Summary: Chapter 1
Holden Caulfield writes his story from a rest home to which he has been sent for therapy. He refuses to talk about his early life, mentioning only that his brother D. B. is a Hollywood writer. He hints that he is bitter because D. B. has sold out to Hollywood, forsaking a career in serious literature for the wealth and fame of the movies. He then begins to tell the story of his breakdown, beginning with his departure from Pencey Prep, a famous school he attended in Agerstown, Pennsylvania.
Holden's career at Pencey Prep has been marred by his refusal to apply himself, and after failing four of his five subjects—he passed only English—he has been forbidden to return to the school after the fall term. The Saturday before Christmas vacation begins, Holden stands on Thomsen Hill overlooking the football field, where Pencey plays its annual grudge match against Saxon Hall. Holden has no interest in the game and hadn't planned to watch it at all. He is the manager of the school's fencing team and is supposed to be in New York for a meet, but he lost the team's equipment on the subway, forcing everyone to return early.
Holden is full of contempt for the prep school, but he looks for a way to “say goodbye” to it. He fondly remembers throwing a football with friends even after it grew dark outside. Holden walks away from the game to go say goodbye to Mr. Spencer, a former history teacher who is very old and ill with the flu. He sprints to Spencer's house, but since he is a heavy smoker, he has to stop to catch his breath at the main gate. At the door, Spencer's wife greets Holden warmly, and he goes in to see his teacher.
Summary: Chapter 2
“Life is a game, boy. Life is a game that one plays according to the rules.”
Holden greets Mr. Spencer and his wife in a manner that suggests he is close to them. He is put off by his teacher's rather decrepit condition but seems otherwise to respect him. In his sickroom, Spencer tries to lecture Holden about his academic failures. He confirms Pencey's headmaster's assertion that “[l]ife is a game” and tells Holden that he must learn to play by the rules. Although Spencer clearly feels affection for Holden, he bluntly reminds the boy that he flunked him, and even forces him to listen to the terrible essay he handed in about the ancient Egyptians. Finally, Spencer tries to convince Holden to think about his future. Not wanting to be lectured, Holden interrupts Spencer and leaves, returning to his dorm room before dinner.
Analysis: Chapters 1–2
Holden Caulfield is the protagonist of The Catcher in the Rye, and the most important function of these early chapters is to establish the basics of his personality. From the beginning of the novel, Holden tells his story in a bitterly cynical voice. He refuses to discuss his early life, he says, because he is bored by “all that David Copperfield kind of crap.” He gives us a hint that something catastrophic has happened in his life, acknowledging that he writes from a rest home to tell about “this madman stuff” that happened to him around the previous Christmas, but he doesn't yet go into specifics. The particularities of his story are in keeping with his cynicism and his boredom. He has failed out of school, and he leaves Spencer's house abruptly because he does not enjoy being confronted by his actions.
Beneath the surface of Holden's tone and behavior runs a more idealistic, emotional current. He begins the story of his last day at Pencey Prep by telling how he stood at the top of Thomsen Hill, preparing to leave the school and trying to feel “some kind of a good-by.” He visits Spencer in Chapter even though he failed Spencer's history class, and he seems to respond to Mrs. Spencer's kindness. What bothers him the most, in these chapters and throughout the book, is the hypocrisy and ugliness around him, which diminish the innocence and beauty of the external world—the unpleasantness of Spencer's sickroom, for instance, and his hairless legs sticking out of his pajamas. Salinger thus treats his narrator as more than a mere portrait of a cynical postwar rich kid at an impersonal and pressure-filled boarding school. Even in these early chapters, Holden connects with life on a very idealistic level; he seems to feel its flaws so deeply that he tries to shield himself with a veneer of cynicism. The Catcher in the Rye is in many ways a book about the betrayal of innocence by the modern world; despite his bitter tone, Holden is an innocent searching desperately for a way to connect with the world around him that will not cause him pain. In these early chapters, the reader already begins to sense that Holden is not an entirely reliable narrator and that the reality of his situation is somehow different from the way he describes it. In part this is simply because Holden is a first-person narrator describing his own experiences from his own point of view. Any individual's point of view, in any novel or story, is necessarily limited. The reader never forgets for a moment who is telling this story, because the tone, grammar, and diction are consistently those of an adolescent—albeit a highly intelligent and expressive one—and every event receives Holden's distinctive commentary. However, Holden's narrative contains inconsistencies that make us question what he says. For instance, Holden characterizes Spencer's behavior throughout as vindictive and mean-spirited, but Spencer's actions clearly seem to be motivated by concern for Holden's well-being. Holden seems to be looking for reasons not to listen to Spencer.
Summary: Chapter 3
“This is a people shooting hat,” I said. “I shoot people in this hat.”
Holden lives in Ossenburger Hall, which is named after a wealthy Pencey graduate who made a fortune in the discount funeral home business. In his room, Holden sits and reads Isak Dinesen's Out of Africa while wearing his new hunting hat, a flamboyant red cap with a long peaked brim and earflaps.
He is interrupted by Ackley, a pimply student who lives next door. According to Holden, Ackley is a supremely irritating classmate who constantly barges into the room, exhibits disgusting personal habits and poor hygiene, and always acts as if he's doing you a favor by spending time with you. Ackley does not seem to have many friends. He prevents Holden from reading by puttering around the room and pestering him with annoying questions. Ackley further aggravates Holden by cutting his fingernails on the floor, despite Holden's repeated requests that he stop. He refuses to take Holden's hints that he ought to leave. When Holden's handsome and popular roommate, Stradlater, enters, Ackley, who hates Stradlater, quickly returns to his own room. Stradlater mentions that he has a date waiting for him but wants to shave.
Summary: Chapter 4
Holden goes to the bathroom with Stradlater and talks to him while he shaves. Holden contrasts Stradlater's personal habits with Ackley's: whereas Ackley is ugly and has poor dental hygiene, Stradlater is outwardly attractive but does not keep his razor or other toiletries clean. He decides that while Ackley is an obvious slob, Stradlater is a “secret slob.” The two joke around, then Stradlater asks Holden to write an English composition for him, because his date won't leave him with time to do it on his own. Holden asks about the date and learns that Stradlater is taking out a girl Holden knows, Jane Gallagher. (Stradlater carelessly calls her “Jean.”) Holden clearly has strong feelings for Jane and remembers her vividly. He tells Stradlater that when she played checkers, she used to keep all of her kings in the back row because she liked the way they looked there. Stradlater is uninterested. Holden is displeased that Stradlater, one of the few sexually experienced boys at Pencey, is taking Jane on a date. He wants to say hello to her while she waits for Stradlater, but decides he isn't in the mood. Before he leaves for his date, Stradlater borrows Holden's hound's-tooth jacket.
After Stradlater leaves, Holden is tormented by thoughts of Jane and Stradlater. Ackley barges in again and sits in Holden's room, squeezing pimples until dinnertime.
Analysis: Chapters 3–4
These chapters establish the way Holden interacts with his peers. Holden despises “phonies”—people whose surface behavior distorts or disguises their inner feelings. Even his brother D. B. incurs his displeasure by accepting a big paycheck to write for the movies; Holden considers the movies to be the phoniest of the phony and emphasizes throughout the book the loathing he has for Hollywood.
Unfortunately, Holden is surrounded by phonies in his circa- prep school. Preening Ackley and self-absorbed Stradlater act as his immediate contrasts. But, despite their flaws, he acts with basic kindness toward them, agreeing to write Stradlater's English composition for him in Chapter , even though Stradlater is out with Jane Gallagher, a girl Holden seems to care for very deeply. The pressure of adolescent sexuality—an important theme throughout The Catcher in the Rye—makes itself felt here for the first time: Holden's greatest worry is that Stradlater will make sexual advances toward Jane.
Stradlater and Ackley sound like appallingly unsympathetic characters, but this is completely the result of the tone in which Holden describes them. For instance, Holden indicates his awareness that Ackley behaves in annoying ways because he is insecure and unpopular, but instead of trying to imagine what Ackley wants or why he does things, he focuses on Ackley's surface—literally, his skin. By describing in minute detail Ackley's nail trimming and pimple squeezing, Holden makes him seem disgusting and subhuman.
Holden's interactions also reveal how lonely he is. He describes Ackley as isolated and ostracized, but it's easy to see the parallel between Ackley's and Holden's situations. Holden notes that he and Ackley are the only two guys not at the football game. Both are isolated, and both maintain a bitter, critical exterior in order to shield themselves from the world that assaults them. In Ackley especially, we can see the cruelty of the situation. Ackley's isolation is perpetuated by his annoying habits, but his annoying habits protect him from the dangers of interaction and intimacy. Ackley's situation greatly illuminates Holden's own inner landscape: intimacy and interaction are what he needs and fears most.
Holden's new hunting hat, with its funny earflaps, becomes very important to him. Throughout the novel, it serves as a kind of protective device, which Holden uses for more than physical warmth and comfort. When he wears the hat, he always claims not to care what people think about his appearance, which might be a source of self-conscious embarrassment for Holden—he is extremely tall for his age, very thin, and, though he is only sixteen, has a great deal of gray hair. But it is also important to note when Holden does not wear the hat. Part of him seems to want to display his rebelliousness, but another part of him wants to fit in—or, at least, to hide his unique personality. Although he mentions the freezing temperature, Holden does not wear the hat near the football game or at Spencer's house; he waits for the privacy of his own room to put it on.