Novel by J. D. Salinger, published in 1951.
Holden Caulfield, a lonely, compassionate, and quixotic 16-year-old boy, plagued by the “phoniness” of his moral environment, leaves Pencey, the Pennsylvania preparatory school from which he has been expelled, for New York City. Having said goodbye to his conceited athletic roommate Stradlater and the “pimply, boring” Ackley, and fearful of confronting his parents, he checks into a depressing, cheap hotel. Unable to see or telephone his innocent, affectionate sister Phoebe, of whom he is very fond, he goes in desperation to nightclubs. Returning to the hotel, he accepts the elevator operator's offer of a prostitute, but depressed by and sorry for the girl, he retains his virginity, only to be confronted soon by the girl and her pimp, Maurice, who demands more money and fights with Holden. The next morning he meets Sally Hayes, an old girl friend, takes her ice skating, tells her that he is tired of the ubiquitous hypocrisy that he encounters, and asks her to run away with him to the New England countryside. Righteously angered by his impractical scheme, the pseudo-sophisticated Sally refuses, they fight, and Holden leaves her. After becoming drunk and making a nostalgic visit to Central Park, he sneaks home that evening to see Phoebe, who is distressed by his negativism and challenges him to name one thing he would like to be. Holden replies that he would like to be “the catcher in the rye.” Mistaken in his recollection of Burns's poem, he says, “Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody's around—nobody big, I mean—except me. And I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff—I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going …,” a persistent image indicative of his desire to preserve innocence. Leaving his parents' apartment, he spends the night at the home of Mr. Antolini, his former English teacher, whose homosexual advances repel Holden and set him in flight. “Confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior,” he decides to see Phoebe once more before running away to the West, but suddenly filled with love for her and the world, he knows he cannot leave. After going home, Holden has a nervous breakdown, but recovers to tell in his own vivid vernacular of these two dramatic days and of the experiences and feelings that lie behind them, as he is filled with sympathy for everyone he has known, “even … that goddam Maurice.”