The Catcher in the Rye Study Guide

The Catcher in the Rye

The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger

The Catcher in the Rye is a novel written by J.D. Salinger in 1951. It is told from the first person perspective of a young boy named Holden Caulfield, who is in a psychiatric facility after the events of the novel. Holden dislikes the world around him and his story reflects that. It explores themes such as growing up, the phoniness that comes with growing up, and alienation from peers as a means of protecting oneself.

Chapter 1 Summary

Brief Summary

Holden begins his story from a sanitarium where he is receiving treatment for an undisclosed ailment. He briefly discusses his brother D.B., a writer in Hollywood, before recounting his last day at Pencey Prep, the private school from which he has been expelled. On that day, he is watching, from Thomsen Hill, the annual football game between his school and Saxon Hall. Holden is not paying attention to the game because he is trying to feel a goodbye to Pencey. He achieves this by remembering an evening when he and his friends are tossing around a football. Shortly after remembering that evening, he leaves the game to say goodbye to his history teacher, Mr. Spencer.

Detailed Summary

Holden Caulfield tells his story from a sanitarium in which he has been admitted for treatment. The only aspect of his early life he shares with the reader is that of his older brother D.B., a writer in Hollywood, because all that David Copperfield kind of crap bores him. In discussing D.B., he expresses his disappointment in D.B. for having decided to write screenplays rather than remaining just a regular writer (1) of short stories. Holden believes his brother has prostituted himself for fame and fortune. After offering a brief background, he begins the story of his breakdown, beginning with his final day at Pencey Prep, a prestigious private school in Agerstown, Pennsylvania. The reader learns that Holden was expelled from Pencey for failing to apply himself and, subsequently, failing four subjects.

On his last Saturday at the school, he is atop Thomsen Hill watching the annual football match between Pencey and Saxon Hall. Although he is at the game he is not really watching it. Holden is preoccupied with the earlier events of the day. He is supposed to be in New York City for a fencing match; however, he left the team's equipment on the subway forcing the team to forfeit the meet and return to school early. He is also preoccupied by the other game attendees. He notices Selma Thurmer, the headmaster's daughter, who Holden liked because she never bragged about her father. His primary reason for standing on Thomsen Hill is to feel a proper goodbye to Pencey, which he does by remembering an evening when he and two of his friends were tossing around a football before supper. He then leaves the game to meet Mr. Spencer, his history teacher, who asked him to come to his house before leaving Pencey. He sprints to Mr. Spencer's house across icy Route 204, stopping to catch his breath because he is a heavy smoker. When he rings the doorbell, Mrs. Spencer joyously answers the door, takes Holden's coat, and ushers him to Mr. Spencer's room.

Chapter 2 Summary

Brief Summary

Holden is at the Spencers' home across from the football field. He is visiting at the request of Mr. Spencer his history teacher, who is home sick with the gripe. Mr. Spencer is aware of Holden's expulsion and wants to speak to him before he leaves Pencey for good at the start of the Christmas break. Holden sits with Mr. Spencer in the teacher's bedroom where he is questioned about his dire situation. When he proves to be disinterested in helping himself, he is lectured on the seriousness of the path he has taken both academically and personally. Mr. Spencer tells him that he is trying to help him develop concern for his future, but Holden makes it clear that he is does not care about his future. He ends the visit quickly and leaves the Spencers' home depressed and upset.

Detailed Summary

Holden heads to Mr. Spencer's bedroom, noting on the way that not only do the Spencers sleep in separate bedrooms but they also are easily excited by simplest things, such as buying a blanket form an Indian in Yellowstone Park. He knocks on the open door before entering and finds Mr. Spencer, who is sick with the gripe, sitting in a large leather chair wrapped in a blanket and reading Atlantic Monthly. Mr. Spencer invites Holden to sit on his bed and asks him about the football game. After a few remarks about the game, Mr. Spencer questions Holden about his expulsion. He wants to know if the headmaster Dr. Thurmer has spoken to Holden or his parents. Holden tells him that Dr. Thurmer spoke to him about life being game that needs to be played by the rules, an observation that didn't impress Holden. He believes that life is a game only to the hotshots (8) in life. Mr. Thurmer has not yet spoken to Holden's parents, but will write them an expulsion notification letter to them the following Monday. Mr. Spencer asks if Holden has told his parents and how they will feel about his expulsion. Holden casually answers no because he will probably see them on Wednesday and that they will be aggravated because Pencey is the fourth school he's attended.

Holden's nonchalant attitude and unsatisfactory responses to the questions prompt Mr. Spencer to lecture him about his poor academic performance. To emphasize the seriousness of Holden's situation, Mr. Spencer reads from Holden's incomplete final exam essay about the Egyptians at the end of which Holden has written a note telling his teacher that he is unable to answer the question in its entirety because he has no interest in the lectures and has not learned very much. He closes the note by telling Mr. Spencer that it is okay to fail him as he has flunked everything else except for English. However, Holden's mind is elsewhere as his teacher continues to reprimand him for refusing to apply himself to his studies. Holden is thinking about the ducks that live on the lagoon in Central Park South and where they go when the lagoon freezes over in the winter. Holden's wandering thoughts are interrupted by Mr. Spencer's pleadings for him to examine his predicament and to allow himself to be helped. Feeling depressed and uncomfortable, Holden claims he has to leave to pick up equipment from the gym. Mr. Spencer encourages him to stay for hot chocolate, but Holden declines. As he leaves the Spencers' home, he hears his teacher yell Good luck! at him which makes Holden feel more depressed.

Chapter 1-2

The early Chapters serve as an early introduction to the narrator and protagonist of the text, Holden Caulfield. The reader learns several things about Holden from the opening of Chapter 1: he is bitter, cynical, guards his privacy, and has difficult articulating those things he is willing to share with people. For example, he refuses to discuss the details of his early life because he finds all that David Copperfield kind of crap (1) boring. From this reference to Charles Dickens's autobiographical novel David Copperfield , the reader can assume that Holden's youth, like Dickens's/Copperfield's was traumatic and robbed him of an innocence, as the reader discovers later in the text, that he wishes he could get back. Holden claims that discussing his painful childhood is boring when in actuality he is unable to constructively cope with it. The loss of innocence Holden infers has causes the disconnection between him and the outside world. In turn, the disconnection causes Holden to create coping, and to some extent defense, mechanisms in the forms of cynicism and apathy.

The reader also learns that Holden is infirm and recovering from what he calls this madman stuff (1) that happened to him that Christmas. Essentially Holden is telling us that he is an unreliable narrator with a flawed, or at least skewed, perspective. It is fair to say that Holden's observations are heightened by his cynicism and bitterness. This is clearly demonstrated by the way he discusses his brother D.B.'s choice to move to Hollywood to become a screenwriter. Holden does not consider the possibility that D.B. may have wanted to pursue his options as a writer, rather he believes that his brother is only interested fame and fortune. However, beneath all of his cynicism and boredom lies an idealistic and romantic hope for human behavior.

This is seen when he is sitting on Thomsen Hill, on his last day at Pencey Prep, watching the football game. Although he is not interested in the game or the crowd it draws, he seeks some kind of goodbye from the event. He wants to really feel as though he is bringing closure to this part of his life. His idealism is also seen in his visit to Mr. Spencer the history teacher. Although many of Mr. Spencer's habits annoy Holden, his kindness and attempts outreach have had such a seemingly positive impact on Holden that he visits the teacher when he is extremely sick. Yet, his alienation simultaneously closes him off from Spencer's offer of guidance because does not fully understand his internal crisis. When Mr. Spencer tells Holden I'm trying to help you and attempts to speak to Holden about his expulsion and his refusal to apply himself to his studies, Holden becomes uncomfortable and uses a lie to escape from his teacher's insistence. His apathetic behavior is a cry for help, yet he rejects help from those who have fallen victim to Holden's distorted view of the world. These inconsistencies flourish in the text and are evidentiary of a young, confused, and lost man. They also indicate to the reader that Holden's conflict is both internal and external.

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