The Catcher in the Rye is a psychological novel based more on how events affect the hero’s mind than on the events themselves; therefore, the actual plot is not as important as the psychological analysis behind the action. In truth, the plot is only a loosely strung set of incidents that are combined to reveal four days in the life of Holden Caulfield. The novel is episodic in nature, and the bulk of it is narrated in the form of flashbacks. The plot is also supplemented with a number of digressions, which help to reveal more about the various characters, especially Holden himself.
Holden’s journey begins on a Saturday in December just before school closes for Christmas break. He has been informed of his expulsion from Pencey Prep School. What worries him most about being kicked out of school is his parents’ reaction, for he has already been expelled from other educational institutions. He cannot bear to remain in the dormitory after he has been beaten up by his roommate Stradlater and on a whim, he decides to leave the same night. However, he does not want to face his parents until they have recovered from the news of the expulsion. He decides to stay in a cheap hotel in New York City, going home only on the day he was originally expected.
The novel charts Holden’s experiences over a period of about forty hours, starting from the time he leaves Pencey Prep. Holden encounters a large number of people as he traverses the city of New York and goes into nightclubs. Lonely and desperate, he accepts the offer of the hotel elevator operator to find him a prostitute, but he fails to have sex with her and fights with her pimp. The next day, he calls an old girlfriend, Sally Hayes, takes her ice-skating, and tries to convince her to run away with him.
Holden looks for some degree of understanding and acceptance from all the characters he encounters, even taxi drivers, but he is denied his needs. As a result, Holden feels dislocated, as though he does not belong anywhere, and he is right. It becomes obvious through his encounters that he is in an entirely different orbit than the rest of the world. Each time Holden extends himself, he is rewarded with rejection, until he is finally driven to almost a schizophrenic state. With his mental health deteriorating, Holden returns to his parents’ home, where things are no better for him.
Even his young sister, Phoebe, questions his negativism and asks him to name one thing he would like to be. Holden replies that he would like to be "the catcher in the rye" and explains that his job would be to prevent the children, who are playing nearby in a field of rye, from going over the cliff. More distressed than ever, Holden goes to see Mr. Antolini, his former English teacher. When the teacher makes sexual advances, Holden flees in horror. Returning home, Holden experiences a complete mental breakdown and is sent to a psychiatric center in California for treatment.
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