Holden opens the novel by telling a story that happened to him last Christmas. He has been expelled from his fourth boarding school, the people around him are all phonies, and he needs to kill a few days before going home to tell his parents the bad news about school.
Holden becomes increasingly manic. His brother Allie passed away from Leukemia three years before, and it seems that Holden has unresolved guilt and complicated grief over Allie’s passing. He spends a few days in New York, trying to find a way to belong, but ends up isolating himself more.
After being punched by a pimp named Maurice, Holden goes on a date where he expresses he just wants to run away. His date, Sally, doesn’t take it well, and Holden starts to unravel even more. He goes home to visit Phoebe, where he tells her he wants to be a “catcher in the rye”; metaphorically, he wants to save children from losing their innocence.
After spending the night in Grand Central Station, Holden decides he’s going to hitchhike out West. He leaves a note for Phoebe at her school to meet him at the museum. She shows up with her suitcase; she’s going with him. Holden won’t let her, and Phoebe gets upset.
Phoebe and Holden go to the zoo and then a park, where Holden buys her a ticket to ride on the carousel. As she rides around, he sits on a bench in the falling rain and watches her, finally bursting into tears.
Holden returns to the present, revealing he’s in some sort of medical institution. He’s been evaluated, and his doctors are planning on sending him back to school in September. Holden finds that he misses a lot of people, including those he called “phonies”.