The Catcher in the Rye

The Catcher in the Rye Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of J. D. Salinger

Jerome David Salinger grew up on Park Avenue in Manhattan. His father was a successful Jewish cheese importer, and his mother was Scotch-Irish Catholic. After struggling in several prep schools, Salinger attended Valley Forge Military Academy from 1934 to 1936. He went on to enroll in several colleges, including New York University and Columbia, though he never graduated. He took a fiction writing class in 1939 at Columbia that cemented the dabbling in writing he had done since his early teens. During World War II, Salinger ended up in the U.S. Army’s infantry division and served in combat, including the invasion of Normandy in 1944. Salinger continued to write during the war, and in 1940 he published his first short story in Story magazine. He went on to publish many stories in The New Yorker, the Saturday Evening Post, Esquire, and others from 1941 to 1948. In 1951 he published his only full-length novel, The Catcher in the Rye, which rocketed Salinger into the public eye. Salinger hated his sudden fame and retired from New York to Cornish, New Hampshire, where he lived until his death in 2010. In his final years, he continued to avoid contact with the media, and ceased publishing any new works.
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Historical Context of The Catcher in the Rye

Many parallels exist between Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of The Catcher in the Rye, and J. D. Salinger: both grew up in upper-class New York City, both flunked out of prep schools, and so on. It’s no surprise, then, that Salinger’s experience in World War II should cast a shadow over Holden’s opinions and experiences in The Catcher in the Rye. World War II robbed millions of young men and women of their youthful innocence, and Salinger himself witnessed the slaughter of thousands at Normandy, one of the war’s bloodiest battles. In Catcher, we see the impact of Salinger’s World War II experience in Holden’s mistrusting, cynical view of adult society. Holden views growing up as a slow surrender to the “phony” and shallow responsibilities of adult life, such as getting a job, serving in the military, and maintaining intimate relationships. World War I was supposedly “the war to end all wars,” but World War II proved that this claim was as hollow as the "phony" ideas that adult characters force upon Holden throughout The Catcher in the Rye.

Other Books Related to The Catcher in the Rye

Not much is known about the influences Salinger drew upon to write The Catcher in the Rye. It is known that during World War II he met with Ernest Hemingway in Paris, which suggests that Salinger admired Hemingway’s work. Even if that’s true, it’s difficult to trace any particular author’s influence in Catcher because the novel is written in such a fresh and unique voice with a degree of candor and brashness perhaps unprecedented in American fiction. Having said that, similar themes arise in books like John Knowles’s 1959 novel, A Separate Peace, which, much like The Catcher in the Rye, is a coming-of-age novel set against the backdrop of an East Coast prep school. The Catcher in the Rye is ranked among other great coming-of-age stories such as James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses. Furthermore, it’s worth mentioning that Salinger published a short story that mentioned Holden Caulfield six years before The Catcher in the Rye appeared as a book. The story was published by Esquire under the title “This Sandwich Has No Mayonnaise,” and suggests that Holden eventually goes “missing-in-action” as an adult. This information precedes the novel’s focus on Holden Caulfield’s depression and suicidal thoughts as he navigates the grey area between childhood and adulthood, similar to books like The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey, which all focus heavily on mental illness. Though initially intended for adults, The Catcher in the Rye has become an iconic book for young-adult audiences due to its teenage protagonist and themes of alienation, identity, mental health, and growing up, which resonate with adolescents. It has served as an inspiration for innumerable YA works such as John Green’s Looking for Alaska, which is also about a disillusioned teenager at a boarding school; Ned Vizzini's It’s Kind of a Funny Story, which centers on a suicidal young man who checks himself into a mental health ward; and Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, whose protagonist, like Holden, is a high school student who recounts the events that lead up to his mental breakdown.
Key Facts about The Catcher in the Rye
  • Full Title: The Catcher in the Rye
  • When Published: 1951
  • Literary Period: Modern American
  • Genre: Bildungsroman
  • Setting: Agerstown, Pennsylvania and Manhattan, New York in 1950
  • Climax: After he wakes up to find Mr. Antolini stroking his forehead, Holden jumps up and hastily leaves Mr. Antolini’s apartment.
  • Antagonist: Stradlater, phonies, adulthood, and change

Extra Credit for The Catcher in the Rye

The Censor in the Rye. Many critics dismissed the book as trash due to its healthy helping of four-letter words and sexual situations, and even as recently as 2010, The Catcher in the Rye was banned in school districts in Washington, Ohio, Florida and Michigan.

Film Rights. Although many directors and screenwriters have wanted to adapt The Catcher in the Rye as a film over the years, J.D. Salinger never sold the rights, thus making it impossible for the movie to be made.