Holden Caulfield, the 17-year-old narrator and protagonist of the novel, speaks to the reader directly from a mental hospital or sanitarium in southern California. The novel is a frame story (a story within a certain fictional framework) in the form of a long flashback. Holden wants to tell what happened over a two-day period the previous December, beginning on the Saturday afternoon of the traditional season-ending football game between his school, Pencey Prep, and Saxon Hall. Holden is 16 years old as the central story begins, tall at 6 feet 2 1/2 inches, partially gray-haired, and woefully skinny. He has grown 6 1/2 inches in just one year. He is out of shape because he smokes too much. His general health is poor. He is alternately depressed, confused, angry, anxious, perceptive, bigoted, resentful, thoughtful, kind, and horny. To put it simply, Holden is struggling.
To Holden, Pencey and the other prep schools that he has attended represent all that is artificial ("phony" is one of Holden's favorite words to describe this artificiality) and all that is despicable about any institution controlled by adults. The schools are filled with lies and cruelty, ranging in degree from the relatively harmless Pencey school motto ("Since 1888 we have been molding boys into splendid, clear-thinking young men.") to the brutally forced suicide of James Castle at Elkton Hills.
Holden resents the adult world and resists entry into it, but he has little choice. Society and his own body are telling him that it is time for him to change. He is attracted to the trappings of adulthood: booze, cigarettes, the idea of sex, and a kind of independence. But he despises the compromises, loss of innocence, absence of integrity, and loss of authenticity in the grown-up world. He seems best at the rites of passage (smoking and drinking) that are themselves artificial if not self-destructive. Despite his limited experience, his attitude toward women is actually admirable and mature. He stops making sexual advances when a girl says "No." He has trouble being very intimate unless he knows the girl well and likes her a lot. In his confusion, he sees this behavior as a weakness that may even call for psychotherapy. His interactions with the prostitute Sunny are comic as well as touching, partly because they are both adolescents trying to be adults. Although Sunny is the more frightening of the two, neither belongs there.
Holden is literally about to crash. Near the beginning as well as the end of the novel, he feels that he will disappear or fall into an abyss when he steps off a curb to cross a street. Sometimes when this happens, he calls on his dead brother, Allie, for help. Part of Holden's collapse is due to his inability to come to terms with death. Thoughts of Allie lying in his grave in the cemetery in the rain, surrounded by dead bodies and tombstones, haunt Holden. He wants time itself to stop. He wants beautiful moments to last forever, using as his model the displays in glass at the Museum of Natural History, in which the same people are shown doing the same things year after year. (Never mind that even museum displays change.) Holden's fears and desires are understandable, but his solution (avoiding reality) is impossible. Life is change. His feelings are typically adolescent, feelings shared by virtually everyone who is or ever has been his age. One of the reasons we like Holden is that he is so candid about how he feels.