The story begins with a seventeen year-old Holden Caulfield’s description of his encounters with the students and the faculty of Pencey Prep, Agerstown in Pennsylvania. Holden criticizes them of being phony or superficial. Because of his poor performance academically, Holden is expelled from the school. He then packs and lives the school after a physical clash with the roommate in the middle of the night. Holden boards a train to New York; however, he doesn’t want to return to the family and therefore checks into a hotel. In the Hotel, he dances with three tourist girls in the evening and gets into an awkward encounter with Sunny, a young prostitute who seems to be of his age. As the prostitute enters the room, Holden’s attitude changes and he becomes very uncomfortable with his situation. The prostitute becomes annoyed and leaves when Holden tells her that they need to talk, however, he pays for her time. Later, the prostitute and her pimp, Maurice, return to Holden’s room and demand for more pay than what was initially agreed on. Sunny goes ahead and takes five dollars from the wallet of Holden, and not to be enough, Holden is punched in the stomach by Maurice.
Holden invites Sally Hayes, his old girlfriend, to see a musical. Sally agrees very excitedly and both of them meet for the play. They go skating after the play, and Holden hastily invites her to run away with him. However, Sally declines. Holden's mood is then deflated by Sally’s response. She walks away as Holden pleads with her to accept the apology; however, he gives up and retreats. Holden stays in the city for three days, characterized by loneliness and drunkenness. He finds himself in a museum at one point and there, he compares his life to the statues of Eskimos that were on display, which had not been changing for as long as he could remember. He eventually sneaks into the apartment of his parents when the parents are away. His sister, Phoebe, is the only person he can communicate with. Phoebe views him as a hero as she is unaware that Holden views her in a virtually identical manner. Holden shares his fantasy: he looks at himself as a guardian of children playing in the rye field on a cliff’s edge, and his job as a guardian is to catch the children shall they wander near the brink. He misinterprets “catcher in the rye” to mean “saving children from losing their innocence.”
In the middle of the night, Holden leaves the parent’s apartment and visits Mr. Antolini, a former English teacher. He is advised on life and offered a place to sleep. The advice from Mr. Antolini is at odds with his intentions of becoming "catcher in the rye." When he wakes up in the night and finds Mr. Antolini patting his head in a flitty way, he is very much upset. He then leaves and spends the last afternoon roving the city, and questioning his interpretation of the actions of Mr. Antolini.
Holden decides to head out west and his little sister, Phoebe decides to go with him. However, he refuses to have the company of the sister. The sister is upset and Holden cancels his plan. He then takes her to Central Park Zoo. As Phoebe rides the carousel, he realizes his mistake as he comes to the reality that he is not the “Catcher in the Rye" and he needs help. The story concludes without much mention of the present day. However, Holden alludes to being in a mental hospital after getting sick and states that in September, he shall be attending another school.