Catcher in the Rye Essay (Updated for 2020)

  • Last Edited: December 19, 2018
catcher in the rye essay


Crafting a Catcher in the Rye essay on J.D. Salinger’s famed and beloved novel is an exercise both enjoyable and challenging. The book has done what so few pieces of literature have attempted to do and failed—it has remained relevant to youths everywhere, over half a century after its release. As a result of its celebrated quality, writing an essay on the novel can be daunting. This is because so many of themes and symbols have been picked apart and devoured repeatedly by scholars and critics. However, the better you understand the novel and the major concepts that shape it, the more primed you will be to write the most original and thoughtful essay you are capable of creating.

Related Topics

  • How does the loss of Allie motivate many of Holden’s actions, thoughts and feelings?
  • Authenticity matters tremendously to Holden. Is he authentic? Explain.
  • Jane is a pervasive force in the novel and impacts Holden tremendously. Discuss.
  • Explain why the novel had to end with Holden never calling Jane.
  • Explain why the novel should not have ended without Holden phoning Jane.
  • Discuss Holden’s relationship to sex as hinted at in the novel.
  • Holden’s parents are an invisible presence in the novel. Discuss why Holden avoids them and how they impact him.
  • Holden is very isolated by the world around him. How much of that is real and how much of it is self-imposed? Discuss.
  • The novel abounds with objects—the red hunting hat, the skate key, checkers, Allie’s mitt, Phoebe’s record. Pick one object that Holden mentions or encounters and discuss the symbolism it suggests.
  • Money and class are a strong influence on Holden and in the novel, often influencing some of his actions. Discuss.
  • While the Catcher in the Rye has some dated elements to it, the core of the novel is still unquestionably relevant today. Agree or disagree. What is “the core of the novel”?
  • Holden’s use of sarcasm is often hilarious, though he often uses it as a strategic tool: sometimes to mollify his reality, other times to dismiss things he doesn’t understand, other times as a defense mechanism, etc. Discuss three instances where he uses sarcasm as a means of self-protection.


Holden Caufield, a teenager, opens his story from an institution of some sort (a sanatorium or some other mental health facility). The novel is a recollection of his adventures that had occurred before the last Christmas. At the start of this recollection, Holden explains to the reader that he was expelled from his ritzy private school, Pencey Prep, for failing out of all his courses. On his way out, he runs into Ward Stradlater, his roommate. Stradlater informs Holden that he’s going on a date with an old friend of his, Jane Gallagher. Stradlater also asks Holden to write an essay for him, and Holden complies. When Stradlater returns from his date he says the essay that Holden wrote (about his deceased brother Allie’s baseball mitt) isn’t acceptable. He also won’t tell Holden what exactly went on during his date with Jane—just that they hung out in his borrowed car for several hours. Holden tries to punch him and they scuffle. Holden then bums around the dorm and the loneliness of his situation overwhelms him and he decides to leave for New York a few days early.

However, Holden has to go find a hotel to stay in when he finally arrives in New York, as he can’t go home. Holden claims that his parents do not yet know that he has been expelled, which might be true. Holden has also explained to the reader that “I’m the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life” (22).  So it’s also possible that the school called his parents, and they already know about him being expelled. Thus, Holden just wants to avoid going home a bit longer. The reader doesn’t know for sure. Holden then gets room at the Edmont Hotel, and inevitably starts to feel isolated, so he goes down to the Lavender Room, the nightclub in the hotel. He has some awkward interactions there and then hits another nightclub, but then heads out after he sees a woman his older brother D.B., used to date. Upon returning to the hotel, Holden decides to get an escort to come hang out with him for practice in case he ever “gets married” (121), but when she arrives (Sunny), her youth and her oddness make him depressed and he just wants to pay her for conversation. She finds that weird, so she demands to be paid. They haggle over the money with Sunny arguing that her fee is actually double what her pimp quoted him. Later her pimp forces his way in, takes what they believe they are owed. The pimp punches him, after Holden insults him, calling him a “dirty moron” (135).

The next day after giving money to some nuns he meets at breakfast, Holden spends the day with Sally Hayes, a girl he used to date. Sally Hayes is a bit pretentious but very pretty and they catch a movie and go skating. At one point when they’re taking a break from skating, Holden suggests they run away together and live in a cabin in the woods and she sort of dismisses the idea, so he tells her “You give me a royal pain in the ass, if you want to know the truth” (173). This makes her cry and he has to apologize for it. She then refuses to let him take her home. He thinks about phoning Jane again but instead meets up with Carl Luce, a kid he knew at Whooton, which is the school he was presumably thrown out of before Pencey. They just have one drink together at the Wicker Bar as Carl seems annoyed by everything that comes out of Holden’s mouth, even the more neutral things. Holden begs Carl to stay for another drink, but he leaves, saying that he is late.  Holden continues to drink alone.

Holden then wanders around Central Park until the freezing temperature coaxes him back to his parents’ apartment where his younger sister Phoebe is, age 10. Phoebe quickly figures out that he had been kicked out of school again and has a pointed remark for him: she asserts that he doesn’t like anything and then presses him to name one thing that he likes. She then presses him to name something he’d like to be. This is when Holden shares with her his fantasy, inspired by the Robert Burns poem, of being the guy that catches kids who are playing in a field of rye from falling off the edge of the cliff. This fantasy is the inspiration for the novel’s title. Their parents arrive home and Holden sneaks off again.

Holden has already made plans to stay with his old English teacher……….

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The novel is rich in motifs and symbolism and this is part of the novel’s success for so many decades. Ultimately The Catcher in the Rye is a novel about loss and grief: we don’t learn until chapter five that Holden’s little brother Allie died of leukemia, but the intense sorrow that Holden continues to feel for him is with us from the first page. We are told that the death of Allie happened on July 18, 1946 when Holden was thirteen. When it happened, Holden broke all the windows in the garage with his fist, doing permanent damage to his hand. This is a clear example of how Holden does not know how to process his emotions. Unable to process them or properly deal with them, he breaks things.

One could argue that this is why he is constantly flunking out of school: he’s using his academic career as something to destroy and as a way of acting out as a result of inner turmoil. He’s also using it as a plea for help. It’s very possible that his parents are emotionally unavailable: on the first page we’re told that his parents are very private people, particularly Holden’s father. This could potentially be a euphemism for emotionally disconnected as well.

Holden is a deeply emotional young man. This might be in part because he’s been disconnected from his feelings of grief for so long they have built up like an avalanche inside of him. He also appears to be exceedingly sensitive and perceptive. The instances of him crying and/or feeling lonely in the novel are numerous. Before he yells goodbye to the empty corridor at Pencey saying, “”Sleep tight, ya morons!” he admits, “I was sort of crying” (68). Holden cries again during the scuffle with Maurice, he cries in the men’s room at the Wicker Bar, he almost cries when he breaks Phoebe’s record, and he cries when Phoebe gives him money. He needs someone, some trusted adult to give him a shoulder to lean on, or to proverbially “catch him.” Much of his fantasy of being the “catcher in the rye” and making sure that those kids don’t go off this “crazy cliff” (224), is a form of projection. That is precisely what he wishes for himself.

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Holden Caufield

Holden is our hero. We meet him at a very difficult time in his life. He’s been expelled from yet another private school, and it’s the holidays. He still has a tremendous amount of unprocessed grief regarding the death of his younger brother, Allie. Holden is an extremely bright young man and nearly every reader would agree that if he found an area of life that he was passionate about and applied himself, he would probably excel tremendously. Part of Holden’s intelligence is the fact that he notices so much about people. A people say, “the devil is in the details” and Holden notices so much about the small details about other people, as these tiny details do reflect who they are as individuals. For example, the detail he gives us about his roommate Stradlater: “you should’ve seen the razor he shaved himself with. It was always rusty as hell and full of lather and hairs and crap. He never cleaned it or anything” (35). Holden has a discordant relationship with the outside world, detesting all who strike him as fake or inauthentic. Throughout his adventure in New York, we see him get sort of kicked around and taken advantage of by others, such as by Maurice the pimp, or the women at the Lavender room who stick him with the bill. Other times he’s dismissed as being a kid and told to just go home, or he’s dismissed by people who know him (Carl Luce). It is important to realize that as repeatedly lonely Holden feels, he doesn’t really engage in much self-pity. Maybe his background of affluence prevents that or maybe his intelligence makes him feel like he’s always one step ahead of everyone else.

Robert Ackley

The young man in his senior year who lives in room next to Holden’s in the Pencey dorm. Everyone refers to him by his last name. He has mossy looking teeth and Holden swears he’s never seen Ackley brush them. He also has a face full of zits. Holden also tells us that Ackley is very peculiar—for example, he’s the one other student who’s not at the game, like Holden. Holden also informs us that Ackley can be a bit nasty, and that’s why he’s not Holden’s favorite person. Holden’s description of Ackley shows us how Holden can be a very manipulative narrator at times because after he tells us all these details about Ackley, the reader is entirely biased against him.

Ward Stradlater

Holden’s roommate at Pencey Prep. A handsome young man who appears to generally excel at prep school. He is more confident and social than Holden. He goes out on a date with Jane Gallagher, a girl Holden knows and likes, and may have rounded the proverbial bases with her. He asks Holden to write his essay for him and Holden does, writing one on his deceased brother’s baseball mitt. Stradlater rejects the essay and Holden and him scuffle. The fight is based on Holden’s resentment of Stradlater’s taking out Jane and his dismissal of the essay written on such a sensitive topic.

Sally Hayes

She is a young woman around Holden’s age who he used to date. Holden  explains that, “I used to think she was quite intelligent, in my stupidity. The reason I did was because she knew quite a lot about the theater and plays and literature and all that stuff. If somebody knows quite a lot about those things, it takes you quite a while to find out whether they’re really stupid or not. It took me years to find it out, in old Sally’s case” (137). When the reader finally meets Sally it is hard to imagine that her and Holden were ever together as she does seem to radiate a certain element of the “phony” quality that Holden so despises. For example, she says the word “marvelous” all the time. When they hang out in the book, Holden insults her and makes her cry out of a sense of presumed rejection from her. He had proposed they run away together and she ultimately declined (out of logic and commonsense).

Carl Luce

A young man three years older than Holden who attended the Whooton School with him. Holden explains that he didn’t actually like him that much, but was impressed by his intellect. They meet up for a drink at the Wicker Bar, and Holden is hoping for some intellectual conversation. Based on their hang, it’s surprising that Carl meets up with Holden at all, as he seems annoyed by and dismissive of everything that Holden says. Carl ends up leaving after one drink, even though Holden begs him to stay, saying he’s terribly lonely.

Phoebe Caufield

Phoebe is Holden’s ten-year old kid sister. Holden repeatedly tells us how pretty and smart his little sister is, and that she has been this way her entire life. We soon see that this is true, when she calls Holden out on some of his issues, accusing him of not liking anything and not having any direction in life. Her dialogue with Holden demonstrates that she is exceedingly intelligent for her age, and her worries about Holden signify how much she understands his the situation.

Mr. Antolini

He is the most inscrutable character in Holden’s world. He was a teacher of Holden’s at Elkton Hills (another prep school Holden was kicked out of). We are told that he’s a young guy, just a few years older than Holden’s older brother D.B. Antolini is married to a wealthy, much older woman. At first Antolini seems like a winning human being in Holden’s life. To vouch for his character, Holden tells us that when a student jumped out the window, Antolini felt his pulse and put his coat over the child, and carried him to the infirmary. Antolini lets Holden crash on his couch, and gives him some fantastic advice for the future. However, when Holden awakens, he finds Antolini sitting on the floor next to the couch, stroking his head. It’s a strange move, one that strikes Holden as pervy. Holden makes an excuse to leave and Antolini shifts the weirdness of the overall situation onto Holden, referring to him repeatedly as “a very very strange boy” (250). Upon reflection, the reader sees that there were signs of Antolini perhaps being attracted to Holden during their conversation (he refers to Holden as handsome, refers to his long legs, asks him about how all the girls were in his life, and does not offer him pajamas or anything to sleep in—so Holden would presumably have to sleep in his underwear). Of course, Holden later wonders if he misread everything and if he should go back to his apartment and say something. The reader is left torn over this character.


He is Holden’s older brother who is a talented writer. However, he has decided to write for Hollywood as a screenwriter, a move that Holden detests, connecting it with prostitution. D.B. visits Holden in the institutionalized care that he is in, and is apparently going to drive him home in his new jaguar when Holden is released.

Jane Gallagher

Jane is a phantom that exists throughout the novel. She’s a girl that used to be Holden’s neighbor a few summers ago. She’s clearly someone who matters a tremendous amount to him, as he has nothing bad to say about her. We are told she used to be a very disciplined ballet dancer and that when they played checkers, she’d keep all her kings in a row in the back and never use them. Holden toys with the idea of giving her a call numerous times throughout the novel, but never does, to our knowledge. One can conclude that Holden’s inability to process emotions, his active defense mechanisms, and his fear of intimacy all prevent him from reaching out to Jane.

Allie Caufield

Allie is perhaps the most important character in the novel, next to Holden. Allie died from leukemia when he was eleven and Holden was thirteen. Holden makes Allie sound like an angel—that he was the smartest, nicest kid ever. Holden tells us, “His teachers were always writing letters to my mother, telling her what a pleasure it was having a boy like Allie in their class. And they weren’t just shooting the crap. They really meant it” (50). The death of Allie is the wound that continues to fester inside of Holden and the swirling unchecked and unreckoned with emotions are what motivate so many of Holden’s actions and mania.


Since Holden is such a witty narrator, the novel is filled with quotable lines. The following collection give the best inventory of Holden’s mental and emotional state at the time of his recollection.

“It was that kind of a crazy afternoon, terrifically cold, and no sun out or anything, and you felt like you were disappearing every time you crossed a road” (8).

“Grand. There’s a word I really hate. It’s a phony. I could puke every time I hear it” (14).

“I’m the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life. It’s awful. If I’m on my way to the store to buy a magazine, even, and somebody asks me where I’m going, I’m liable to say I’m going to the opera. It’s terrible” (22).

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“Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be” (224).

“I’m sick of just liking people. I wish to God I could meet somebody I could respect” (226).

“Among other things, you’ll find that you’re not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. You’re by no means alone on that score, you’ll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You’ll learn from them—if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It’s a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn’t education. It’s history. It’s poetry” (246).

“Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody” (277).



Sex and Sexuality

Are enormous themes in the novel, which should come as no surprise to the reader, seeing as how Holden is a teenager and he is developmentally at an age where sex becomes of great interest. We find out that Holden is a virgin and that when he hooks up with girls and they tell him to stop, he acquiesces. Holden attributes this as the reason why he is still a virgin. Issues related to sex such as prostitution, and potential sexual perversions (Mr. Antolini) also arise, as Holden is making his way in the world.

Emotional Intimacy

Is another major theme in the novel and for the most part, we see how Holden avoids it. Holden is at once deeply afraid of connecting with another person, yet desperately craves it. Part of Holden’s endearing yet scathing sarcasm originates from a place of extreme self-protection, designed to keep people at a distance.


Is also a major theme in the novel, because Holden makes sure to assert it as one. He tells the reader immediately that he can’t stand phonies. He also tells the reader he’s a terrific liar. The reader has to constantly determine whether or not one can trust what he says, if he’s including us as “in on” all the lies at all times, or if we are ever duped as well.

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Writing a Catcher in the Rye essay really is a treat. This is not just because it’s such a treasured novel in the canon of America literature, but because the novel provides the reader with such a rare opportunity. The novel lets one pal around with Holden on this “grand” adventure through the streets of New York. We smoke, drink, and get beat up with him. We take small risks and share in his self-loathing. We chuckle at his wisecracks. We get a taste of our own latent innocence and a sense of the coldness, fragility, enormity and senselessness of the outside world.  The pain that Holden experiences has the potential to expand our own reserves of empathy and encourages us to look inward. If you’re ever confused by any of the seeming contradictions of the novel as you write your essay, our writers are always available to help shed light on some of the more nebulous themes and to offer guidance as you and Holden make your way through New York.

Works Cited

Salinger, Jerome D. The Catcher in the Rye. Little Brown, 1991

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