The Catcher in the Rye
The Catcher in the Rye is J . D. Salinger’s world-famous novel of disaffected youth
The Catcher in the Rye is a 1951 novel by J. D. Salinger. A controversial novel originally published for adults, it has since become popular with adolescent readers for its themes of teenage angst and alienation. It has been translated into almost all of the world’s major languages. Around 250,000 copies are sold each year with total sales of more than 65 million books. The novel’s protagonist Holden Caulfield has become an icon for teenage rebellion. The novel also deals with complex issues of identity, belonging, loss, and connection.
The novel was included on Time ’s 2005 list of the 100 best English-language novels written since 1923 and it was named by Modern Library and its readers as one of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. In 2003, it was listed at #15 on the BBC‘s survey The Big Read.
Holden begins his story at Pencey Preparatory, an exclusive private school (fictional, though based on Salinger’s own experience at Valley Forge Military Academy) in Agerstown, Pennsylvania, on the Saturday afternoon of the traditional football game with rival school Saxon Hall. Holden ends up missing the game. As manager of the fencing team, he loses their equipment on a New York City subway train that morning, resulting in the cancellation of a match. He goes to the home of his history teacher named Mr. Spencer. Holden has been expelled and isn’t to return after Christmas break, which begins the following Wednesday. Spencer is a well-meaning but long-winded middle-aged man. To Holden’s annoyance, Spencer reads aloud Holden’s history paper, in which Holden wrote a note to Spencer so his teacher wouldn’t feel bad about failing him in the subject.
Holden returns to his dorm, which is quiet because most of the students are still at the football game. Wearing the new red hunting cap he bought in New York City, he begins re-reading a book (Out of Africa), but his reverie is temporary. First, his dorm neighbor Ackley disturbs him, although Holden is quite patient about it. Then later, he argues with his roommate Stradlater, who fails to appreciate a composition that Holden wrote for him about Holden’s late brother Allie’s baseball glove. A womanizer, Stradlater has just returned from a date with Holden’s old friend Jane Gallagher. Holden is distressed that Stradlater might have taken advantage of Jane. Stradlater doesn’t appreciate Jane in the manner in which Holden does; he even refers to Jane as “Jean.” They fight; Stradlater wins easily. Holden decides he has had enough of Pencey Prep and catches a train to New York City, where he plans to stay in a hotel until Wednesday, when his parents expect him to return home for New Years vacation.
He checks into the dilapidated Edmont Hotel. After observing the behavior of the “perverts” in the hotel room facing his, he struggles with his own sexuality. He states that although he has had opportunities to lose his virginity, the timing never felt right and he was always respectful when a girl declined. He spends an evening dancing with three tourist women in their 30s from Seattle in the hotel lounge and enjoys dancing with one, but ends up with only the check (to pay). He is disappointed that the women seem unable to carry a conversation. Following an unpromising visit to Ernie’s Nightclub in Greenwich Village, Holden agrees to have a prostitute named Sunny visit his room. His attitude toward the girl changes the minute she enters the room; she seems about the same age as he is. Holden becomes uncomfortable with the situation, and when he tells her that all he wants to do is talk, she becomes annoyed and leaves. Even though he still pays her the right amount for her time, she returns with her pimp Maurice and demands more money. Sunny takes five dollars from Holden’s wallet; Maurice punches Holden in the stomach.
After a short sleep, Holden, lonely and in need of personal connection, telephones Sally Hayes, a familiar date, and they agree to meet that afternoon to attend a play. Holden leaves the hotel, checks his luggage at Grand Central Station and has a late breakfast. He meets two nuns, one an English teacher, with whom he discusses Romeo and Juliet. Holden shops for a special record, “Little Shirley Beans,” for his 10-year-old sister Phoebe. He likes this record and knows Phoebe will enjoy it. He spots a small boy singing “If a body catch a body coming through the rye“, which makes him feel less depressed. The play he sees with Sally features Broadway stars Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. Afterward Holden and Sally go skating at Rockefeller Center. While drinking Coke, Holden impulsively invites Sally to run away with him to the wilderness. She declines, acts uninterested, and is too arrogant to try and understand Holden’s point of view. Her responses deflate Holden’s mood, prompting him to remark: “You give me a royal pain in the ass, if you want to know the truth.” He regrets it immediately, apologizing many times. Sally won’t accept his apology and doesn’t let him take her home. She states, “No boy ever said that to me in my entire life.” Sally storms off as Holden follows, pleading with her to accept his apology. When she won’t do so and gets angry, Holden finally leaves. After that, Holden sees the Christmas show at Radio City Music Hall, endures a film, and gets very drunk. Throughout the novel, Holden has been worried about the ducks in the lagoon at Central Park. He tries to find them but breaks Phoebe’s record in the process, causing him to almost cry. He feels that he may not be good enough, and the record was the only thing he thought he had to offer to his sister. Exhausted physically, mentally, and financially, Holden heads home to see Phoebe.
Holden recalls the Museum of Natural History, which he often visited as a child. He contrasts his evolving life with the statues of Eskimos in a diorama: whereas the statues have remained unchanged through the years, he and the world have not. Eventually, he sneaks into his parents’ apartment while they are out, to visit his younger sister—and close friend—Phoebe, the only person with whom he seems to be able to communicate his true feelings. Holden shares a selfless fantasy he has been thinking about (based on a mishearing of Robert Burns‘ Comin’ Through the Rye): he pictures himself as the sole guardian of thousands of children playing an unspecified ‘game’ in a huge rye field on the edge of a cliff. His job is to catch the children if, in their abandon, they come close to falling off the brink; to be, in effect, the “catcher in the rye”. Because of this misinterpretation, Holden believes that to be the “catcher in the rye” means to save children from losing their innocence.
When his parents come home, Holden slips out and visits his former and much-admired English teacher, Mr. Antolini, who offers advice on life along with a place to sleep for the night. Mr. Antolini, quoting psychologist Wilhelm Stekel, advises Holden that wishing to die for a noble cause is the mark of the immature man, while it is the mark of the mature man to aspire to live humbly for one. This is at odds with Holden’s ideas of becoming a “catcher in the rye”, symbolically saving children from the evils of adulthood. During the speech on life, Mr. Antolini has a number of cocktails served in highball glasses. Holden is upset when he wakes up in the night to find Mr. Antolini patting his head in a way that he regards as “flitty” (homosexual). It makes Holden feel very uncomfortable and embarrassed. Confused and uncertain, he leaves as dawn is breaking and spends most of Monday morning wandering the city. He questions whether his interpretation of Mr. Antolini’s actions was actually correct, and seems to wonder how much it matters anyway.
Holden makes the decision that he will head out west and live as a deaf-mute. When he explains this plan to Phoebe Monday at lunchtime, she wants to go with him. Holden declines her offer, which upsets Phoebe, so Holden decides not to leave after all. Phoebe was looking forward to acting in a play that Friday. Despite outward frustration, it is clear Holden wants Phoebe to be happy and safe, and he didn’t think she would be if she left with him. “I think I hated her most because she wouldn’t be in that play any more if she went away with me.” He tries to cheer her up by taking her to the Central Park Zoo, and as he watches her ride the zoo’s carousel, he is filled with happiness and joy at the sight of Phoebe riding in the rain.
At the conclusion of the novel, Holden decides not to mention much about later events up to the present day, finding them inconsequential. He alludes to “getting sick” and living in some sort of institution, and mentions he will be attending another school in September; he relates that he has been asked whether he will apply himself properly to his studies this time around and wonders whether such a question has any meaning before the fact. Holden says that he doesn’t want to tell anything more because surprisingly he has found himself missing two of his former classmates, Stradlater and Ackley, and even Maurice, the pimp who punched him. He warns the reader that telling others about their own experiences will lead them to miss the people who shared them.
Various older stories by Salinger contain characters similar to those in The Catcher in the Rye. While at Columbia University, J.D. Salinger wrote a short story called “The Young Folks” in Whit Burnett‘s class; one character from this story has been described as a “thinly penciled prototype of Sally Hayes”. In November 1941, Salinger sold the story “Slight Rebellion off Madison,” which featured Holden Caulfield, to The New Yorker, but it wasn’t published until December 21, 1946 due to World War II. The story “I’m Crazy,” which was published in the December 22, 1945, issue of Collier’s, contained material that was later used in The Catcher in the Rye. A ninety-page manuscript about Holden Caulfield was accepted by The New Yorker for publication in 1946, but it was later withdrawn by Salinger.
The Catcher in the Rye is narrated in a subjective style from the point of view of Holden Caulfield, following his exact thought processes. There is flow in the seemingly disjointed ideas and episodes; for example, as Holden sits in a chair in his dorm, minor events, such as picking up a book or looking at a table, unfold into discussions about experiences.
- “Phony” – superficial and pretentious
- “That killed me” – I found that hilarious or astonishing
- “Flit” – homosexual
- “Crumbum” – inadequate, insufficient, and/or disappointing
- “Snowing” – sweet-talking
- “I got a bang out of that” – I found it hilarious or exciting
- “Shoot the bull” – have a conversation containing false elements
- “Give her the time” – sexual intercourse
- “Chew the fat” – small-talk
Spoken pauses, such as “and all”, “I really did” pepper the narration as well as Holden’s dialogue.
Bruce Brooks held that Holden’s attitude remains unchanged at story’s end, implying no maturation, thus differentiating the novel from young adult fiction. In contrast, Louis Menand thought that teachers assign the novel because of the optimistic ending, to teach adolescent readers that “alienation is just a phase.” While Brooks maintained that Holden acts his age, Menand claimed that Holden thinks as an adult, given his ability to accurately perceive people and their motives. Others highlight the dilemma of Holden’s state, in between adolescence and adulthood. Holden is quick to become emotional. “I felt sorry as hell for…” is a phrase he often uses.
Peter Beidler, in his A Reader’s Companion to J. D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye”, identifies the movie that the prostitute “Sunny” refers to. In chapter 13 she says that in the movie a boy falls off a boat. The movie is Captains Courageous, starring Spencer Tracy. Sunny says that Holden looks like the boy who fell off the boat. Beidler shows (page 28) a still of the boy, played by child-actor Freddie Bartholomew.
Each Caulfield child has literary talent: D. B. writes screenplays in Hollywood; Holden also reveres D. B. for his writing skill (Holden’s own best subject), but he also despises Hollywood industry-based movies, considering them the ultimate in “phony” as the writer has no space for his own imagination, and describes D. B.’s move to Hollywood to write for films as “prostituting himself”; Allie wrote poetry on his baseball glove; and Phoebe is a diarist.[not in citation given] This “catcher in the rye” is an analogy for Holden, who admires in kids attributes that he struggles to find in adults, like innocence, kindness, spontaneity, and generosity. Falling off the cliff could be a progression into the adult world that surrounds him and that he strongly criticizes. Later, Phoebe and Holden exchange roles as the “catcher” and the “fallen”; he gives her his hunting hat, the catcher’s symbol, and becomes the fallen as Phoebe becomes the catcher.
In their biography of Salinger, David Shields and Shane Salerno argue that “The Catcher in the Rye can best be understood as a disguised war novel.” Salinger witnessed the horrors of World War II, but rather than writing a combat novel, Salinger, according to Shields and Salerno, “took the trauma of war and embedded it within what looked to the naked eye like a coming-of-age novel.”
The Catcher in the Rye has been listed as one of the best novels of the twentieth century. Shortly after its publication, writing for The New York Times, Nash K. Burger called it “an unusually brilliant novel,” while James Stern wrote an admiring review of the book in a voice imitating Holden’s. George H. W. Bush called it a “marvelous book,” listing it among the books that have inspired him. In June 2009, the BBC‘s Finlo Rohrer wrote that, 58 years since publication, the book is still regarded “as the defining work on what it is like to be a teenager. Holden is at various times disaffected, disgruntled, alienated, isolated, directionless, and sarcastic.” Adam Gopnik considers it one of the “three perfect books” in American literature, along with Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Great Gatsby, and believes that “no book has ever captured a city better than Catcher in the Rye captured New York in the fifties.” Jeff Pruchnic wrote an appraisal of The Catcher in the Rye after the death of J.D. Salinger. In this article, Pruchnic focuses on how the novel continues to be received incredibly well, even after it has aged many generations. Pruchnic describes Holden as a “teenage protagonist frozen midcentury but destined to be discovered by those of a similar age in every generation to come”. 
However, not all reception has been positive; the book has had its share of critics. Rohrer writes, “Many of these readers are disappointed that the novel fails to meet the expectations generated by the mystique it is shrouded in. J. D. Salinger has done his part to enhance this mystique. That is to say, he has done nothing.” Rohrer assessed the reasons behind both the popularity and criticism of the book, saying that it “captures existential teenage angst” and has a “complex central character” and “accessible conversational style”; while at the same time some readers may dislike the “use of 1940s New York vernacular” and other things.
Censorship and use in schools
In 1960, a teacher in Tulsa, Oklahoma was fired for assigning the novel in class; however, he was later reinstated. Between 1961 and 1982, The Catcher in the Rye was the most censored book in high schools and libraries in the United States. The book was banned in the Issaquah, Washington, high schools in 1978 as being part of an “overall communist plot”. In 1981, it was both the most censored book and the second most taught book in public schools in the United States. According to the American Library Association, The Catcher in the Rye was the 10th most frequently challenged book from 1990 to 1999. It was one of the ten most challenged books of 2005, and although it had been off the list for three years, it reappeared in the list of most challenged books of 2009.
The challenges generally begin with Holden’s frequent use of vulgar language, with other reasons including sexual references, blasphemy, undermining of family values and moral codes, encouragement of rebellion, and promotion of drinking, smoking, lying, and promiscuity. Often the challengers have been unfamiliar with the plot itself. Shelley Keller-Gage, a high school teacher who faced objections after assigning the novel in her class, noted that “the challengers are being just like Holden… They are trying to be catchers in the rye”. A reverse effect has been that this incident caused people to put themselves on the waiting list to borrow the novel, when there were none before.
Shooters citing the book as an influence
Several shootings have been associated with Salinger’s novel, including Robert John Bardo‘s shooting of Rebecca Schaeffer and John Hinckley, Jr.‘s assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan. After the killing of John Lennon, Mark David Chapman was arrested with a copy of the book that he had purchased that same day, inside of which he had written: “To Holden Caulfield, From Holden Caulfield, This is my statement”.
Early in his career, Salinger expressed a willingness to have his work adapted for the screen. In 1949, a critically panned film version of his short story “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut” was released; renamed My Foolish Heart and taking great liberties with Salinger’s plot, the film is widely considered to be among the reasons that Salinger refused to allow any subsequent film adaptations of his work. The enduring popularity of The Catcher in the Rye, however, has resulted in repeated attempts to secure the novel’s screen rights.
When The Catcher in the Rye was first released, many offers were made to adapt it for the screen, including one from Samuel Goldwyn, producer of My Foolish Heart. In a letter written in the early fifties, J. D. Salinger spoke of mounting a play in which he would play the role of Holden Caulfield opposite Margaret O’Brien, and, if he couldn’t play the part himself, to “forget about it.” Almost fifty years later, the writer Joyce Maynard definitively concluded, “The only person who might ever have played Holden Caulfield would have been J. D. Salinger.”
Salinger told Maynard in the seventies that Jerry Lewis “tried for years to get his hands on the part of Holden,” despite Lewis not having read the novel until he was in his thirties. Celebrities ranging from Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson to Tobey Maguire and Leonardo DiCaprio have since tried to make a film adaptation. In an interview with Premiere magazine, John Cusack commented that his one regret about turning twenty-one was that he had become too old to play Holden Caulfield. Writer-director Billy Wilder recounted his abortive attempts to snare the novel’s rights:
Of course I read The Catcher in the Rye….Wonderful book. I loved it. I pursued it. I wanted to make a picture out of it. And then one day a young man came to the office of Leland Hayward, my agent, in New York, and said, ‘Please tell Mr. Leland Hayward to lay off. He’s very, very insensitive.’ And he walked out. That was the entire speech. I never saw him. That was J. D. Salinger and that was Catcher in the Rye.
In 1961, Salinger denied Elia Kazan permission to direct a stage adaptation of Catcher for Broadway. More recently, Salinger’s agents received bids for the Catcher movie rights from Harvey Weinstein and Steven Spielberg, neither of which was even passed on to J. D. Salinger for consideration.
In 2003, the BBC television program The Big Read featured The Catcher in the Rye, interspersing discussions of the novel with “a series of short films that featured an actor playing J. D. Salinger’s adolescent antihero, Holden Caulfield.” The show defended its unlicensed adaptation of the novel by claiming to be a “literary review”, and no major charges were filed.
After Salinger’s death in 2010, Phyllis Westberg, who was Salinger’s agent at Harold Ober Associates, stated that nothing has changed in terms of licensing film, television, or stage rights of his works. A letter written by Salinger in 1957 revealed that he was open to an adaptation of The Catcher in the Rye released after his death. He wrote: “Firstly, it is possible that one day the rights will be sold. Since there’s an ever-looming possibility that I won’t die rich, I toy very seriously with the idea of leaving the unsold rights to my wife and daughter as a kind of insurance policy. It pleasures me no end, though, I might quickly add, to know that I won’t have to see the results of the transaction.” Salinger also wrote that he believed his novel was not suitable for film treatment, and that translating Holden Caulfield’s first-person narrative into voice-over and dialogue would be contrived.
Banned fan fiction
In 2009, a year before his death, Salinger successfully sued to stop the U.S. publication of a novel that presents Holden Caulfield as an old man. The novel’s author, Fredrik Colting, commented, “call me an ignorant Swede, but the last thing I thought possible in the U.S. was that you banned books”. The issue is complicated by the nature of Colting’s book, 60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye, which has been compared to fan fiction. Although commonly not authorized by writers, no legal action is usually taken against fan fiction since it is rarely published commercially and thus involves no profit. Colting, however, has published his book commercially. Unauthorized fan fiction on The Catcher in the Rye existed on the Internet for years without any legal action taken by Salinger before his death.
The Catcher in the Rye has had significant cultural influence, and works inspired by the novel have been said to form their own genre. The Nepali short film Milarepa in Prison borrows some ideas from The Catcher in the Rye as its main protagonist character has been influenced by the character of Holden Caulifield.  Dr. Sarah Graham assessed works influenced by The Catcher in the Rye to include the novels Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis, The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, Ordinary People by Judith Guest, and the film Igby Goes Down by Burr Steers.
The Catcher in the Rye is J . D. Salinger’s world-famous novel of disaffected youth