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The basic structure of The Catcher in the Rye follows the picaresque framework of episodic narration. The picaresque narrative derives its name from the Spanish ‘picaro’, meaning rogue, and its typical story concerns the escapades of the hero. Picaresque fiction is realistic in manner, and often satiric in aim. Examples of such literature are Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, Defoe’s Moll Flanders and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
The Catcher in the Rye can be compared with the above works because its structural framework is a first person narrative that centers around a single individual whose loosely strung escapades are connected by the fact that they are events in the life of the protagonist and develop the same theme of loneliness and isolation.
There is a slight variation from the picaresque tradition in the novel, because Holden’s escapades are not so much adventures as ‘mis-adventures’, the cumulative effect of which leads him to a sanitarium. While there is no dramatic change in Holden’s personality nor has he reached a complete understanding of himself or the reasons for his breakdown, the reader can still detect a certain change of attitude in the young man while he is in the sanitarium. Holden the narrator, as opposed to Holden the picaresque hero, realizes his own failings from a retrospective stance. When Holden, upset with Sally’s rebuff, tells her "you give me a royal pain in the ass," he also laughs at her. In retrospect, Holden is able to see his own fault in that failure and says, "All of a sudden I did something I shouldn’t have. I laughed."
The novel is held together by tight time and place constraints. The events in the body of the novel take place within four days, basically in New York City. A single character, the protagonist Holden Caulfield, is central to all the action. Holden is also the center of the frame narrative, which takes place in an unnamed place in California. The frame begins after Holden’s breakdown sometime in December and ends sometime before the following September. All of the action in the book is given in a series of flashbacks from Holden’s point of view.
Even though Holden’s story is told by him in retrospect, the plot is filled with rising action, leading to the climatic event of his breakdown. The first chapter serves as an introduction to the main character and his basic problems. The next twenty-four chapters present Holden’s misadventures, which comprise the rising action of the plot. Each misadventure, or episode, has its own miniclimax leading to a defeat for Holden that is increasingly more traumatic than the last. After each tragic misadventure, Holden feels more rejected and isolated than ever. Since Holden’s total breakdown is not presented in the book, making the reader imagine the actual climax of the plot, there is also no falling action. The final chapter, the closing of the frame narrative, serves as the conclusion.
The novel is written in a realistic manner, and the character of the city of New York is accurately represented as a metaphor for the increasingly commercial world, devoid of feelings. In this respect, the novel might be considered satiric in nature since it is about the loss of human connectedness. A perfect example of this is when Holden tries to call Jane but is unable to because " the phone didn’t answer". At the end of the novel, the plot has not reached a satisfactory resolution, for Holden’s quest for connectedness has been fruitless; he has not found a home, a place to belong. He has sought ideal love and acceptance, but at the end of his journey, he is not at peace. Instead, he is in an asylum undergoing a "rest cure". The reader is left to wonder if Holden will ever find a place to belong.
Though the plot of the novel is driven by the quest motif and the protagonist undergoes a journey, which is both actual and metaphorical, Holden never finds his "holy grail." Neither is his quest noble or heroic. Instead, Holden experiences a series of misadventures each leaving him to feel more rejected and lonely than before.