1-Sentence-Summary: The Catcher in the Rye describes the adventures of well-off teenage boy Holden Caulfield on a weekend out alone in New York City, illuminating the struggles of young adults with existential questions of morality, identity, meaning, and connection.
Read in: 8 minutes
Favorite quote from the author:
“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.” That’s Holden Caulfield, 16-year-old protagonist of The Catcher in the Rye, in a nutshell: a combination of the joy of youth, ideological dreaming, and the slow onset of disillusion we all experience during adolescence.
At some 65 million copies sold and more landing in the hands of high school students each year, the book is an absolute classic of American literature. Its author, J. D. Salinger, fought in the Battle of Normandy in World War II, and he brilliantly managed to turn the horror of those experiences into something not just cathartic for him but for generations to come.
Here are three lessons from one of the most famous coming-of-age stories of all time:
- The only way to find meaning in life is to care about something and work for it.
- If you don’t take risks, you’ll never form an identity, let alone become who you want to be.
- Life is not that complicated if you choose to find joy in the little things.
Note: To historically significant books like this one, we’ll dedicate twice the word-space of our usual format. We hope you think it’s worth it. Let’s dive into one of the greatest novels of all time!
Lesson 1: Everything is meaningless if you don’t apply yourself to it.
Holden Caulfield is a well-off boy at a prep school a few hours away from his home. On paper, he has everything he needs: food, clothes, a good education, and more. Emotionally, though, he is down in the dumps. He’s a teenager. He wants to rebel agains his parents. So, after failing all of his classes except one, he decides to paint the town — New York, his hometown — before his parents hear the news that he will be expelled yet again.
As Holden narrates the events of his long-weekend adventure from a hospital a few weeks later (he caught pneumonia on his trip), one of the first things you’ll notice is that Holden complains about almost everything.
First, the people. Everyone at his school is “a phony,” someone who’s fake. He is suspicious of all his teachers, even the ones he likes. His roommates are either annoying and unhygienic or “stupid morons” who “take an hour to comb their hair.” Later, Holden complains about bartenders never relaying one’s message to someone. He goes on a date with a girl, Sally, who supposedly talks too much. The list goes on and on.
But Holden also finds something wrong with everything else. The weather is too cold. He doesn’t like the crowds of people on Broadway. He even hates it when someone wishes him good luck.
If Holden were an adult, we would file him under “complainer,” and write him off as a lost cause. But Holden is not yet an adult. This is the first time he realizes that life is not black-and-white. Deep down, he is shocked at the fact that he can find something wrong with everything, and, as a result, he struggles to become emotionally invested in anything.
As we all learn eventually, however, imperfection is just part of life. That’s how things are around here, and it’s not an excuse to give up on everything. The only way to find meaning is to care about something and commit to it — even if that thing is far from perfect. Holden is miserable because he focuses on the miserable side of everything. It all seems meaningless only because he refuses to care about anything, at least anything real, and honestly attempt to make something of it.
For example, if Holden applied himself more in school, he could have meaningful conversations with his teachers without being reprimanded. If he accepted his dorm neighbor’s better dating skills, he could learn from him. And if Holden focused on Sally’s excitement and wit, perhaps the two would actually get along.
At the very end of the book, Holden notices that he misses all the people he complained about. He finally realizes that, despite not being perfect, things, but especially people, can contribute greatly to our sense of meaning and happiness — but only if we’re willing to get involved with them.
Lesson 2: Becoming someone, anyone, really, but especially the person you want to be, requires taking risks.
A secondary theme of the book — and this, too, is something most of us experience as teenagers — is Holden’s struggle with forming an identity of his own. Just like Holden refuses to become emotionally attached to anything because he can’t assess it as unequivocally “good,” he is also paralyzed when it comes to chasing his own goals, because what would doing so say about him?
For example, once Holden checks into the Edmont hotel in New York, he orders a prostitute, Sunny, to his room so he can finally lose his virginity. Once she takes off her clothes, however, he panics and backs out. Naturally, Sunny feels annoyed for Holden wasting her time, and her pimp eventually takes more money from him than he agreed to pay. He also hits him in the stomach for good measure.
The punch in the gut is more than literal: If Holden does not want to sleep with a prostitute because it doesn’t align with his values, then he also can’t just check off his goal of having sex. Holden is forced to recognize that, just like other people are imperfect, so is he, and sometimes, his values will be at odds with his goals. Sooner or later, we all have to practice some kind of moral flexibility, if only because life forces us to choose between, say, attending one friend’s wedding or another’s.
But even with morally less taxing goals, Holden struggles. He never gets anywhere with Jane, for example, the woman of his dreams — mainly because he just doesn’t call her. Again and again, he is about to “give her a buzz,” but he keeps insisting he’s “not in the mood right now,” and “you really have to be in the mood for that stuff.”
What if Holden were to find out Jane is not as perfect as he thinks? What if she rejects him? These questions terrify Holden, and so he stays in place, miserable but comfortable in the knowledge that he’ll never have to answer them.
In the real world, our identity is formed by our actions. What we do defines who we are, and there’s no doing anything without incurring risk. Taking action is how we find our place in the world, and so if we don’t act, we’ll inevitably feel lost.
If you want to actually achieve your goals instead of just dream about them, you’ll have to take risks, and sometimes, taking a risk will lead to falling on your face. That, too, is part of life.
Lesson 3: Focus on the little joys, and life will become a lot less complicated.
For all his flaws and immaturity, Holden Caulfield still very much possesses the excitability and optimism so many of us lose as we grow up. He really enjoys his visit to the Museum of Natural History. He loves getting strangers to believe his made up but mostly harmless stories. Finally, Holden is thrilled at the prospect of delivering a record to his little sister, Phoebe, but unfortunately it breaks on the way.
It’s easy for Holden to get swept up in the positivity of the moment, and his idealistic dreams are admirable, even if they’re not realistic. One of those dreams he shares with Phoebe after sneaking back into his home. Ten-year-old Phoebe is pretty much the only character in the book Holden can relate to, partially because, in some ways, she is maturer than him, even telling him to get his act together in school, for example.
In the pivotal scene of the book, Holden tells her about his “dream job,” which he bases on a line from a song:
“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 I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.”
When Phoebe tells him that he misremembers both the wording of the line and the fact that it’s from a poem, not a song, Holden breaks down and cries. The scene perfectly captures the “Everything I’ve come to know and believe is a lie” feeling that runs through the book. Thankfully, the scene also contains the kernel of a solution: “That’s the only thing I’d really like to be.”
Slowly but surely, Holden is arriving at the epiphany that life doesn’t have to be complicated. It can be simple if you focus on the simple things, like dancing with your little sister, as Holden and Phoebe do in her room. Phoebe provides both a figurative and literal reminder for Holden of the little joys in life.
He spends most of the next day with Phoebe, and after going to the zoo together, the book ends with Holden observing Phoebe spinning around on a carousel, trying to grab a golden ring that’s always just out of reach. Despite the onsetting rain, he feels a profound sense of happiness, realizing that perhaps, if you focus on the good sides of people and life, growing up won’t be so bad after all — even if some of your goals will forever remain unaccomplished.
The Catcher in the Rye Review
I’ll be the first to admit that, after recently reading The Catcher in the Rye for the first time, I didn’t exactly feel the urge to “give old J. D. Salinger a buzz,” as Holden would say. In fact, I found the book profoundly depressing — but that is exactly the point. The more we wish we could shake Holden and yell, “Grow up!” at him, the more we realize that, not that long ago, we were just like him: a young, not-quite-yet adult, trying to make sense of the world.
How do teenagers think? What do they care about? How are they handling the existential crisis that is growing up? The tough questions this book asks and, in some cases, answers, are helpful not just for young adults but also for parents who wish they could see into their children’s heads.
I’m not sure how valuable the book would have been to me in tenth grade, but reading it with the temporal distance of already having made it safely into adulthood, it feels like I can understand myself a little better — and if that’s not a compliment for a book, I don’t know what is.
PS: We also made a snazzy list of the best quotes from the book.
Who would I recommend our The Catcher in the Rye summary to?
The 19-year-old college student who feels overwhelmed by the mountain of adulthood that lies in front of her, the 45-year-old father who’s worried about his daughter’s academic trajectory, and anyone who feels a little, or even a lot, lost in life.
Last Updated on February 4, 2023