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Holden Caulfield is the protagonist and narrator of the novel, and all the events in the plot revolve around him. He is a sixteen- year-old boy who has trouble fitting in and finding a place for himself in life. There is nothing heroic about Holden, and he is often considered an anti-hero.
Holden’s antagonist is his inability to fit into society. Throughout the novel, he is pitted against different characters, social situations, educational environments, technology, and the world in general. But Holden is really fighting himself, and until he learns who he is and finds a place for himself he the world, he cannot be at peace.
This is a novel of progressive climax, where one high point in the plot leads up to the next, as follows:
The first climax is reached when Holden ends up lying on the floor with a bleeding nose after his roommate Stradlater has beaten him a fight that Holden started. Holden has lost his first battle against the world and escapes form Pencey.
When Holden has been beaten by the pimp Maurice at the end of Chapter Fourteen, he is once again lying on the floor incapacitated with the pain from the impact. His second direct confrontation has ended in defeat. With no where to go, he heads to Grand Central Station.
In his search for human connection, Holden gathers his courage, places a phone call to Sally, and sets a date with her for the afternoon. He tells her about his plan to run away out West and suggests that she join him. She scoffs at his foolishness and walks out, leaving him again rejected and in isolation.
The fourth climax occurs when Holden faces rejection from the one little person upon whom all his hopes are anchored--Phoebe. This has the most shattering impact on Holden, and he is forced to search elsewhere for understanding. Hence he goes to Mr. Antolini for help.
The fourth climax occurs when Holden is rejected by Mr. Antolini, the last person he has to turn to for help. He is sure that this man, above all others, will be able to understand his needs and accept him. To his horror, Mr. Antolini gives Holden an academic lecture about scholastic performance. Then he approaches Holden in the middle of the night, touching his on the forehead. Holden interprets he gesture as a sexual advance.
The actual climax is never viewed in the course of the novel, only foreshadowed by the mini-climaxes and proven by Holden’s stay at a psychiatric hospital. Sometime after the close of action in the book, life amongst the "phonies" gets to be too much for Holden. The reader is forced to imagine the inevitable outcome of this story - the total mental breakdown of the protagonist, Holden Caulfield.
The novel ends in tragedy for Holden when he finally realizes he cannot win his battle. He returns home to his parents and is obviously sent to a psychiatric hospital to "rest" before retiring to the world that has defeated him.