied to a particular time and place—like the growing conformity and consumerism of post-War America. So here’s our question: is Holden a hero for all time? Are his teenage issues the same issues rich (and poor) teens face today? Or is this novel already hopelessly dated?

    New York, New York

    And then there’s geography. We go from Pencey Prep—land of the phonies—to New York City, land of the … phonies. Once we’re in New York, we go from bar to bar, hotel to hotel, and park to park. Holden thinks that by switching location, he can escape the people and attitudes he dislikes.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (3) Base Camp

    Relax. This one's easy. Told from the perspective (and in the voice) of a teenager, Catcher in the Rye is about as hard as a conversation with your best friend—if your best friend actually paid attention in English class. Check out this totally random section:

    I was only thirteen, and they were going to have my psychoanalyzed and all, because I broke all the windows in the garage. I don't blame them. I really don't. I slept in the garage the night he died, and I broke all the goddam windows with my fist, just for the hell of it. (5.7)

    Sure, "psychoanalyzed" has five syllables. But other than that, there isn't a single word longer than two-syllables. Something else to notice? Almost all of the words are good, solid Anglo-Saxon words. There's hardly a Latin root to be found. Catcher in the Rye may not improve your SAT score, but the simple, straightforward language helps up get caught up in Holden's world.

  • Writing Style

    Colloquial, Slangy

    If an adult has every gotten on your case about uptalk, vocal fry, or saying “like” all the time, you get the point of Catcher in the Rye—you and Holden might say different things in different ways, but you both speak the same language: teenager. Holden’s style (which is the book’s style) is colloquial and slangy, sounding a lot more like a real seventeen-year-old talking straight to you than an accomplished adult author.

    Some examples? He says things like "You'd have liked [Allie]" to give the illusion that he’s right there talking at you. He uses italics to make the words read with the same emphasis as spoken word ("He's my brother and all"). You'll hear him describe places and people all the time as "corny" or "phony." He'll tell us he's never waited anywhere so long in his "goddamn life. [He] swear[s]" (24. 97), or that he's sweating "like a bastard" (24.100).

    The Catcher in the Rye, like Adventures of Huckleberry Finn before it, is one of few books to feature this language in the narration itself, not just in dialogue. At the time, this was both unusual and important—not just as a new literary style, but also as a way to study the vernacular of a particular time period. So, while the language doesn't seem all that offensive to us (PG, maybe), it raised a few more eyebrows in 1951.

  • Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

    Holden's Hat

    Holden has a really dumb hat. Well, it is dumb. Even he admits it:

    I put on this hat that I’d bought in New York that morning. It was this red hunting hat, with one of those very, very long peaks. I saw it in the window of this sports store when we got out of the subway, just after I noticed I'd lost all the goddam foils. It only cost me a buck. The way I wore it, I swung the old peak way around to the back—very corny, I'll admit, but I liked it that way. I looked good in it that way. (3.3)

    (Need a visual? Check out this selection).

    So, what’s going on with this hat? Notice that he buys the hat in New York on the morning after he left all the fencing equipment on the subway and ticked off the entire team. So we know he's feeling particularly vulnerable at the time, even though Holden would never admit to feeling vulnerable.

    And that hat shows up over and over again at important moments—writing the composition about Allie's baseball mitt, staring at himself in the mirror and pretending to be tough after Stradlater punches him, yelling "Sleep tight, ya morons" down the corridor. Meanwhile, he takes it off when he's on the train, going to a bar, in hotel lobbies, and so forth. So while he's all about the hat in private, he's embarrassed or lacking confidence to wear it in public. (Although, fair enough, it was also just considered polite to take your hat off inside, just like today.)

    We even get hints to this at the start of Chapter Thirteen ("I took my red hunting hat […] and put it on—I didn't give a damn how I looked"), the end of Chapter Sixteen ("I took my old hunting hat out […] and put it on. I knew I wouldn't meet anybody that knew me"), and the start of Chapter Twenty-One ("I'd already taken off my hunting hat, so as not to look suspicious").

    But despite his embarrassment, the hunting hat becomes an important part of the way Holden sees himself. It's a people shooting hat, he declares (we hope not literally). When he's wearing it, he can be as insular and tough and as … individual as he wants—just like Allie and Phoebe, both redheads.

    That's why it's such a big deal when Phoebe puts it on his head at the end of the novel: not only is she giving back to Holden, but she's demonstrating that she loves him as the individual that he is—corny red hunting hat and all. (Want to see a cute interpretation of this moment? Check out this image.)


    Holden just can’t let up about those ducks. He asks his first cab driver if he “happen[s] to know where they go, the ducks, when it gets all frozen over? Do you happen to know, by any chance?" (9.4); and throws same question at a second cab drive a few chapters later (12.8). In his big breakdown moment, he stumbles drunkenly around the park looking to see “what the hell the ducks were doing, see if they were around or not” (20.38). Once he finally finds the lagoon, they’re not there—so he sits down and thinks about suicide.

    Yeah, we think the ducks are probably important.

    Holden has experienced a lot of death on a personal level, but he’s also standing in for the way post-war America was dealing with the losses of World War II. While others may find hope in religion (like the two nuns, or the Quaker student that he knew at school) or romanticized logic (like the cab driver who insists that, obviously, mother nature would take care of the fish—and the ducks) or even in consumerism and pop culture (like Sally and all the phony kids at his school), it’s all just phoniness to Holden. None of it helps him.

    Somehow, the ducks do. Just knowing that the ducks come back over and over again, no matter how harsh the winter is or how unconcerned “Mother Nature” is with the ducks, they come back. He doesn’t know where they go, just like he doesn’t know how he’s going to make it through his own winter. But they come back, year after year—and so will he.

    The Mummies

    Holden claims he doesn’t know much about Egyptians in the failing essay he writes for Mr. Spencer’s class, but he knows enough to enthusiastically explain the process of mummification to two younger boys:

    It’s very interesting. They wrapped their faces up in these cloths that were treated with some secret chemical. That way they could be buried in their tombs for thousands of years and their faces wouldn’t rot or anything. Nobody knows how to do it except the Egyptians. Even modern science. (25.34)

    Notice that Holden doesn’t talk about how they pulled out the organs, or stuck hooks up their noses, or wrapped up their legs or arms; it’s all about the faces, and how the faces wouldn’t rot. To us, it sounds like Holden is a little worried about his own face rotting—metaphorically speaking. He’s afraid of disappearing, of not being noticed: of being just another “faceless” corporate employee, or of being buried and ignored underground like his little brother. But nobody knows how to do that, except the Egyptians. Right?

    Right. Or, maybe, writing this book is a way of preserving his individuality and immortality. We’re just saying, 65 million copies sold sounds a lot better than lying shriveled up in some museum tomb.


    Old Ossenburger is the wealthy alumnus who gave Pencey money to construct buildings. Where’d he get that money? A chain of bargain funeral parlors:

    He made a pot of dough in the undertaking business after he got out of Pencey. What he did, he started these undertaking parlors all over the country that you could get members of your family buried for about five bucks apiece. You should see old Ossenburger. He probably just shoves them in a sack and dumps them in the river. (3.1)

    Nice. That’s just another reminder that Holden’s entire world is built around phonies who, if they’re not trying to cheapen death, are trying to pretend it doesn’t happen.

    James Castle

    Holden digresses in Chapter Twenty-Two about James Castle, a classmate of his who killed himself at Elkton Hills. On the surface, this is another instance where death has come close to Holden—he hears the body hit the ground, he sees the "teeth and blood" all over the place afterwards, and the boy is wearing Holden's turtleneck sweater at the time (22.30).

    But then there’s the Mr. Antolini connection. Salinger helps us out by making it really explicit—Mr. Antolini carries the body away. And then, during his conversation with/lecture to Holden, Mr. Antolini makes a big deal (he even writes down a favorite quotation) out of warning his former student not to die nobly for an unworthy cause. Check out the passage where Holden explains his death. It seems that James insulted a (conceited) guy by calling him conceited

    So Stabile, with about six other dirty bastards, went down to James Castle's room and went in and locked the goddam door and tried to make him take back what he said, but he wouldn't do it. So they started in on him. I won't even tell you what they did to him—it's too repulsive—but he still wouldn't take it back, old James Castle. And you should've seen him. He was a skinny little weak-looking guy, with wrists about as big as pencils. Finally, what he did, instead of taking back what he said, he jumped out the window. (22.30)

    Sounds like he died nobly for an unworthy cause—exactly what Mr. Antolini wants Holden not to do. But we have to ask—is this really an unworthy cause, in Holden’s eyes? After all, James Castle is being true to himself in the only way he knows how. Notice that Holden emphasizes that the guy is weak and little; he has no chance of physically standing up to the bullies. Rather than be “phony” by taking back the insult, he jumps.

    To Holden, this might sound a lot more like a noble cause than an unnoble one.

    The Museum

    Holden just doesn’t want to grow up. (He’s a Toys R Us Kid.) "Certain things,” he says, “you ought to be able to stick […] in one of those big glass cases and just leave them alone" (16.25). He's making a rather explicit connection here between the Indian Room at the museum (where the displays always stay the same) and the children (who are always changing) who visit on field trips. Since Holden is so straightforward about the connection, you'll really a lot from reading what he has to say on the subject (the last four paragraphs of Chapter Sixteen).

    But there’s one less straightforward aspect we wants to investigate. Holden says that, while the displays stay the same, a person is different every time he comes back to visit. It’s not age, exactly: it's the changes you goes through in order to become an adult. So he's talking more about the intangible qualities of youth and innocence than he is about the physical ones. Just look at his list of examples—hearing parents fight, or seeing a gasoline puddle: these are examples of awareness, of mental growth, not of physical aging.

    The question is, can you age physically without aging mentally? And would you even want to?

    Little Shirley Beans

    When Holden talks about the singer, Estelle Fletcher, he describes her singing it as "very Dixieland and whorehouse [… not] all mushy, […not] cute as hell," as he thinks a white girl would have done (16.2).

    Okay. Weird. Why is Holden into a record that sounds Dixieland and whorish, especially since he's buying it for his little sister and is troubled by the thought of sexuality invading the world of children?

    We think this is about avoiding phoniness. The record is obviously intended for children—it features a little kid that's embarrassed about having lost her front teeth. (Also, it's called "Little Shirley Beans," which is sort of a dead giveaway in that it sounds a lot like Shirley Temple. We’re not positive Salinger is drawing on those associations here, but it seems likely.) Anyway, Holden figures that most people would cheese up a records for kids, because they think that's what little kids are into.

    So, what does it mean when Holden drops and breaks this record during his drunken stumbling around New York? Could it—ahem—have anything to do with lost innocence? And what does it mean that Phoebe wants to keep the broken pieces of the record?

    Phoebe's Notebook

    Before Holden wakes Phoebe up, he sits down and reads through her school notebook (check this out—it's not too far from the start of Chapter Twenty-One). Holden, much like we do, finds it endearing, states that "kid’s notebooks kill [him]," and adds that he could "read that kind of stuff […] all day and all night long" (22.18). But what does he like so much about it? Take a look:

    Why has south eastern Alaska so many caning factories?
    Because there's so much salmon
    Why has it valuable forests?
    because it has the right climate.
    What has our government done to make
    life easier for the Alaskan Eskimos?
    look it up for tomorrow!!!
    Phoebe Weatherfield Caulfield
    Phoebe Weatherfield Caulfield
    Phoebe Weatherfield Caulfield
    Phoebe W. Caulfield
    Phoebe Weatherfield Caulfield, Esq.
    Please pass to Shirley!!!!
    Shirley you said you were sagitarius
    but your only Taurus bring your skates
    when you come over to my house

    Phoebe's notebook is the least phony expression of thought we've seen so far in the novel. There’s no hiding, no narrative, no analysis: Phoebe simply wrote exactly what she was thinking, new names, triple exclamation marks and all.

    The question is this: is Catcher in the Rye also one of these “kid’s notebooks”? Is it just what some kid happens to be thinking? On the one hand, obviously no: it’s a carefully crafted novel by a fully adult author. But are we supposed to think that Holden is really just as naïve as Phoebe, saying things like “I’m the most terrific liar you ever say in your life” (3.1), or “I have a lousy vocabulary” (2.22)? Or is he actually guiding and manipulating the story in some way?

    It’s definitely up to interpretation, but—call us naïve; we still think, in some way, that Catcher is just some kid’s notebook.

    Vulgar Slang

    Holden may use words like “bastard” and “ass,” but he has to draw the line somewhere—and he draws that line at writing "f*** you" on the walls of elementary schools and museum tombs. These places particularly bother him, because they remind him of his own relatively comfortable and happy childhood. In Holden's world, everything has been corrupted by vulgarities. Even his own death, he says, couldn't be sacred or peaceful, since someone would probably write a "f*** you" on his very tombstone.

    We argue in Holden's "Character Analysis" that it's no wonder that he sees sex as dirty and degrading, when all the portrayals he's seen of sex are in fact dirty and degrading. This is one such portrayal; Holden imagines a "perverty bum" sneaking into Phoebe's school at night to write the message on the wall (25.16)

    Hate to break it to you, Holden, but it's way more likely that a student at the school vandalized the wall. But Holden can’t see that. In his world, children are innocent and adults corrupt. While this keeps everything nice and simple in Holden's mind, it also makes it impossible for him to really understand the process of growing-up. While he does realize that trying to rub out all the "f*** you"s in the world would be impossible (“you couldn’t rub out even half the ‘F*** You’ signs in the world” [25.18]), he doesn't make the important connection that it would be futile anyway. Kids grow up—and sometimes they even write “f*** you” when they’re still in elementary school.

    The Carousel

    As far as we can tell, there's only one place in the entire novel where Holden declares himself to be really happy. So happy, in fact, that he's "damn near bawling." And that moment is at the end of his narrative, in Chapter Twenty-Five, as he's out in the rain watching Phoebe go around and around on the carousel. She just looks so nice, he says, in her blue coat, going around and around.

    But there's more to this sunny jubilance than a kid on a carousel. A few things have just happened: (1) Holden decided that, after all, he's not going to run away, (2) Phoebe put his hunting hat back on his head, and (3) just maybe, Holden has realizes that growing up isn't the worst thing in the world.

    Of course, number three up there is subject to debate. We're mostly talking about Phoebe's grabbing for the gold ring, and Holden's thought that "the thing with kids is, if they want to grab for the gold ring, you have to let them do it, and not say anything. If they fall off, they fall off, but it's bad if you say anything to them" (25).

    If you’re like us and under the age of, say, 65, you might have been scratching your head at the gold ring business. Here’s the deal: old carousels would liven things up a bit by releasing various-colored rings down a wooden chute on the outside of the carousel. If you timed it right, you could reach up and grab the ring—at great risk to life and limb, naturally. But it was worth it: you could redeem the ring for prizes like a free ride. (A teeny handful of carousels operating today still offer the ring game.)

    When Holden concludes that you have to just let a kid reach, even though they might get hurt doing so, he might be saying admitting (although he probably doesn't realize it himself) that growing up is in fact necessary—for Phoebe and for himself; you can't really protect a kid from it, so it's better to just accept it as it is. Or he could just be talking about a gold ring.

  • Narrator Point of View

    First Person (Central Narrator)

    Holden is our central, first-person narrator, so no surprises there. Right? Well…

    I'm the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life. If I'm on the way to the store to buy a magazine, even, and somebody asks me where I'm going, I'm liable to say I'm going to the opera. (3.1)

    Uh-oh. What do we do with a first-person narrator who tells us straight out that he’s a liar? Can we trust anything that he says?

    Well, we have to, right? In Catcher in the Rye, Holden’s perspective on maters in the substance of the novel; more than the events themselves, we're interested in what Holden thinks of the events/people/places/weather/dead mummies and how he presents them to us—a.k.a., his point of view. And here’s the thing: while Holden calls essentially everyone in the book a "phony" at some point or another (with the exceptions of Jane Gallagher, his brother Allie, and his sister Phoebe), he himself is a constant liar.

    It might not be an entirely conscious snowing—he's certainly not sitting back and trying to deceive us—but putting spin on everything seems to be a real part of his persona. (Think about when he tells us about how he puked that night at the Whooton school after indulging in a bottle of scotch; he says he only threw up because he made himself, not because he had to. He's not trying to lie to us, but he's convinced himself because he wants to think he can hold his liquor.)

    So, who knows? Are the people he meets really all moronic phonies?

  • Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis

    Falling Stage

    Booker says that in the "falling stage," the hero is "underdeveloped" and in the shadow of something "dark" that may "spring entirely from within the hero's own personality." Yep. Sounds about right to us. By writing off everyone around him as "phony bastards," Holden makes it impossible for himself to ever connect with another person.

    Recession Stage

    In this stage, the "dark" power seems to have receded. Hm. This one's a little trickier, but it still seems to fit: Holden thinks that by leaving Pencey, he can leave behind the phonies and embrace a more genuine, open life. And when he gets to New York, he definitely does call up old friends (and make new ones).

    Imprisonment Stage

    A more genuine open life? On second thought, maybe not. Holden is basically imprisoned by his own judgmental tendencies. Even when he reaches out to others, he's still mentally rolling his eyes at them. Case in point? The three "morons" from the Lavender Room.

    Nightmare Stage

    Even if you think the Mr. Antolini incident wasn't sexual, it still works as the Nightmare Stage. Look at it this way: if Mr. Antolini is coming on to Holden, then the one adult he was really starting to connect to turned out to be doing so for selfish and extremely questionable ends.

    And even if Holden only imagined the friendly gesture as a sexual come-on, then this is just a continuation (and in fact, a powerful resurgence) of the same "dark power" that has a hold on Holden from the start. Holden is imprisoning himself from Mr. Antolini's friendly advances because of his own judgmental and suspicious mind.

    Rebirth Stage

    Booker says the Rebirth Stage consists of the hero being freed by a young woman or child. And that's literally what happens: Phoebe saves Holden.

    But how, exactly? Well, she's the only person in the novel to have a genuine and compassionate conversation with our protagonist. When he cries, she puts her arm around his shoulder. She lends him her money. She covers for him when their parents get home.

    And then there's that carousel scene. Phoebe gives Holden his hunting cap back when it starts to rain, showing that she cares about him and his individuality. And she helps him realize that the process of growing up and "losing innocence" doesn't have to be a dark and scary one: kids have to grab for the gold ring, even if they might fall off their horses.

  • Plot Analysis

    Initial Situation


    What we have here, Shmoopers, is a frame narrative: Present-Holden is telling us a story about Past-Holden. Present-Holden's initial situation is … well, we don't really know, but it sounds like someone (us?) is asking to hear about "it," and he's getting ready to lay a story on us—a story about some "madman" stuff (1.1).

    In that story, we meet Past-Holden right when he's been kicked out of Pencey Prep, his posh boarding school in Pennsylvania. Problem? He can't go home for a few more days (until Christmas break starts), because he doesn't want his parents to know that he's been expelled again. So, instead, he decides to spend the next the days gallivanting around Manhattan. (Where, by the way, his parents live.)

    Well, this should be fun.


    Hello, I Hate You

    A fancy private school boy puts up a fancy hotel in the middle of Manhattan and proceeds to try to get (1) drunk and (2) lucky. What could go wrong?

    Holden goes wrong. He literally hates every person he meets who's over the age of 12 years old. No matter how desperate he is to actually bond with someone over anything, he can't. He stands in phone booth after phone booth unable to think of a single person he wants to talk to.

    You don't even want to see his Facebook page.



    Hm. Contrary to all of our expectations (sike), Holden isn't doing too well. Sally repeatedly asks him to not scream at her, though he insists he's not. He gets smashingly drunk and walks around the park in the middle of the night looking for some ducks. He breaks the record he bought for his kid sister. He basically breaks into his parents' house to see her. And he cries. A lot.


    Climax? What Climax?

    Oh boy. It started off tricky, and it's not getting any easier. We have a few options here, Shmoopers:

    (1) There's no real climax. Think about it: Holden never actually does anything. He's constantly about to do something without every really doing it. So, maybe there never really is a climax, and that's the problem. (Think about how he keeps trying to have sex and then changing his mind.)

    (2) The climax happens off stage. We know that some "madmam" stuff happened around "Christmas" (1.1), but do we actually see it happen? Is "it" the climax, like some psychotic break that happens off stage?

    (3) The climax happens when Holden wanders the streets after leaving Mr. Antolini's. After convincing himself that he has cancer, he walks down Fifth Avenue (without a tie! shock!) and thinks that he's just going to go "down, down, down, and nobody'd ever see [him] again" (25.8).


    Run Away With Me

    Holden is so fed up with the city (and adults) that he decides to run off to a cabin in the woods. We get the feeling that Holden would panic the first time he had to remove a spider, but whatevs. We all have these fantasies, right?

    This is technically the suspense part, since we're wondering if he's actually going to do it. To be honest, though, we're not that nervous. We know from the intro that Holden ends up "resting up" somewhere. (Of course, there is the teeny question of whether he'll end up getting himself into more trouble.)



    What! Holden doesn't run away after all?! Shocking!

    Oh wait. Not shocking at all. The denouement starts when Phoebe drags a big suitcase up to the Natural History Museum and declares she's running away, too. Phoebe's adamant decision (and her Girl Scout preparation) shows us—and Holden—how dumb his plan was. We all realize it was a silly fantasy, have a good denouement-y laugh, and head on to the conclusion.


    One Ring to Bind Them All

    After watching Phoebe try to grab a brass ring on a carousel, Holden suddenly decides that maybe there's some hope for the world after all.

    But is he better? Unclear. Holden sure doesn't tell us, and many people would say there is no "better" anyway; he just has to grow up and learn to deal like everyone else.

    Then again, there's the last line of the conclusion: "Don't ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody." Hmm. Maybe Holden actually was connecting with people all along.

  • Three Act Plot Analysis

    Act I

    Bright Lights, Big City

    Holden Caulfield gets a lecture from his old teacher, fights with his roommate, and decides he doesn't need to hang around his school anymore. It doesn't count as playing hooky if you're expelled anyway, right? Right. So, he heads into the city to kick it for a couple of days. Party time!

    Act II

    Such an Epic Fail

    Holden tries to get lucky and fails. He tries to get company—from out-of-town girls and taxi drivers—and fails. He tries to sleep with a teenage prostitute and fails (and gets punched for his efforts). His one success is setting up a date with an ex named Sally—oh, wait, except that date basically fails, too. He tries to have a heart-to-heart with an old acquaintance and fails. Finally, he decides to visit the one reliable person in his life: his kid sister.

    Act III

    Tell Us How You Really Feel

    Holden sneaks into his apartment to visit his little sister and hides in the closet when his parents come home. He seeks shelter with a former teacher, who is a wee bit too affectionate with Holden. After spending a depressing night in the train station, he decides the only solution is to run off to the woods, because duh.

    But first he has to say goodbye to Phoebe. When she tries to join him, he bails on his plan. Apparently, it's one thing if his own innocence is ruined, but he's not about to be the cause of ruining hers. At the end of the novel, Phoebe symbolically rides the carousel a few times, and then we're back in the present with a Holden who (thankfully) is undergoing some kind of therapy.