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Barron's Booknotes-The Catcher In the Rye by J. D. Salinger-Free Booknotes/Synopsis
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THE STORY

CHAPTER 1

Who is this person talking to us so casually in the opening sentences of the novel? We don't know his name, how old he is, where he's from. In fact, he dismisses such information as "all that David Copperfield kind of crap," and begins talking about himself reluctantly, as though our need to hear his story is much stronger than his need to tell it.

We don't even know it's a boy talking until he mentions an ad his school runs in "about a thousand magazines" claiming that they turn boys into young men. We won't know his first name until his visit to a teacher at the end of the chapter, and we'll have to wait even longer to find out his last name.

No, he isn't going to give us anything as formal as an autobiography. All he wants to do is tell about "this madman stuff" that resulted in some kind of illness, from which he's now recuperating in a place not far from Hollywood, California.

NOTE:

As you read on and get to know Holden, you'll begin to see that he tends to dismiss many important things with throwaway phrases like "this madman stuff." It's a way of downplaying things that bother him; it makes him seem untroubled by things; it's a way of sounding tough, something that's important to many teenage boys.

Holden talks briefly about his brother, D. B., whom he obviously admires. He's pleased that his brother visits him often. He likes D. B.'s sports car and the fact that he's rich, and Holden's really proud of a published collection of D. B.'s short stories. But a tough guy can't say things like that about someone without backing off a little, so Holden ends by saying that his brother is in Hollywood, being a prostitute-using his talent to make money, instead of creating beautiful stories.

We get all this information-directly or by implication-in a single paragraph. As is often true with people we've just met, the way Holden talks tells us at least as much about him as what he says. His language tells us that he doesn't want to be mistaken for someone soft, even when he's expressing affection for his brother.


His language also tells us that he doesn't want to be thought of as one of those "splendid, clear-thinking young men" his school claims to mold. Sure, he's read Dickens' novel David Copperfield, and you'll soon find that he's read-and appreciated-much more than that. But he doesn't want anyone to think he's a "brain," so he'll remind you from time to time what a terrible student he is.

As he begins his story about the "madman stuff," Holden is standing alone on a hill, looking down at a football game attended by almost everyone from his school. He's wearing a red hunting hat that further sets him apart from everyone else at school. Hold onto this image of him as a loner, apart from the group he's supposed to belong to. It will help you understand much of what is to come.

One of the reasons Holden is alone during the football game is that he's preparing himself for an unpleasant chore. He's going to visit his history teacher before leaving for Christmas vacation, because he isn't coming back to school.

"I forgot to tell you about that," he adds casually. "They kicked me out."

This is another example of the way Holden tries to distract attention (his as well as yours) from large issues. Being expelled from school would be an important event in anyone's life, and you'll see that it's one of the causes of "this madman stuff" Holden says he's going to tell us about. Yet he tells us he "forgot" to mention it.

Holden fires a couple of generalizations at us in this chapter. You might want to stop and think about them, because he does this throughout the book.

The first kind of generalization is the one he uses when he's trying to make a point, the kind someone would use in an argument. Somebody stole his expensive coat and gloves, and he tells us it's the type of thing you'd expect at Pencey. "The more expensive a school is, the more crooks it has," he concludes. This kind of generalization is usually amusing, because it's an overstatement. But it also often has some truth to it.

The second kind of generalization Holden frequently uses may sometimes puzzle you and at other times have you saying, "Right, I know exactly what he means!" There's an example of it when he's talking about running to Mr. Spencer's house: "It was that kind of a crazy afternoon," he says, "terrifically cold,... and you felt like you were disappearing every time you crossed a road."

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