Holden Caulfield, the novel's narrator and protagonist, says he wants to tell the story of some "madman stuff" that happened to him around last Christmas. It's now a few months into 1950 and Holden is recuperating at an unspecified location after becoming "run-down."
Holden is in a mental hospital or similar facility after suffering a nervous breakdown. He's been taken out of society so that he can recover.
Holden refuses to talk about his childhood, though he comments that his parents are "touchy as hell" and that his brother, D.B., who visits him weekly, writes for Hollywood. Holden compares D.B.'s new job to prostitution.
First instance of Holden's negative view of adults, as well as his hatred of "phony" pursuits like screenwriting.
Holden begins his story at Pencey Prep, an exclusive private school for boys in Agerstown, Pennsylvania, on the day that Pencey has its annual football game against arch rival Saxon Hall. Even the Pencey headmaster, Dr. Thurmer, is at the game. Holden calls him a "phony slob."
Basically the whole school goes to the game except Holden. He's an outsider, who dislikes the headmaster and his classmates.
Holden isn't even supposed to be at Pencey. He was supposed to be in New York City with the fencing team, of which he was manager. But he accidentally left the team's foils (swords) on the subway and the team had to come back early. Holden finds the whole mix-up amusing.
Holden is immature. He doesn't act responsibly, and then he acts as if he doesn't care.
Holden also mentions that he's failed four of his five classes—everything but English—and been expelled. So instead of going to the game, he goes to visit his history teacher, Mr. Spencer, to say goodbye.
Holden seems almost to be trying to get himself kicked out of school. He doesn't want to grow up, and wants to be alone.