As the novel opens, the narrator, Holden Caulfield, speaks directly to the reader from a mental hospital or sanitarium in southern California. He says that he will tell us (the readers) of events occurring around Christmastime of the previous year. First, however, he mentions his older brother, D.B., a writer who now works in nearby Hollywood and visits Holden nearly every weekend.
Holden's story, in the form of a long flashback, begins around 3 p.m. on a Saturday in December, the day of the traditional season-ending football match between his old school, Pencey Prep (in Agerstown, Pennsylvania) and rival Saxon Hall. Holden, a junior at Pencey, can see the field from where he stands, high atop Thomsen Hill. He has been expelled and is on his way to say good-bye to Mr. Spencer, his history instructor. At the end of the chapter, Holden arrives at Mr. Spencer's house and is let in by his teacher's wife.
In one of the best-known openings in American fiction, Salinger sets the tone for Holden's personality and narrative style. The first paragraph of the novel is often compared to the opening lines of Mark Twain's novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). From the beginning, we, the readers, realize that Holden is not a traditional narrator. He eschews details about his birth, his parents, and "all that David Copperfield kind of crap" (referring to Charles Dickens' novel by the same name). Holden speaks in the vernacular of a teenager of his day (the late 1940s). The literary point of view is first-person singular, unique to Holden but easily accessible to the rebels, romantics, innocents, and dreamers of any generation.
After stating that he will just tell us about the "madman stuff" that happened the previous December, Holden typically digresses to describe his brother, D.B., who was a "terrific" short story writer until he sold out and went to Hollywood. The theme of Holden's favorite D.B. story, "The Secret Goldfish" (about a child who buys a goldfish and does not allow anyone to look at it, because he has paid for it with his own money) foreshadows Holden's consistent passion for the innocence and authenticity of childhood.
The setting for the early chapters in the flashback is Pencey Prep, a "terrible" school whose atmosphere seems as cold as the December air on Thomsen Hill. Holden has no love for prep schools. Although he oddly respects the academic standards of Pencey, he sees it as phony, if not evil. Magazine ads for the school, featuring horsemanship, are misleading because, Holden claims, he has never seen a horse anywhere near Pencey. The school's motto, concerned with molding boys into "splendid" young men, is "for the birds," according to Holden. After all, one of the students has stolen his winter coat and fur-lined gloves.
Holden is not attending the football game for two reasons, both of which reveal a good deal about his character. First, Holden is careless and sometimes irresponsible. As manager of the fencing team, he left the equipment on the subway en route to a meet that morning with McBurney School in New York City. The team has returned to the school much earlier than it had planned. Second, Holden is on his way to bid farewell to his history teacher, Mr. Spencer, indicating that he does care about people. Holden has been expelled for academic failure and is not to return after Christmas break, which begins the following Wednesday. Even though he failed history with an abysmal performance, Holden does not blame the instructor. He likes old Spencer. Perhaps readers appreciate Holden more because he is not a perfect "hero." Certainly we are attracted to him because he has a heart.
Salinger himself was once enrolled in McBurney School in Manhattan, the intended site of the novel's canceled fencing meet. In addition, scholars often compare Pencey Prep to Valley Forge Military Academy, which Salinger attended from the ages of 15 to 17. Although similarities to Salinger's life occasionally occur throughout The Catcher in the Rye, as readers we should be careful about biographical interpretations. Writers often use personal experience as background. Holden may be a part of Salinger, but the first-person narrator should not be confused with the author.
Holden has been expelled from Pencey Prep because he has flunked four subjects (passing only English), including Mr. Spencer's history class. On his way to Spencer's home to say good-bye, Holden feels terribly cold. There is no sun, and he feels as though he might disappear as he crosses Route 204 to go to Spencer's house. This is the first of several instances when Holden feels he is losing himself or falling into an abyss. He arrives at the Spencer home frozen and shaken.
David Copperfield the first-person narrator of The Personal History of David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, published serially 1849-50 and in book form 1850.
hemorrhage the escape of large quantities of blood from a blood vessel; heavy bleeding.
prostitute to sell (oneself, one's artistic or moral integrity, etc.) for low or unworthy purposes; here, one who compromises principle for money.
faggy fatigued; wearied.
falsies devices, as pads or breast-shaped forms, worn inside a brassiere to make the breasts look fuller.
ostracized banished, barred, excluded, etc. by general consent, as from a group or from acceptance by society.
grippe influenza; the flu.
t.b. tuberculosis (an infectious disease characterized by the formation of abnormal hard swellings in tissues of the body, especially in the lungs).