J.D. Salinger's novel The Catcher in the Rye follows the young protagonist Holden Caulfield, who narrates a three-day stint after being kicked out of prep school sometime in the 1950s. Holden decides to leave before the end of the semester and travel to Manhattan, where he spends his time wandering the city and trying to connect with old friends and family.
Holden begins his story the day he leaves Pencey Prep, the all-boys boarding school he attends in Pennsylvania. It's Saturday, and there's a football game against Saxon Hill. Holden decides to go see his history teacher Mr. Spencer instead of watching the game. Mr. Spencer tries to talk some sense into Holden, who is being expelled for flunking nearly all of his classes. Holden decides that Mr. Spencer will never understand his point of view and returns to the dorms.
Back in his room, Holden is interrupted by Robert Ackley, who lives next door. Ackley is rather unpopular, and Holden expresses annoyance at Ackley's unhygienic personal habits. Stradlater, Holden's popular roommate, is getting ready for a date. Holden thinks Stradlater is a “phony," and he is displeased that Stradlater's date is Jane Gallagher. Jane is an old friend of Holden's, and he knows that Stradlater is a womanizer who won't treat her with respect.
Stradlater asks Holden to do his homework assignment for him. Holden acquiesces, and after he goes out for hamburgers and pinball with Ackley and his friend Mal Brossard, he goes back to the dorm to write. Holden writes the essay about his younger brother Allie's baseball glove. Holden reveals that Allie died of leukemia in 1946, and Holden is wrapped up in memories of Allie during the writing process.
When Stradlater returns to the dorms, he reads the essay and gets mad at Holden for straying from the assignment's instructions. Holden asks whether he slept with Jane, but Stradlater won't answer, and Holden becomes so angry that he punches him. Stradlater pins Holden to the ground and gives him a bloody nose in retaliation. Holden decides to leave school early and head to New York City. He sells his typewriter for some extra money. Between that sum and the amount his grandmother sent him, he figures he has more than enough money to last him for a couple of days.
On the train, Holden meets the mother of Ernest Morrow, a student Holden calls the "biggest bastard" at school. Holden tells the woman that his name is Rudolf Schmidt and makes up a story about how shy, modest, and popular Ernest is. Once they arrive in New York, Holden says goodbye to Mrs. Morrow and takes a taxi to Edmont Hotel. On the way, he becomes preoccupied with the whereabouts of the Central Park ducks during wintertime. He asks the driver, but the question only seems to annoy him.
At the hotel, Holden thinks about phoning Jane, but instead ends up going to the bar and trying to buy a drink. He dances with three tourist women. He finds their eagerness to spot celebrities pathetic and sad, but ultimately falls "half in love" with one of the women because of how well she dances. When the women leave, Holden starts thinking about Jane again. He decides to head to Ernie's, a popular spot for prep-school and college-age kids. He runs into Lillian Simmons, who used to date his older brother D.B. She invites him to sit with her, but he finds her pretentious, so he he leaves and walks back to his hotel.
The hotel's elevator operator, Maurice, offers to send a prostitute named Sunny to Holden's room for five dollars. Holden agrees, but when the woman arrives, he becomes uncomfortable and changes his mind. He sees how young and nervous she is and tells her that he just wants to talk. Sunny tells Holden that her visit costs ten dollars instead of five. Holden refuses to pay the extra money. Maurice and Sunny return together to beat Holden up and take the money.
The next day, Holden calls a former girlfriend named Sally to schedule a date, then heads to a sandwich bar for breakfast. At the sandwich bar, he talks to two nuns about their work and the books he's reading for school. Holden enjoys their company and donates ten dollars for their collection. He then leaves to go meet up with Sally. During his the walk, Holden buys a record called "Little Shirley Beans" for his younger sister Phoebe, knowing that she will love it.
At the play, Holden expresses how much he hates the "phoniness" of plays and movies. Sally, however, loves the matinee. Holden grows increasingly annoyed when Sally runs into an old friend and carries on a loud conversation with him about various acquaintances. Then Holden and Sally leave and go ice-skating in Central Park, mainly because Sally loves the skating costume she gets to wear. After ice skating, Holden urges Sally to run away with him and live in a cabin in the woods in New England. Sally refuses, seemingly panicked by Holden's behavior, and the two get into a fight. Holden calls her a "pain in the ass," and Sally gets so upset that they part ways on terrible terms.
Holden tries to call Jane again, but hangs up when she doesn't answer. He goes to see a movie, hating how cheesy it is, before going to see an old classmate of his named Carl Luce. They meet up at the Wicker Bar. Holden makes too many inappropriate jokes, and their conversation sours quickly. After Luce leaves, Holden remains at the bar and gets very drunk.
Holden calls Sally late at night to make amends, but her mother answers the phone and Sally gets on the line only to tell him to go home. He takes a walk in Central Park, where he accidentally breaks the record he bought for Phoebe. Holden decides to go home to visit her. He is careful to sneak into her room to avoid being detected by his parents, who still think he's at school and do not know about his expulsion.
Holden loves talking with Phoebe, but when she finds out that he's been expelled, she grows angry with him. Phoebe asks Holden if he likes anything, and he can't think of anything other than this boy, James Castle, who fell out a window at school and died. He tells Phoebe that he likes Allie, and she retorts that Allie is dead.
Holden tells Phoebe that he fantasizes about being the "catcher in the rye." He envisions a group of children running around in a field of rye at the edge of the cliff, and pictures himself catching the children and saving them from falling over the edge-effectively preventing them from losing their innocence.
Holden leaves when his parents return from a party. He rings up his old English teacher, Mr. Antolini, who lives in the city and teaches English at NYU. Mr. Antolini tries to give Holden life advice, and warns him about caring too much about the wrong things so as to not be able to function in society. He and his wife set up the couch for Holden to spend the night on. Holden is woken up by Mr. Antolini patting his head and becomes so uncomfortable that he leaves. He ends up sleeping at Grand Central Station and spends the next day wandering around Fifth Avenue.
Holden fantasizes about leaving the city and pretending to be a deaf-mute so that he can work as a gas station attendee out West and never interact with anyone. He visits Phoebe's school and leaves a note asking her to meet him at the museum to say goodbye for good. While at the school, Holden notices an expletive scribbled on the wall. He grows angry thinking about the innocent children who will see the word and learn its meaning. He tries to rub it off, but it's permanent. Phoebe meets Holden at the museum as he requested. She has a suitcase with her, and she tells Holden that she wants to run away with him. Holden refuses and Phoebe gets so angry that she won't walk next to him. They go the Central Park Zoo. Holden tells Phoebe he will stay, and he buys her a ticket for the carousel. He experiences overwhelming happiness as he watches her ride the carousel.
Holden ends the story by alluding to the time that has lapsed since the events in the novel. He says that he got sick, has been visiting with a psychoanalyst, and is going to start a new school in September. Holden ends the novel by expressing how much he misses his old classmates and others in his life.