The Catcher in the Rye is the story of Holden attempting to connect with other people and failing to do so, which causes him to dread maturity and cling to his idealized view of childhood. Most of the book recounts Holden’s quest for connection, following him through dozens of encounters large and small, with cab drivers, nuns, tourists, pimps, former classmates, and many others. Because he has little sense of his effect on others and refuses to conform to societal norms, he fails in every attempt, and adopts a self-protective veneer of disgust with the world. He is quick to dismiss both individuals and the adult world in general as “phony.” But his encounters with others don’t generally fall apart because he rejects or pushes away the other person. Instead, they fall apart because he behaves immaturely, indulging in outlandish or obnoxious behavior or making inappropriate choices, until other people become bemused or angry with him. Ultimately, his refusal to grow up and enter the adult world is doomed to failure, which results in his complete breakdown.
The novel is told through the framing device of Holden’s convalescence in what seems to be either a sanatorium or mental hospital, which creates suspense as to how he wound up there. After a brief present-tense introduction, he switches to past-tense flashback, beginning with his final days at Pencey Prep. The incident that incites the major events of the novel occurs when Stradlater goes out with Jane Gallagher and refuses to say whether he had sex with her. The idea that Stradlater and Jane might have had sex is more than Holden can take. He has felt affection for Jane for a long time, so Stradlater’s date with her sparks envy. Holden also feels upset that his predatory roommate may have corrupted an important part of his past. Holden believes he “knows” both Jane and Stadlater extremely well, and the idea that Jane, who he sees as a paragon of virtue, might be attracted to Stradlater, who Holden sees as essentially corrupt, challenges his concept of the two characters. It suggests that he doesn’t know anyone as well as he thinks, and his attempts at connection will inevitably fail. Unable to do anything about the situation, Holden decides to leave the school that night and take the train to New York City.
Most of the episodes that take place after Holden departs from Pencey, and up until he visits his sister, Phoebe, at home, involve Holden attempting either to make sexual connections with others or to find someone to explain sex to him. Holden believes sex should be an act of intimacy, and he is ashamed of his own ability to be sexually attracted to women he doesn’t feel a true connection with. Yet he propositions nearly every woman he encounters, most of whom are much older than he is. He invites his classmate’s mother to get a drink, calls a woman he believe is a stripper, dances with older female tourists staying at his hotel, arranges to have a prostitute sent to his room, and tries to convince a coatcheck clerk to go out with him. Holden’s quest for sexual knowledge culminates in his drink with Carl Luce, who Holden thinks can illuminate the relation between the physical and spiritual aspects of sexuality. However, Carl is presented as possibly confused about his own sexuality, undermining his authority on heterosexual relationships. He becomes uncomfortable when Holden asks him about the role of intimacy in sex, suggesting Holden is not as alone in his confusion as he believes.
The climax of the story comes when Holden visits Phoebe, who becomes angry that Holden has been expelled from another school and confronts him about why he doesn’t like anything. Holden says he likes his brother, Allie, but Phoebe points out that Allie is dead. Holden recalls a harrowing episode from an earlier prep school where a boy named James Castle, who was being bullied, leapt out of a window to his death. Holden identifies with James Castle, who had borrowed Holden’s turtleneck and was wearing it when he died. This climax doesn’t represent a turning point for Holden but rather illuminates for the reader just how deep Holden’s need is to protect the “castle” of his own childhood from the depredations of the adult world. He explains to Phoebe his fantasy of being “the catcher in the rye,” a figure who catches children who are about to plunge off an imaginary cliff to their deaths—or to adulthood. Phoebe corrects his misunderstanding of the words of the poem, calling his entire belief system into question and implying Holden is wrong about both childhood and adulthood.
The falling action of the story depicts Holden continuing his attempt to delay adulthood until he can’t run any further. He goes to see Mr. Antolini, an adult who showed bravery and compassion after James Castle’s death. Mr. Antolini describes the misanthropic and maladjusted future Holden seems to be headed toward, furthering the impression that Holden is now in a limbo between his unrealistically idealized childhood and the unpleasant reality of adulthood. Incapable of accepting physical affection and terrified of the possibility that Mr. Antolini may be homosexual and a pedophile, Holden flees. He decides to run away from his life and his family for good, but his plan collapses when Phoebe insists on coming with him. At the end of his story, Holden calmly watches Phoebe riding a carousel, secure for the moment in her childhood innocence and not menaced by adulthood or the future. The novel ends in the present tense, with Holden offering the hope that his experience was actually transformational and he may apply himself at his next school. However, his voice is so similar to the rest of the novel, we may question whether he has actually matured and gained insight into himself and others.