The Catcher in the Rye takes place sometime in the post-World War II era, either in the late 1940s or early 1950s. These years were a time when the country enjoyed a booming economy and an unprecedented sense of progress, but was also coming to terms with the atrocities of the war, such as the Holocaust and America’s atomic bombing of Japan. The book begins at Pencey Prep, an exclusive boarding school in New Jersey. Despite the school’s academic reputation, Holden finds the culture at Pencey claustrophobic, and he has a hard time getting along with the other boys there. As he states in Chapter 1, “The more expensive a school is, the more crooks it has—I’m not kidding.” Pencey introduces Holden’s frustration with the social class he was born into. According to Holden, there is a disproportionate number of crooks and phonies among the wealthy, and he believes that Pencey, which is a microcosm of wealthy society, has crooks and phonies in spades.
After the establishing opening scenes, Holden leaves Pencey and returns to his hometown of New York City, where the bulk of the book’s action takes place. New York plays a critical role in the book, both reflecting and heightening Holden’s emotional deterioration. The city is large and busy, but Holden often feels alone amongst the crowds. He evokes such a feeling in Chapter 12: “New York’s terrible when somebody laughs on the street very late at night. You can hear it for miles. It makes you feel so lonesome and depressed.” New York also represents much of what Holden hates. Holden dislikes the falseness of performance, yet New York is a famous theater city, known for its impressive Broadway shows. Holden rails against commercialization, but that’s exactly what he encounters during the Rockettes’ superficial Christmas show at Radio City Music Hall. New York’s performance culture, as well as its showiness and wealth, trouble Holden deeply. In this sense, the city is a large-scale version of Pencey.
Although Holden usually casts New York in a negative light, the city does offer him a few places of refuge. One such refuge is the Museum of Natural History. Holden takes comfort in the museum’s static exhibitions that never change. He knows that at any time he can wander the same halls and see the same things, and this knowledge provides a feeling of stability. Significantly, the Museum is located adjacent to Central Park, which is Holden’s other place of refuge. Situated in the city’s heart and seemingly removed from the hustle and bustle of the streets, Central Park provides a natural space where Holden can walk and think. Yet if Central Park is a place of refuge, it’s also a place of mental breakdown. When Holden goes looking for his beloved lagoon one cold, dark night, he struggles find it. When he eventually arrives, he worries he’s getting pneumonia and fantasizes about his own death. Also disconcerting is the delirious happiness Holden feels when watching Phoebe on the Central Park carousel. His sudden emotional shift may foreshadow the mysterious breakdown he refuses to talk about in the final chapter.
For a novel that provides so much specificity about setting, Catcher in the Rye remains markedly mysterious about where Holden is when he is narrating the story. In the opening pages he says he “got pretty run-down and had to come out here and take it easy.” In the final chapter, he says he “got sick,” refers to being visited by “this one psychoanalyst guy they have here,” and says the bathroom is “way the hell down in the other wing.” These clues have led many readers to assume Holden is telling the story from a psychiatric facility following a mental breakdown. However, another interpretation is that Holden is in a medical facility recovering from the illness he contracted during his weekend in New York. His frequent references to his physical degeneration over the course of the book, and his concern about getting pneumonia, suggest he may have suffered a serious illness requiring extended convalescence, such as tuberculosis. Either way, Holden is clearly telling the story from some sort of hospital or institution he anticipates leaving in time to start school again.