The novel is a bildungsroman which reveals a few important days in the life of the protagonist Holden Caulfield, a tall, lanky, highly-critical and depressed sixteen-year-old who decides one night to run away from Pencey Prep boarding school, just before Christmas vacation. Holden has actually been expelled from Pencey Prep; he is required to leave the school for good, once vacation begins, but instead he secretly leaves a few days before his scheduled departure date, late one night after having a particularly depressing day with the people in his orbit. Rather than return to his family home in New York City, he decides to spend a few days in the city on his own. Because he is overly critical, and the fact that he points out faults of people only to exhibit them later, Holden is widely considered to be an unreliable narrator, and the details and events of his story are apt to be distorted by his point of view. Nonetheless, it is his story to tell.
His story starts on Holden’s last day at Pencey Prep. He is standing on the crest of a hill that overlooks the football stadium. It is the final game of the season, but Holden has never cared much for established tradition. He instead runs across the street to the residence of Mr. Spencer, Holden’s history teacher. It is revealed here that Holden has been expelled, and that he doesn’t particularly care. Mr. Spencer is disappointed in Holden, and lectures to him about the importance of hard work and education. Holden lies about removing some equipment from the gym to get out of the discussion, says goodbye to Spencer and his wife, and goes to the school dorm.
Back at the dorm, Holden talks to his roommate, Stradlater, a tall, good-looking ladies’ man. Holden sees him very differently, describing him as a “phony” and the sort of person who shaves and grooms himself for women, but doesn’t bother to clean the dirty, rusty razor he uses to do so. Stradlater returns home late from a date with Jane Gallagher, one of Holden’s childhood friends with whom he has had a long-standing infatuation. During Stradlater’s date, Holden had been told by Stradlater to write a theme for him on “a room or something.” Holden finds inspiration in writing about his brother Allie’s baseball mitt, but when Stradlater returns and finds what Holden has written, he is enraged. During the ensuing argument, Holden snaps and tries to hit his unsuspecting roommate. Stradlater quickly wins the fight, Holden not being particularly strong.
His neighbor in the dorm, Robert Ackley, is also introduced. Ackley is a pimple-ridden outcast whose relationship with Holden is fairly complex: On the one hand, Holden criticizes Ackley by calling him a “phony“, and expresses disgust at his hygiene, acne, and personality. But Holden spends time with him of his own free will; he is drawn to Ackley because there is nobody else, going to movies and having snowball fights with him even though he comments on how abrasive Ackley is.
That night, considering everything, especially the fact that he will be leaving Pencey anyway, Holden packs a suitcase and takes the train to New York City. En route, Holden meets the mother of one of his schoolmates. This schoolmate, in particular, was not popular at all; he was in fact nominated for class president as a joke. But Holden decides to benevolently lie to the mother; he tells her that her son is a terrific young man and very friendly. Holden also notes many times that although the mother is middle-aged, she is seemingly attractive.
Holden loiters around New York City, drinking heavily and meeting various people. He visits Club Ernie’s, but he is disappointed by the “phonies” who visit the club. He becomes increasingly depressed as he spends more time there, observing those around him and judging their hypocrisy.
Holden encounters a pimp at his hotel, the Edmont. He hires the pimp‘s prostitute, Sunny, but when she comes to his room, Holden cannot bring himself to have sex with her. He pays her, instead, to talk about life with him. Later, she leaves – but only to return with the pimp, who extorts another $5 from him forcibly.
Later, he has a date with one of his previous girlfriends, Sally Hayes. They go ice skating at Rockefeller Center and see the Christmas show at Radio City Music Hall. The experience leaves him more depressed, as he realizes that they do not have much in common. Holden tells her about a plan he has had for a long time to go out to the west coast and build a cabin and live off the land. Sally rejects him and his idea, especially after Holden frustratedly blurts out that she’s “a royal pain in the ass.”
Holden finally decides to surreptitiously return home to see his younger sister Phoebe. During a short conversation with her Holden reveals the meaning of the novel’s title: The “Catcher in the Rye” idea is based on a misreading of a line in the song “Comin’ Thro’ the Rye,” by Robert Burns, which Holden heard a young boy singing. The young boy instead substituted “When a body meet a body, comin’ thro’ the rye” for “When a body catch a body, comin’ thro’ the rye.”
Holden has a dream in which children play a game in a field of rye near a cliff, and it is his role to protect the children by catching anyone who comes too near to the edge. Such a job, he says, would make him truly happy. Holden tells Phoebe he has always wanted to be a Catcher in the Rye (symbolically, a rescuer of children). Holden tells her his plan to run away, to live far away from everybody, and Phoebe offers him her Christmas money. Holden flees the house when his parents arrive home.
Holden goes to a former teacher’s house, Mr. Antolini, where his teacher gives him a speech about life and how, in order to live happily, Holden has to be prepared. After Mr. Antolini becomes drunk, Holden and Antolini part to go to bed. Holden awakes to find Mr. Antolini patting and rubbing his head. Holden interprets this as a sexual advance, although the question of whether Antolini is gay, drunk, a caring man, or a combination of the three is never answered. Holden leaves confused and even more depressed after Antolini says he was just admiring him.
Holden sleeps in the train station. In the morning, he decides to hitchhike West and build a cabin for himself away from the people he knows. He plans to pretend he is a deaf-mute, and get an ordinary job. However, he can’t leave without saying goodbye to Phoebe and returning her Christmas money to her.
Explaining the situation, Holden gives a message to a person at her school so it could get to her. He tells her to meet him at lunchtime outside the museum so he can give her back the money. At the same time, Holden witnesses a “Fuck you” message etched on the wall, and comments that if you had a million years, you couldn’t get rid of half of the “Fuck you” messages on Earth.
When Phoebe arrives at lunchtime, she is carrying one of Holden’s old suitcases, full of clothes. Phoebe tells Holden that she no longer wants to be away from her brother, and is going with him. He refuses angrily, feeling that he has influenced her to want to go with him instead of staying in school. She cries and refuses to speak to him. Knowing that she will follow him, Holden walks to the zoo, letting his anger lift. After walking through the zoo, with a short distance between them, they visit a park across the street. Phoebe starts talking to Holden again, and Holden promises to go back home. He buys her a ticket for the carousel in the park and watches her ride an old horse on it. As Holden watches her ride the carousel, his own mood lifts. Soon he is nearly moved to tears with remorse, longing, and bittersweet happiness.
At this point in the book, the reader is given several clues as to the possibility that Holden is narrating the book from a mental hospital in California. He explains that he will be going to another school in the fall again but doesn’t know for sure if he will start applying himself. He then finishes talking with the words, “Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.”
The novel begins with a large number of boys being stranded on a desert island. The first two characters to meet are Ralph, an athletic and charismatic boy, and “Piggy”, a fat boy with glasses. The two boys obtain a conch and use it to call the other boys from across the island. The boys begin to discuss who should be their leader. Ralph and Piggy are the two obvious choices, but one other potential leader arises – Jack Merridew. Jack was a choir leader, who had formed a small choir out of the stranded boys. Ralph is elected as leader. Piggy is less popular than Ralph, but is intelligent, and becomes Ralph’s “lieutenant“. However, it is evident that Jack covets the leadership position. Then, Ralph takes Jack and Simon, another choir singer, to explore the island. During their exploration they find a trapped piglet. Jack pulls out a knife, but hesitates to kill it and it escapes. Jack vows never to hesitate again. Early on, the boys are full of optimism, and expect the island to be fun, despite the fact that many of the boys are scared of a “Beastie” – allegedly some kind of dangerous wild animal on the island seen by one of the younger boys with a birthmark on his face.
The boys then make their first attempt at being rescued by starting a signal fire (lit by Piggy’s glasses). The fire burns out of control, and scorches half of the island. The boy with a birthmark on his face who saw the “Beastie” goes missing during the fire, and is never seen again. Life on the island continues to deteriorate, and becomes more and more disorganized – the major characters (Jack and Ralph) have conflicting aims for the island, and there are only two people willing to build shelters.
The island’s descent into chaos starts, ironically, with the potential for rescue by a passing ship. Jack had led a group off hunting, and took with him the boys who were tending to the signal fire, so the ship sailed past without knowing of the boys on the island. An intense argument ensues, in which a lens of Piggy’s glasses is broken. Jack continues to push the boundaries of his subordinate role, and eventually becomes a tyrant. The irony is that the sound of his choir was originally described as the “voices of angels”, but the choir boys are later described as “demonic figures”. Although the signal fire is maintained along with a false sense of security, the order among the boys quickly deteriorates as Jack and Ralph continue to struggle for power.
The novel takes place during World War II, and a dogfight between two planes occurs over the island. One of the pilots parachutes out of his plane, but dies upon or before landing. Two twins, Sam and Eric (“Samneric”, as they become known) assume that the pilot is the Beastie, causing mass panic. An expedition to investigate leads to Ralph, Jack, and a choir boy ascending the mountain, but they eventually run away from what they believe is the Beastie. Jack denounces Ralph as a coward, and calls for another election for chief, but does not receive a single vote. He leaves the group to create a new tribe. Most of the older boys eventually leave “Ralph’s tribe” to join “Jack’s tribe”. This new tribe hunts down a pig, and they decide to host a feast. Before that, they sever the pig’s head and place it on a stick as an “offering” to the Beastie. Flies swarm around the head of the pig. Simon comes across it, and through hallucination, the dead pig speaks to him. Its message foreshadows Simon’s fate, and he runs down from the mountain to break the news about the dead pilot and being talked to by the “Lord of the Flies”. However, in doing so, he is mistaken as the Beastie, and is beaten to death by the other boys.
Ralph’s tribe dwindles in number. Jack’s larger, less civilized tribe, however, needs to steal from them to maintain their existence. They steal Piggy’s glasses to light a fire. Piggy demands his glasses back, but is killed when Roger launches a boulder into him, crushing the conch shell and sending him over a cliff. Jack tries and fails to kill Ralph, and the next day, his tribe tries to hunt him down. In doing this, they set up a forest fire, which is seen by a passing naval vessel, and one of the ship’s officers comes ashore and rescues the boys. Ralph’s brush with death is tinged with irony; Ralph had always pushed for a fire to be kept, but the fire that leads to their rescue was originally lit to kill him. For the first time on the island, Ralph cries, weeping for the “end of innocence” and the “darkness of man’s heart”.
The novel tells the story of Jude Fawley, a village stonemason in fictional Wessex County who yearns to be a scholar at “Christminster“, a city modelled on Oxford, England. In his sparse spare time, working for his aunt’s bakery, he teaches himself Greek and Latin. Before he can try to enter the university, the naïve Jude is manipulated into marrying a rather coarse and superficial local girl, Arabella Donn, who deserts him within two years. By this time, he had abandoned the classics altogether.
After she leaves, he moves to Christminster from his village and supports himself as a mason while studying alone, hoping to be able to enter the university later (he never will). There, he meets and falls in love with his cousin, Sue Bridehead. Sue and Jude also meet the latter’s former schoolteacher, Mr. Phillotson, who marries Sue some time later. Sue is attracted to the normalcy of her married life but quickly finds the relationship an unhappy one because, besides being in love with Jude, she is physically disgusted by her husband.
Sue eventually leaves Phillotson for Jude. Sue and Jude spend some time living together without any sexual relationship because Sue does not want one. They are also both afraid to get married because their family has a history of tragic marriages, and because they think being legally obliged to love one another might destroy their love. Jude eventually convinces Sue to have sex with him, and several children are born. They are also bestowed with a ten-year-old child from Jude’s first marriage, whom Jude did not know about earlier. He is named Jude and nicknamed “Little Father Time.”
Jude and Sue are socially ostracized for living together unmarried, especially after the children are born. Jude’s employers always dismiss him when they find out, and landlords evict them. The precocious Little Father Time, observing the problems he and his siblings are causing their parents, smothers Sue’s two children and then hangs himself. He leaves a note reading: Done because we are too menny [sic].
The shock of these events pushes Sue into a crisis of religious guilt. She returns to Phillotson and becomes his wife again. Jude, demoralized, is tricked into remarrying Arabella. After one final, desperate visit to Sue carried out in horrible weather, Jude becomes seriously ill and dies within the year, while Arabella is out courting a doctor.