The Catcher in the Rye: Novel Summary: Chapter 1-5

Chapter 1: Salinger’s first chapter introduces the main character and narrator— Holden. The first and second-person narration engages both the psychologist to whom he is speaking as well as the reader. The reader is first struck by the lack of organization which Holden employs to convey his message. The stream-of-consciousness narration seems to have no recognizable pattern; there are many digressions to other subjects making it apparent that Holden himself doesn’t know exactly what he’ll say next.
Holden first mentions his brother, D.B., who is a writer in Hollywood. Yet Holden doesn’t seem to care for his brother’s activities too much, admitting that D.B. is “being a prostitute.” Secondly, Holden describes his dissatisfaction with his school, Pencey Prep., where the slogan, “molding boys into splendid, clear-thinking young men,” doesn’t seem applicable. Holden thinks that too many of the people at Pencey are “phonies”– a term he uses to describe anyone who exhibits some sort of human frailty. Often these frailties include conceit, apathy, and ignorance.
The end of the chapter includes Holden’s retreat from the big football game to his dorm room, and a narration of his troubles with the fencing team. The team had to forfeit the match when Holden left all their equipment on the wrong train. Holden is embarrassed by this, but is quick to judge the team, blaming them for the mishap. Later, Holden admits that he’s getting kicked out of Pencey Prep. because of his poor grades. This too, seems to cause embarrassment, but again, Holden blames others by saying, “the more expensive a school is, the more crooks it has.”
Chapter 2: Most of the second chapter is dedicated to Holden’s visit with Mr. Spencer. He describes him as always stooped over in class— an old, weak teacher. The two converse for a while before Mr. Spencer tells Holden, “Life is a game, boy. Life is a game that one plays according to the rules.” Holden nods his head in agreement but inwardly he says it’s only a game for “hot-shots.” Holden can’t truly accept what Mr. Spencer is saying because Holden can’t accept the rules and has never accepted them. He continually sees hypocrisy in positions of authority and thus cannot accept those persons’ rules as legitimate.
Later in the chapter Holden digresses about his age and whether or not he acts like it. He admits that sometimes he doesn’t act his age. This leads the reader to think that Holden, though very tall for his age, is still very immature on the inside. Soon another aspect of Holden’s personality is revealed with Mr. Spencer reads him the essay Holden wrote on the final exam which he failed. After writing only a few brief sentences, Holden inscribed a personal message to Mr. Spencer, apologizing for the essay and saying that he won’t blame Mr. Spencer if he fails him. This uncovers the truly humanitarian side of Holden. Even though he and Mr. Spencer lie on “opposite sides of the pole,” Holden still attempts to console the elderly teacher, telling him it’s not his teaching that caused him to fail. It’s as if Holden is trying to preserve Mr. Spencer’s self-dignity, an innocence Holden wants to protect.
To escape the lecture of his teacher, yet not offend him, Holden lies about having to pick up equipment in the gymnasium. This is also consistent with the above assertion made about Holden.
Chapter 3: Holden continues his resentment of authority in chapter three as he describes Mr. Ossenburger, the man after whom his dorm is named. To Holden, Ossenburger is just another phony— someone who shows up to football games once and year to make it look as though he actually still cares about the school. He tells about a speech Ossenburger made to all the Pencey Prep. students in which he tells the boys to speak to God as though he’s one’s best friend. Holden can’t comprehend this because its meaning is clouded in his mind: he sees Ossenburger as just bragging that he talks to God this way, which makes Holden more firmly believe that Ossenburger is a phony. As will be shown later, Holden has a hard time accepting established religion.
After Holden tells about what kinds of books he likes to read, he introduces Ackley to the reader. Ackley is the Pencey student who lives right next to Holden in the dorm. Holden describes Ackley as a dirty fellow who never brushes his teeth and has terrible pimples all over his face. Like the other people he’s encountered, Holden is quick to judge Ackley, saying that he’s an annoying guy who he never really likes to be around.
Toward the end of the chapter, Stradlater, Holden’s roomate, barges into the room and aks to borrow Holden’s jacket for a date. Ackley complains about Sradlater’s superiority complex, and it’s obvious that the two strongly dislike each other.
Chapter 4: Salinger’s fourth chapter is mostly set in the men’s restroom of the dorm, or “the can,” as Holden so eloquently names it. Holden describes Stradlater as a phony moron, a good-looking guy with a nice build but someone who can’t carry on an intelligent conversation. Holden resents Stradlater for being so successful without any concern with what’s right or wrong. Soon Stradlater begs Holden to write his English composition paper for him. Holden reluctantly agrees, again showing his selfless concern for others.
Stradlater also mentions his date with Jane Gallagher, a childhood girlfriend of Holden. Holden quickly remembers all the fun the two of them had together as kids. Distinctly, he recalls how they always used to play checkers and how she would always keep her kings in the back row. To Holden, this detail represents more than simply a childhood memory, but actually an inability to separate his past from his present. The reader cannot determine this yet, however; it takes a few pages for Salinger to show Holden’s obsession with the kings.
Lastly, chapter four demonstrates Holden’s lack of personality. Since he changes his attitude when he’s around different people (Ackley to Stradlater), the reader doesn’t observe any clear, consistent moral compass. This supports the idea that Holden is not a normal person, but just a sponge of sorts, absorbing everything around him yet being unable to interpret, rationalize or articulate it.
Chapter 5: The fifth chapter builds on the tendencies and beliefs of Holden initiated in the previous chapters. The first continuation is the commentary about phonies. Holden again knocks the school he is leaving by saying that the only reason they have steak on Saturday nights is because so many parents visit on Sundays, and when the students’ mothers ask their sons what they had for dinner the night before they can answer that they had steak. To the reader, this seems to be a pretty superficial explanation, but Holden is adamant about his conviction. The second continuation of previous themes is when Holden, always thinking of others, invites Ackley along to the movies. Although Holden admits that sitting next to him at the movies is “not at all enjoyable,” he doesn’t say anything, viewing the movie as more of a public service than a fun thing to do with friends. Holden comments on the phoniness of the actors, saying they don’t act like real people. He can’t imagine why anyone would actually watch a movie for entertainment alone. Again, this delves into Holden’s inability to separate reality from fiction.
Later, after returning from the movies, Holden decides to write Stradlater’s composition. This is where he introduces Allie to the reader. Not being able to think of anything about a house to describe, Holden decides to use his brother Allie’s baseball mitt. Allie, he says, has died of Leukemia a few years before. Soon he goes into a long narration about what a great brother Allie was, and how he was nice to everyone. He talks about how wonderful Allie was in every aspect of life, and then Holden confesses that he is really the only dumb one in the family. Holden feels guilty that he hasn’t lived up to the family standard. Holden thinks that by possessing Allie’s baseball glove full of love poems, somehow he can recapture some of the love he has missed through the years.