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The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger Essay

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Updated: Jul 1st, 2020

Published in 1951, The Catcher in the Rye, written by J. D. Salinger became one of his most controversial novels and a cultural phenomenon. This book is one of the most widely taught and commonly banned works of literature of all time (Benson & Salinger, 2018). There are debates on the topic of the novel’s morality and censorship as it touches upon such mature subjects as alcohol abuse, sex, profanity, and prostitution. The story is also known for being a sort of critique of the superficiality and “phoniness” in society and the adult world in particular (Salinger, 2010). This paper aims to summarize the plot of the novel, to discuss the central themes and the main characters, and to provide a personal review of the book.

The Plot Summary of the Novel

Holden Caulfield is a sixteen-year-old narrator and protagonist of the novel, who is currently getting help in a mental hospital. Holden tells a story that happened to him in December, which begins with his expulsion from Pencey Prep School in Pennsylvania after failing almost all his classes. The same night he gets into a fight with his roommate Stadlater over a girl. This sends Holden over the edge, and he leaves the school and returns to New York early. However, instead of going to the family apartment and admitting his expulsion from the school, he wanders around New York City until it is time to go home for Christmas.

While being in New York City, Holden meets female tourists and has a meeting with a prostitute, which ends in a mere conversation and a punch in Holden’s stomach. The next day Holden goes on a date with his ex-girlfriend Sally, who he asks to run away with him, and who he offends after she refuses. At night he secretly enters his home to see his little sister Phoebe, who, as he claims, is the greatest girl in the world, but when their parents return home, he sneaks back out. Holden later goes to Mr. Antolini, who used to be his English teacher and stays there overnight. Although, when he wakes up at night by him stroking Holden’s forehead, he leaves.

Having made the decision to run away, Holden sends Phoebe a note where he asks her to meet at the museum so they can say their goodbyes. When they meet, Phoebe has a suitcase in her hands and says that she will run away with him, but Holden rejects her and takes her to the zoo, where she rides a carousel. Watching his little sister ride a carousel, Holden decides to stay and finally declares that he is happy (Salinger, 2010). The whole story is based on Holden’s adventure as he gets a glimpse of the real world ruled by adults.

The Main Characters and Central Themes

The Main Characters

The Catcher in the Rye portraits many important and somewhat symbolic characters, who are depicted to the reader through Holden’s point of view. The central figure of the story Holden Caulfield is faced with various philosophical questions along the way and ends up emotionally unstable. He goes to New York and enters an adult life, which he hates and thinks it is phony: “People are always ruining things for you” (Salinger, 2010, p. 51). He appears to be disappointed in almost everyone he meets, but not children. It is as if he still acts like a child himself: “People coming and putting a bunch of flowers on your stomach on Sunday, and all that crap. Who wants flowers when you’re dead?”(Salinger, 2010, p. 90). He perceives the situation the same way a child would – in the most innocent manner possible. Holden thinks people put flowers on the stomach of the person, whereas the person does not even exist anymore, and their bodies lay deep underground, not on the surface. It almost seems that Holden does not have an understanding of the real idea of death, just like children do not.

The two people who affected Holden’s pessimistic mental state were his brother Allie and his former classmate James Castle, who committed suicide by jumping off a building in a turtle-neck that Holden loaned to him. He faces problems while growing up and struggles to deal with them, which leads to his alienation and isolation from society (Jasim & Lateef, 2019). According to Corso (2016), “In such a digression in the narrative, Holden shows how webbed memories of people and incidents seem to be in his unfolding lead-up to his mental breakdown” (p. 93). The only person who Holden wants to talk to is his little sister Phoebe. She is the one who, in the end, makes him realize how ridiculous his plan to run away is. She is also the only person who gets the answer from Holden to a question of who he wants to be, which is one of the central points in the story.

Central Theme

One of the main themes of the novel is innocence and childhood. The title of the book The Catcher in the Rye is who Holden tells Phoebe he wants to be. He wants to stand on the edge of the cliff while children play in the rye, and if any of them start to fall off a cliff, he will catch them. This imagery is a symbol of Holden trying to save the innocence of the society, which only children possess. However, in the end, Holden accepts the fact growing up is inevitable and that he needs to stop trying to protect every child from the adult world. “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” (Salinger 2010, p 124.). The theme of innocence circles around throughout the novel and concludes at the end by Holden finally being happy.

Personal Opinion

The book uses quite a modern language and, surprisingly enough, incorporates the contemporary slangs of that time used among youth. Some may agree that a book is good when it is highly symbolic, and surely enough, The Catcher in the Rye is significantly full of symbols. All the symbols in the novel connect to either Holden’s personality or his past. For instance, his red hunting hat was his self-identification and almost a way of isolating himself from everybody else. He purposely put it on to separate himself from society. Ducks are the symbol of change, and whenever Holden asks where did the ducks go, he wonders about the real-life changes, moreover, he dreads them. The criticizing manner with which Holden observed the world is depressing at times, yet thought-provoking.

Shortly after being published, The Catcher in the Rye has reached tremendous success. This is perhaps due to the fact that it touches upon the sharp, mature topics. The protagonist is a sixteen-year-old boy who struggles with mental health issues, considering the fact that he ends up in a hospital. The book became popular amongst the youth because it is connected with their mindsets and views on society. Even to this day, it continues to remain popular among teenagers and young adults.


Benson, J., & Salinger, J. D. (2018). J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye: A cultural history. New York, NY: Rowman & Littlefield.

Corso, G. S. (2016). Allie, Phoebe, Robert Emmet, and Daisy Mae: Love, loss, and grief in JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and Alice McDermott’s Child of My Heart. Teaching American Literature, 8(3), 92-111.

Jasim, M. N., & Lateef, W. A. (2019). Isolation and escapes from reality in Salinger’s the Catcher in the Rye. Journal of Al-Frahedis Arts, 33, 33-42.

Salinger, J. D. (2010). The catcher in the rye. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.

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