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FORM AND STRUCTURE
Holden tells his story in a series of flashbacks, or digressions. There is nothing logical or orderly about the way a person's memory works, and so Holden's mind drifts in and out of the past, dwelling on moments that often seem to bear little relationship to each other. Like a patient on a psychiatrist's couch, he lets his mind take him where it will. One memory-one emotion- triggers another, and it's up to us as readers to try to discover the relationship between them.
Some readers have suggested that these flashbacks signify Holden's inability to deal with the world he lives in. Others say they reflect his introspective personality; still others say they are a sign that Holden's grip on reality is loosening, and that he can no longer distinguish between past and present.
While you're reading The Catcher in the Rye it's easy to forget that Holden is telling the story from a hospital bed, and that he's there because of the events he tells us about in the book. In the first paragraph of the novel he says that these events "happened to me around last Christmas just before I got pretty rundown and had to come out here and take it easy." It isn't until the last chapter of the book that we see another reference to the place where he's recuperating.
This hospital (or rest home) setting is the overall structure on which the story is built. Some people have said that Salinger used this structure to identify Holden as a misfit, a person who can't cope, someone who needs professional help to deal with life's problems.
Others have said that this structure simply sets Holden apart from everything he's experienced, that it distances him from the people and events he tells us about.
Within that structure the story itself divides neatly into three parts. The first part has Holden at Pencey, preparing to leave on his own before he's formally expelled.
In this first section Holden tells us about two of the three important people in his life-his dead brother Allie and Jane Gallagher. Although she never appears, Jane plays an important role in this section because she's on a date with Holden's roommate. In fact, you could argue that the fight he has over her with his roommate is the real reason he decides to leave school on Saturday night.
Chapter 8 serves as a transition from Pencey to New York City. The second part of the book, which begins with Chapter 9, has Holden trying to find someone he can talk honestly with, someone he can make contact with, someone who will understand what's bothering him.
This is also the section in which we learn about Phoebe, the other important person in Holden's life. By the end of this section, in Chapter 20, Holden is more alone than ever before, he's close to hysteria, and he's thinking about what a relief death would be.
When Holden decides to go home and visit Phoebe, the novel enters the third and final section. In this section Holden has to face some ugly truths that he's been trying hard to avoid-truths about his sister, about childhood innocence, and about himself.
When the third section reaches a climax in Chapter 25 we're abruptly brought back to the outside structure of the novel, the bed from which Holden is speaking. It's in this outside structure, from a vantage point several months and several thousand miles away, that Holden makes his final comments on the whole matter.