It is several months into 1950, and 16-year-old Holden Caulfield is recuperating at an unspecified location after becoming “run-down.” His story begins, he says, around Christmas of last year, though he doesn’t want to go into too much detail about his life. Instead of explaining the specifics of his childhood, he has decided to only describe some of the “madman stuff” that has happened to him in the past year. After all, this limited amount of information is all he told his own brother, D.B., who visits him every week. Holden notes that D.B. is a talented writer who has recently started working on movies in Hollywood, a career decision Holden looks down upon, thinking that D.B. is now nothing but a “prostitute” in the movie industry, which Holden hates because he can’t stand movies in general.
Although Holden has just begun telling his story, he doesn’t want to give up too much information about his background. This suggests that, although he wants to share what has happened to him in the past year, he doesn’t actually want to reveal very much about himself. In this regard, he remains guarded even as he tries to express himself, ultimately indicating that he doesn’t want to examine certain parts of his own life, which are perhaps troubling to him. On another note, his feelings about D.B.’s involvement in the film industry hint at his cynical outlook, as does his general dislike of movies.
Holden’s story begins at Pencey Prep, an exclusive private school for boys in Agerstown, Pennsylvania. It is the day of Pencey’s long awaited football game against its rival, Saxon Hall, but Holden has decided not to attend. Even the headmaster of Pencey, Dr. Thurmer, is at the game, but this means nothing to Holden because he thinks Thurmer is “a phony slob.” As the game begins, Holden stands atop a hill and looks down at the commotion, thinking about the fact that he’s hardly missing anything worthwhile, since there are rarely many girls at the football games.
From the very beginning of Holden’s story, it becomes clear that he feels distanced from his peers. While everyone at Pencey is at the school’s big football game, he stands atop a nearby hill, a situation that emphasizes that he exists at a remove from the people in his life. This is a self-enforced brand of isolation, since Holden doesn’t want to be at the game, which he associates with “phony slob[s]” like Dr. Thurmer. In this moment, then, his hyper-critical outlook comes to the forefront of the novel. The only thing that might convince him to join his peers, it seems, would be if there were girls in attendance, suggesting that the possibility of having a romantic encounter is perhaps one of the only things that might motivate him to overcome his distaste for “phony” camaraderie.
Holden never planned on attending the annual football game in the first place, since he’s supposed to be in New York City with the fencing team. He doesn’t fence, but he is—or was—the manager of the team, but he accidentally left all the equipment on the subway, forcing the team to forfeit the match. As a result, the entire team refused to speak to him the entire ride back to Pencey, though Holden says that the entire situation was almost humorous to him.
Holden’s isolation from his peers once more becomes apparent. This time, his failure to fulfill the fencing team’s expectations alienates him from the athletes. That he doesn’t seem to care about this is worth noting, since it suggests that he’s used to disappointing the people in his life and letting this estrange him from them.
While it’s true that Holden doesn’t care about the football game against Saxon Hall, he has also decided not to attend because he has plans to visit Mr. Spencer, his history teacher. Mr. Spencer is elderly and has come down with a nasty cold, and he wrote Holden a letter asking him to visit before he goes home. At this point, Holden reveals that he has been expelled from Pencey because he’s failing four out of his five classes. The school has given him multiple warnings, but he still hasn’t put in the effort to improve his grades, even after his parents recently visited to have a frank discussion with Dr. Thurmer.
Holden’s failure to improve his grades is consistent with his overall lack of concern regarding what other people think. In the same way that he doesn’t care about disappointing his peers on the fencing team, he also doesn’t care about disappointing his parents, Mr. Spencer, or Dr. Thurmer. This, in turn, suggests that he is uninterested in doing things for other people, clearly finding it pointless to put effort into doing something about which he doesn’t care.
As Holden stands on the hill, he tries to feel a sense of closure. He claims to have no problem with leaving Pencey, but he doesn’t like departing from a place without saying a proper goodbye. After thinking for a moment, he remembers an evening in the fall when he and two friends passed a football back and forth until it was too dark to see. This memory suddenly makes him feel as if he has grasped the fact that he’s leaving, and he senses that he has managed to bid Pencey farewell. Glad to have gained this closure, Holden runs down the hill toward Mr. Spencer’s house.
Holden’s desire to bid Pencey a proper farewell suggests that he yearns for closure in his life. Although he doesn’t care about getting kicked out of Pencey, he apparently has a certain emotional attachment to the place, at least insofar as he wants to have a way to remember it once he’s gone. In this moment, then, readers see that Holden is more sentimental than he wants to admit.