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The Catcher in the Rye, novel by J.D. Salinger published in 1951. The novel details two days in the life of 16-year-old Holden Caulfield after he has been expelled from prep school. Confused and disillusioned, Holden searches for truth and rails against the “phoniness” of the adult world. He ends up exhausted and emotionally unstable. The events are related after the fact.
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The next morning, Holden calls Sally Hayes, an ex-girlfriend of his. They spend the day together until Holden makes a rude remark and she leaves crying. Holden then meets up with a former schoolmate, Carl Luce, at a bar, but Luce leaves early because he becomes annoyed by Holden’s immature comments. Holden stays behind and gets drunk by himself. After he leaves, he wanders in Central Park until the cold drives him to his family’s apartment. He sneaks in, still not prepared to face his parents, and finds his 10-year-old sister, Phoebe. She is upset when she hears that Holden has failed out and accuses him of not liking anything. It is at this time that Holden describes to his sister his fantasy of being “the catcher in the rye,” which was inspired by a song he heard a little boy singing: “If a body catch a body comin’ through the rye.” Phoebe tells him that the words are “If a body meet a body coming through the rye,” from a poem by Robert Burns. (Burns’s poem, “Comin thro’ the Rye,” exists in several versions, but most render the lines as “Gin a body meet a body / Comin thro’ the rye.”) Soon they hear their parents come home after a night out, and Holden sneaks away. He calls his former English teacher, Mr. Antolini, who tells Holden he can come stay at his apartment. Holden falls asleep on Antolini’s couch and awakes to Antolini stroking his forehead, which Holden interprets as a sexual advance. He immediately excuses himself and heads to Grand Central Station, where he spends the rest of the night. When he awakes, he goes to Phoebe’s school and leaves a note telling her that he plans to run away and asking her to meet him at a museum during lunch. She arrives with a packed bag and insists on going with him. He tells her no and instead takes her to the zoo, where he watches her ride the carousel in the pouring rain. This is where the flashback ends. The novel closes with Holden explaining that he has fallen “sick” but is expected to go to a new school in the fall.
The Catcher in the Rye takes the loss of innocence as its primary concern. Holden wants to be the “catcher in the rye”—someone who saves children from falling off a cliff, which can be understood as a metaphor for entering adulthood. As Holden watches Phoebe on the carousel, engaging in childlike behaviour, he is so overcome with happiness that he is, as he puts it, “damn near bawling.” By taking her to the zoo, he allows her to maintain her childlike state, thus being a successful “catcher in the rye.” During this time, however, watching her and the other children on the carousel, he has also come to accept that he cannot save everyone: “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.”
Holden’s name is also significant: Holden can be read as “hold on,” and Caulfield can be separated into caul and field. Holden’s desire is to “hold on” to the protective covering (the caul) that encloses the field of innocence (the same field he wishes to keep the children from leaving). Holden desperately wants to remain true and innocent in a world full of, as he puts it, “phonies.” Salinger once admitted in an interview that the novel was semi-autobiographical.
Publication and initial reception
The Caulfield family was one Salinger had already explored in a number of stories that had been published by different magazines. Holden appeared in some of those stories, even narrating one, but he was not as richly fleshed out in them as he would be in The Catcher in the Rye. The novel, unlike the other stories of the Caulfield family, had difficulties getting published. Originally solicited by Harcourt, Brace and Company, the manuscript was rejected after the head of the trade division asked whether Holden was supposed to be crazy. It was then that Salinger’s agent, Dorothy Olding, approached Little, Brown and Company, which published the novel in 1951. After Little, Brown bought the manuscript, Salinger showed it to The New Yorker, assuming that the magazine, which had published several of his short stories, would want to print excerpts from the novel. The New Yorker rejected it, however, as the editors found the Caulfield children too precocious to be plausible and Salinger’s writing style exhibitionistic.
The Catcher in the Rye’s reception was lukewarm at first. Many critics were impressed by Holden as a character and, specifically, by his style of narration. Salinger was able to create a character whose relatability stemmed from his unreliability—something that resonated with many readers. Others, however, felt that the novel was amateur and unnecessarily coarse.
After publishing The Catcher in the Rye, Salinger became a recluse. When asked for the rights to adapt it for Broadway or Hollywood, he emphatically declined. Despite Holden’s never having appeared in any form subsequent to that in Salinger’s novel, the character has had a long-lasting influence, reaching millions of readers, including two particularly notorious ones. In 1980 Mark David Chapman identified so wholly with Holden that he became convinced that murdering John Lennon would turn him into the novel’s protagonist. The Catcher in the Rye was also linked to John W. Hinckley, Jr.’s attempted assassination of U.S. Pres. Ronald Reagan in 1981. The novel remained influential into the 21st century; indeed, many American high schools included it in their curriculum. The novel has been banned numerous times because of its salty language and sexual content.