17-year-old Holden Caulfield narrates this tale from either a tuberculosis wing or mental ward facility in California (it is implied as such), reflecting about events that occurred the year before, when he was 16, over a 12-day period near Christmas break. When our story begins, Holden is a foul-mouthed antisocial pessimist and seemingly indifferent student at a private all-boys school in Pennsylvania, Pencey Prep. He doesn't have many friends, and he hates all of his classmates and teachers. He is failing all but one of his school subjects, and, to avoid causing more trouble, flees Pennsylvania during the middle of the night to NYC, where he has numerous misadventures and experiences.
Holden's bleak, cynical view of the world is due to the fact that he believes that everyone around him is a phony, the whole world is bad, and that it is just too much for the younger generation to bear. Wanting to protect children's innocence, he imagines himself being the catcher of kids in a field of rye over a cliff as they play, stopping them from growing up altogether. He gets this image from a misinterpreted song lyric, as this reality is nigh-impossible.
Holden also has to deal with a dysfunctional home life and personal problems. Around girls, he's quite awkward, and can't get the Courage or guts to get up and talk to the phone to his crush, Jane Gallagher. His older brother, D.B., has quit his profession as an author and left home to become a screenwriter in Hollywood for the movies (another form that Holden supposedly disdains, due to its fauxness), His parents are constantly absent (both physically and emotionally) and emotionally distant from their son's surroundings and don't even care for their son's being, revealing the depths of his slowly unravelling mental breakdown. His younger brother, Allie, whom he was closely bonded with, became sick and succumbed to leukemia at the age of 11 in 1946 while the Caulfields were out on vacation, when Holden was 13. He [Holden] is still reeling from the aftermath of Allie's death. Holden is also still trying to come to terms after witnessing the harsh bullying of a classmate of his, James Castle, at a previous boarding school that he flunked at, and Castle's ensuing suicide note. His sister, 10-year-old Phoebe, is concerned for her brother's well being and has a flawed, but loving, relationship with him. And over the course of the 12 days, it is made into a memorable, but at times difficult to read, account of an awkward adolescent and angst.