The Catcher in the Rye begins with a statement by the narrator, Holden Caulfield, that he will not recount his “lousy” childhood and “all that David Copperfield kind of crap” because such details bore him. He describes his parents as nice but “touchy as hell.” Instead, Holden vows to relate what happened to him around last Christmas, before he had to take it easy. He also mentions his brother, D.B., who is nearby in Hollywood “being a prostitute.” Holden was a student at Pencey Prep in Agerstown, Pennsylvania, and he mocks their advertisements, which claim to have been molding boys into clear-thinking young men since 1888.
Holden begins his story during the Saturday of the football game with Saxon Hall, which is supposed to be a big deal at Pencey. Selma Thurmer, the daughter of the headmaster, is at the game, but Holden is not. Although she is unattractive and a bit pathetic, to Holden she seems nice enough because she avoids lavishing praise upon her father. Holden, the manager of the fencing team, has just returned from New York with the team. Although they were supposed to have a meet with the McBurney School, Holden left the foils on the subway. The fencing team became furious with Holden, but he cannot help but find humor in the bad situation. Holden has not gone to the game as a result of his sudden unpopularity. Instead he chooses to say goodbye to Spencer, his history teacher, who knows that Holden is not coming back to Pencey. It turns out that Holden has recently been expelled for failing four classes.
Holden finds Spencer’s house somewhat depressing, smelling of Vicks Nose Drops and clearly underscoring the old age of its inhabitants. Mr. Spencer sits in a ratty old bathrobe and asks Holden to sit down. Holden tells him that Dr. Thurmer lectured him about how “life is a game” and that one should “play it according to the rules”—just before he expelled him. Mr. Spencer replies that Dr. Thurmer was correct, but Holden holds to the thought that life is only a game if you are on the right side.
Holden tells Mr. Spencer that his parents will be upset, for this is his fourth private school so far. Holden recounts that, at sixteen, he is over six feet tall and has some gray hair, but still acts like a child, as others often tell him. Spencer says that he met with Holden’s parents, who are “grand” people, but Holden dismisses that word as “phony.” Spencer then tells Holden that he failed him in History because he knew nothing. Spencer reads him his exam essay about the Egyptians, which is woefully inadequate. At the end of the exam, Holden left a note for Mr. Spencer admitting that he was not interested in the Egyptians despite Spencer’s interesting lectures, noting that he would accept if Mr. Spencer failed him.
As Holden and Mr. Spencer continue to talk, Holden’s mind wanders to the ducks in Central Park. He wonders how they suddenly vanish in the winter and where they go. When Spencer asks why Holden quit Elkton Hills, he replies that it is a long story. In short, the people there were phonies. He mentions the particular quality of the headmaster, Mr. Haas, who would be charming toward everyone except the “funny-looking parents.” Holden claims he has little interest in the future, and he assures Spencer that he is just going through a phase. As Holden leaves, he hears Spencer say “good luck,” a phrase that he particularly loathes.
In Chapter 1, J.D. Salinger has his protagonist begin The Catcher in the Rye with a bold and sarcastic declaration. Holden immediately rejects the idea that the events that he describes in the novel consist of his life story or that this story is indicative of any larger message. He eschews the Dickensian idea of literature in novels like David Copperfield, in which the plot and narrative progress with a moral message, and he does not intend to inspire sympathy for himself like another David Copperfield or Oliver Twist. Besides, he is probably at a boarding school because his parents are wealthy. Instead of pointing toward a moral, he adopts a discursive style with no concrete message. His story is what it is, and Holden’s story is his own, not really a cautionary tale for others. As Holden insists, his tale exists independent of any larger meaning or message.
Nevertheless, a reader might pick up on Salinger’s use of the conventions of a cautionary tale; there is something human about his experience that may well teach us something about not living badly. Holden indicates that he has to “take it easy” at a new place, strongly implying that he now is receiving psychiatric or psychological help. The details in the first chapter already indicate that he has pursued an aimless, self-destructive path. Expelled from school for failing several classes, Holden essentially describes himself as a perpetual failure. Even worse, in his failings he appears to have a strong disregard for others. His solipsistic self-destruction makes him unable to grasp the consequences of his actions, such as when he chooses humor and argues that he somehow is not responsible after he loses the fencing equipment on the trip to New York.
Holden is in many ways a typical teenager, skeptical of all authority and having a truculent attitude that stems from cynicism and naïveté. Within the first several paragraphs he dismisses his parents as “touchy” and his brother as a sellout to Hollywood consumerism, yet he provides no good examples of their behavior. With the exception of Mr. Spencer and, to some degree, Selma Thurmer, Holden displays contempt for every character he mentions and the actions they undertake. The one value that he tends to espouse is authenticity, but he has no concrete definition of what this entails. Although he disdains Selma Thurmer’s failed attempts to artificially improve her appearance, his greatest compliment about the headmaster’s daughter is that she portrays her father honestly. This focus on authenticity and, in turn, the essential phoniness of others around him, will be a recurring theme for Holden Caulfield.
At this point, the major literary devices to take note of are a strong point of view, anchored in the first-person narrator, as well as a clear sense of the novel’s themes. The tone of the novel is also interesting to explore because Holden dominates the narrative so overtly. While Holden’s tone is sarcastic and mocking, the tone of the novel seems more melancholy; we can already sense our antihero’s loneliness and pain.
In Chapter 2, Salinger continues to develop the history of Holden Caulfield. It is not his full life story, but this recent history is perhaps the most telling part of his life so far. Salinger gradually indicates that Caulfield has a longer history and troubles that are more deeply rooted than those of the conventional disaffected teenager; Holden moves from boarding school to boarding school with no sense of purpose. Even Holden’s style of narration reveals his lack of a coherent vision. He admits that he cannot concentrate on any particular topic, thinking about ice skating while Mr. Spencer lectures him.
As established in the previous chapter, Holden exemplifies the typical teenage feeling of alienation. He rejects the idea that life is a game, convinced that he is a misunderstood underdog (despite being a teenager privileged enough to move easily among Eastern prep schools), and he justifies his immaturity by claiming that he is going through a phase. His critiques are glib and without much substance, such as his insistence that others are “phonies” and his dislike of certain phrases such as “good luck.” He may be right in his critique, realizing that social relations and language are very often inauthentic, but his level of alienation has been taken to the extreme of making him unfit for regular human society. Holden’s diatribes against phonies are particularly instructive, but he does not always practice what he preaches; although he insists upon authenticity, he humors and flatters Mr. Spencer by agreeing with him.
Holden, then, demonstrates a great aversion for everything associated with adulthood, such as the smell of Vicks Nose Drops that permeates Mr. Spencer’s home and the behavior of Mr. Haas, just as he occupies a precarious space between childhood and the adult world. In appearance he is an adult, with his tall stature and prematurely graying hair, yet as he and others around him realize, he is still quite immature.
Holden’s behavior is not typical and excusable adolescent behavior, and Mr. Spencer shatters his ideal of authenticity by dismissing Holden’s vague justifications for his behavior and by confronting him with his failures. Holden’s desire to be authentic looks more like solipsism, a critique to which Holden cannot respond. But what if Holden is just taking a good idea to a bad extreme? Is it not true that maturity entails not just a loss of innocence but also a certain capitulation to phoniness? Holden is resisting the idea that in order to have the life he might want, he might have to satisfy others’ ideas about what is good. If we do what others want instead of what we would prefer to do, yes, it is a kind of phoniness, yet we might better call it humility, service, or learning from others.