Story Skeleton—The Catcher in the Rye
Story structure relates to the psychological appeal of narrative, that which engages readers and builds in them a sense of anticipation—a desire to know what happens next. This blog series is meant to demonstrate the universality of story structure with plot breakdowns of award-winning and classic novels. In this post, we'll be analyzing the narrative structure of J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye.
Holden Caulfield's Loss of Innocence
By David Griffin Brown
The Catcher in the Rye is the story of Holden Caulfield, a teenage boy who has been expelled from his prep school and is wandering through New York City over a few days, struggling to come to terms with the complexities of growing up and the seeming phoniness of the adult world. Holden is grieving the loss of his brother, Allie, and grappling with the realization that he is growing up and must take responsibility for his life.
Holden's narrative goal is to hold tight to his childhood innocence and reject the corruption he perceives in the adult world. He wants to be the "catcher in the rye"—someone who saves children from falling off a cliff, a metaphor for Holden's rejection of the harsh realities and hypocrisies of the world.
Inciting Incident: Holden is expelled from his prep school and decides to leave before the end of the term. He checks into a hotel and hires a prostitute—Holden realizes he is lonely and wants to connect with someone, but ultimately he cannot bring himself to go through with it.
Point of No Return: Holden decides to leave the hotel and go out into the city to connect with old friends and acquaintances. He cannot return to his previous life and must face the world on his own.
Rising Action: Holden encounters a series of characters who represent the different aspects of the adult world that he despises. He also struggles with his own feelings of grief and loneliness and tries to figure out what he wants to do with his life.
Midpoint Reversal: Holden goes to see his little sister, Phoebe, and realizes he cannot protect her from the harsh realities of the world. He is forced to confront the fact that he must grow up and face the world on its own terms.
All is Lost: Holden hits rock bottom after getting into a fight with his old roommate, Stradlater. He is severely depressed and contemplates suicide.
Resurgence: Holden reaches out to Phoebe, and she helps him see the world in a new light. He decides to go home and try to make a fresh start.
Climax: Holden goes to see his former English teacher, Mr. Antolini, who offers him advice and guidance. However, when he wakes up to find Mr. Antolini inappropriately stroking his forehead, Holden flees and instead spends the night at Grand Central Station.
Resolution: At the end, Holden is back at home, but he is not completely healed. The final takeaway is that he still has a long road ahead of him.
Holden Caulfield's voice is one of the most distinctive and memorable aspects of The Catcher in the Rye. J.D. Salinger's use of language and tone allows readers to intimately connect with Holden's character, seeing the world through his eyes and feeling his emotions.
Salinger's skillful use of first-person point of view allows the reader to experience the story from Holden's perspective. The protagonist’s voice is unique, informal, and often filled with tangents and digressions that reflect his personality. He frequently uses colloquial language, sarcastic humor, and profanity, which creates a sense of authenticity and honesty that resonates with readers.
With these tricks of voice, Salinger creates a character who feels like a real person. He captures the nuances of Holden's emotions, making the reader feel his pain, confusion, and alienation. The reader experiences Holden's isolation, his yearning for human connection, and his desperate attempts to hold onto his innocence.
Holden's voice is one of the key factors that make The Catcher in the Rye a timeless classic. Salinger creates a character that is both relatable and complex, one that readers can empathize with and understand. The novel's enduring popularity is a testament to the power of Salinger's writing and his ability to create a character that feels like a real person.
That being said, Holden is a divisive character—some critics find his voice and personality to be unpleasant and unlikable. While many readers empathize with Holden's alienation and disillusionment, others find him to be whiny, entitled, and insufferable.
Holden's external conflict—his struggle to find his place in the world—is driven by his internal conflict: his fear of growing up and losing his innocence. He wants to hold onto his childhood, but eventually realizes he must grow up and face the world on its own terms.
As Holden experiences various adventures and encounters in New York City, he is forced to confront his feelings of disillusionment and confusion about the world. Through his interactions with various characters, Holden realizes he cannot hold onto his childhood innocence forever, and he must eventually face the challenges of adulthood.
Holden's inner conflict and external conflict are closely intertwined. His resistance to growing up and accepting the harsh realities of the world around him are at the root of his struggles. His journey of personal growth and self-discovery are key to the novel's narrative arc, which sees Holden come to terms with the inevitability of change and the need to embrace it.
At the end of the novel, Holden is a changed person. He has gained a deeper understanding of himself and the world around him, and although he isn’t out of the woods entirely, he is better prepared to face the adult world.
The Catcher in the Rye has become an enduring classic and an excellent example of narrative structure in fiction. The novel's plot points and narrative arc, particularly Holden's personal development and growth, are foundational to the universality of storytelling and its psychological appeal. By examining the structure of this and other classic and novels, we can better understand how narrative structure is used to create engaging stories that keep readers coming back for more.
What other novels do you think could benefit from a "Story Skeleton" analysis? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
David Griffin Brown is an award-winning short fiction writer and co-author of Immersion and Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling. He holds a BA in anthropology from UVic and an MFA in creative writing from UBC, and his writing has been published in literary magazines such as the Malahat Review and Grain. In 2022, he was the recipient of a New Artist grant from the Canada Council for the Arts. David founded Darling Axe Editing in 2018, and as part of his Book Broker interview series, he has compiled querying advice from over 100 literary agents. He lives in Victoria, Canada, on the traditional territory of the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations.