Writing from a rest home where he’s recuperating from an unidentified ailment, Holden Caulfield says he’ll tell the story of what happened to him just before the previous Christmas. Holden’s story begins at his school, Pencey Prep, on the day of an annual football game that all of the students normally attend. Instead of going to the game, Holden, who has just been expelled for failing four of his five classes, visits Mr. Spencer, his elderly history teacher. Mr. Spencer lectures Holden by agreeing with what the headmaster, Dr. Thurmer, has already told him—namely, that life is a game which ought to be played by the rules. This, Spencer insists, is an important thing to internalize as Holden plans for his future. As he listens, Holden pretends to agree with Mr. Spencer, but actually thinks that his teacher is something of a “phony.” As the conversation continues, Mr. Spencer forces him to read aloud an unsatisfactory essay he wrote about the Ancient Egyptians, and this makes Holden resent him, since he already knows that he didn’t put enough effort into the assignment. Consequently, he lies and says that he has to leave to collect his things, though he simply returns to his dorm room to read.
Once he’s back in his room, Holden is confronted by his irritating neighbor, Ackley, who interrupts him as he tries to read. Later, his conceited and good-looking roommate, Ward Stradlater, bounds into the room. When Holden asks why he’s returned so early from the football game, he reveals that he’s on a date with a girl named Jane Gallagher. This catches Holden off guard, since he knows Jane Gallagher—he spent time with her when she lived next-door to him two years ago when his family summered in Maine. As Stradlater prepares for his date, Holden goes on at length about Jane, explaining small details about her personality. As he speaks, it becomes clear that he’s quite attached to his memories of Jane, but Stradlater only cares about whether or not he’ll be able to have sex with her. This unnerves Holden, but he doesn’t say anything and even agrees to do Stradlater’s English homework for him while he’s gone. The assignment is to write short descriptive essay, so Holden choses to write about his dead brother Allie’s baseball mitt.
Hours later, Stradlater returns from his date. Holden has been on-edge ever since he left, wondering what Stradlater was doing with Jane. Instead of answering Holden’s questions about the date, though, Stradlater reads what Holden has written and criticizes him for not following the rules, claiming to have told him that the essay had to be about a place or a house. Offended and angry, Holden snatches the composition and rips it to pieces. He then presses Stradlater for details about his date with Jane. This tense conversation makes him even angrier, so he punches Stradlater and calls him a moron. Because he’s bigger, though, Stradlater quickly gets the best of him, but this doesn’t stop Holden from calling him a “moron,” prompting Stradlater to knock him once and for all to the ground.
In the aftermath of his tussle with Stradlater, Holden decides to leave Pencey early, planning to stay in New York City until after his parents receive the news that he has been expelled, since he doesn’t want to be home when they learn this. Gathering his things, he turns before exiting the dorm building and yells, “Sleep tight, ya morons!” He then takes a train to New York, flirts with a middle-aged woman on the way, and rents a room at the Edmont Hotel when he arrives. Before long, he feels lonely and depressed and starts acting strangely. Going downstairs to the hotel’s nightclub, he dances with a woman named Bernice Krebs who is completely uninterested in him, instead wanting to spend time with her two friends. Nonetheless, Holden is undeterred, taking pleasure in how good of a dancer she is. However, he soon tires of Bernice and her friends because he thinks they’re “phony,” so he decides to take a taxi to a piano bar he used to frequent with his older brother, D.B. On his way, he wears a red hunting cap he recently bought and asks the cab driver what happens to the ducks in the Central Park lagoon during the winter, but the driver only tells him that he should care more about the fish, since they have to stay in the frozen water. All the same, the driver insists that nature takes care of the fish, urging Holden not to worry about such things.
After an unexciting time at the piano bar, Holden returns to the hotel and takes the elevator back to his room. On the way, the elevator operator, Maurice, offers to send a prostitute to his room for $5. Holden agrees, but is so uncomfortable when the prostitute, Sunny, actually arrives that he says he can’t have sex because of a recent surgical operation. Hearing this, she demands $10, but he only pays her $5 he and Maurice agreed upon. Shortly thereafter, Sunny returns with Maurice, who punches Holden in the stomach while Sunny takes another $5 dollars from his wallet.
The next morning, Holden makes a date with a girl he has dated in the past named Sally Hayes. He isn’t particularly fond of Sally’s personality, but she’s quite attractive. Plus, he’s lonely and simply wants company. In an ideal world, he would call Jane Gallagher, but every time he considers contacting her, he decides that he isn’t in the right “mood.” With time to kill before his afternoon date with Sally, then, he wanders around town, eventually hearing a boy sing a song while coming out of church: “If a body catch a body coming through the rye,” the youngster sings, touching Holden with his innocent voice and the beauty of the song. Hoping to find his younger sister, Phoebe, Holden walks all the way to the Museum of Natural History, thinking that her class might be there on a fieldtrip. On his way, he thinks about how much he loves the museum because its exhibits never change. A person can go time and again, he thinks, and the only thing that will change over time is the individual visiting the exhibits. When he finally reaches the museum, though, he finds himself unable to enter, so he takes a taxi to meet Sally Hayes.
The date does not go well. The play they see annoys Holden, as does the fact that Sally talks to a boy Holden thinks is “phony.” Afterwards, they go ice-skating, but Holden has a hard time enjoying this outing, wondering the whole time whether or not Sally only wanted to go skating because she knew she’d be able to wear one of the skimpy dresses the rink lets girls wear while they’re on the ice. Once they finish skating, they go into a bar-restaurant near the rink, and Holden begins to talk about everything he hates. He even asks Sally to run away with him to a cabin in New England, dreaming of a life of total freedom. Unfortunately for him, though, this fantasy comes crashing down on him when Sally refuses his invitation and asks him to stop shouting. Frustrated, he insults her by calling her a “royal pain in the ass.” When Sally begins to cry and asks Holden to leave, he gladly obliges, though he feels extremely depressed after this terrible interaction.
After spending time with Sally, Holden calls a former classmate named Carl Luce. Luce is three years older than him and goes to Columbia, and though Holden never actually liked him, he asks him if he wants to have dinner together. Uninspired by this invitation (because the last time Holden saw Luce, Holden called him a “phony”), Luce agrees to meet him late that night for drinks. When he arrives, though, he declares that he doesn’t want to have a “typical Caulfield conversation,” but Holden is incapable of restraining himself because he has had multiple scotch and sodas. As a result, he asks Luce a number of intrusive questions about his sex life, eventually driving him away, at which point Holden walks to Central Park to look at the ducks in the lagoon. There are no ducks, it’s freezing, and he imagines his own death, which he knows would make Phoebe miserable. Thinking along these lines, he decides to go home to see her.
Holden sneaks into his family’s apartment, wakes up Phoebe, and tells her he’s leaving to go live on a ranch in Colorado. Phoebe realizes Holden has been expelled, as he was from his former schools, and admonishes him for once again disappointing his parents—though she doesn’t do this in a way that particularly bothers him. She then asks what he wants to do in life, and Holden says he’d like to be a catcher in the rye, who rescues children by catching them before they fall off a steep cliff at the edge of a giant rye field that he has been envisioning recently.
While he’s home, Holden calls Mr. Antolini, his favorite teacher who used to teach English at Elkton Hills, Holden’s former school. Mr. Antolini is upset to hear that Holden has been kicked out of school once again, but he tells him to come over right away if he wants. Before Holden leaves, he gives Phoebe his red hunting hat and then sneaks out of the apartment, making his way to Mr. Antolini. When he arrives, Mr. and Mrs. Antolini greet him fondly, and Mr. Antolini sits with him in the living room to talk about his life. As they discuss his future, Holden begins to feel quite sick, but he tries to listen as Mr. Antolini warns him that he’s headed for a “terrible fall” and tries to convince him to be less rigid and judgmental. Holden listens, but is too tired to really absorb what Mr. Antolini is telling him, so Mr. Antolini sets up a place for him to sleep on the couch. Shortly thereafter, Holden abruptly wakes up and feels Mr. Antolini’s hand stroking his head. Thinking that Mr. Antolini is doing something “perverted,” he leaves.
After sleeping in Grand Central Station for a couple of hours, Holden decides to say goodbye to Phoebe before heading West. To do this, he goes to her school and gives an administrator a note to pass to Phoebe—a note that explains that he will meet her at the Museum of Art to say goodbye before he leaves. After delivering this note, he makes his way to the museum and has a tender moment with two young boys as tells them about the mummies in the Egyptian section. However, his lack of sleep and food (and his excessive intake of alcohol the night before) begin to catch up to him, and he passes out in the bathroom. Thankfully, though, he wakes up and goes back to the lobby to find Phoebe, who has arrived with a large suitcase. She informs him that she will be coming with him, and this forces him to see how absurd his plan is. Instead of following through with this idea, he takes Phoebe to the zoo and watches her ride a carousel. Between rides, she gives him back his hunting hat and he promises that he won’t be going West.
Holden’s story shifts back to the rest home, where he’s undergoing psychoanalysis. He says that he doesn’t know whether he’ll apply himself when he returns to school, and he wishes he hadn’t told so many people the story of his expulsion from Pencey, since doing so has made him miss the people he talked about.