Seventeen-year-old Holden Caulfield begins narrating the story of some trouble he experienced during the previous year. In his narration of the past December, Holden is a student at Pencey Prep, an all-boys school. He is about to be dismissed from school because he is failing four of his five classes. Holden knows that his parents will be upset about his expulsion since Pencey is the fourth school he has attended. Holden goes to visit his history teacher, Mr. Spencer, who encourages Holden to think of his future and do what is expected of him as a student. Holden is not interested in receiving a moral lecture from Mr. Spencer, and he leaves Mr. Spencer’s house.
Holden returns to his dorm room and is forced to talk to annoying schoolmate Ackley, a boy with bad skin and hygiene problems. Ackley’s intrusive behavior irritates Holden, but Holden is generally tolerant and considerate toward Ackley. Ackley leaves the room when Holden’s roommate, Stradlater, returns. Stradlater asks Holden to write an English composition for him, as a favor. Holden is upset when he learns that Stradlater’s date for the evening is Jane Gallagher, a girl Holden knows well. Holden is nervous about the idea of Stradlater dating Jane because Stradlater views girls with sexual intent.
Later that night, Holden writes the descriptive English essay for Stradlater. He is supposed to describe a room or a house, but instead he describes the baseball glove of his deceased younger brother, Allie. Allie had used green ink to write lines of poetry all over his glove so he would have something to read during the dull parts of the game. Allie died of leukemia a few years earlier, and Holden misses him.
Stradlater returns to the dorm after his date with Jane, and he is disappointed with Holden’s essay about the baseball glove. Holden tears up the essay and asks Stradlater about his date with Jane. Stradlater refuses to share any details, and Holden punches him. Stradlater does not want to continue the fight, but Holden keeps insulting Stradlater’s intelligence, intentionally provoking more violence. Stradlater leaves the room, and Holden inspects his own bloody face in the mirror. Holden walks to the neighboring room to visit Ackley. He tries to sleep on Ackley’s roommate’s bed, but is tormented by wondering what Stradlater might have done with Jane.
Since he has already been expelled from Pencey Prep, Holden decides to leave the school a few days before his parents come to fetch him. He boards a late-night train for New York and coincidentally meets Mrs. Morrow, the mother of one of his classmates. Holden lies and tells Mrs. Morrow that her spiteful son Ernest is a wonderful person. When Mrs. Morrow expresses her concern that Holden is leaving on his winter break too early, he lies again and tells her he is going to New York to have a brain tumor removed.
When Holden leaves the train, he wants to call someone on the pay phone at the train station, but he can't think of anyone to call. He does not want to contact his parents, and most of his friends are asleep at that hour. Holden takes a taxi and checks into the Edmont Hotel. He looks out his window and sees a man and woman in another room taking turns spitting their drinks into each other’s faces, and this sight makes him think about sex. He telephones a girl who is known to be promiscuous, but the girl does not want to meet with him because it is so late.
Holden considers calling his 10-year-old sister, Phoebe, whom he adores. Instead, Holden goes down to the lounge of the Edmont Hotel, which is called the Lavender Room. He dances with an older woman and tries to have a conversation with her, but she and her friends barely pay attention to him because they are hoping to spot movie stars in the Lavender Room. Holden eventually dances with all three ladies and buys them alcoholic drinks while he drinks sodas. The ladies leave, and Holden becomes depressed.
Holden reminisces about spending time with Jane Gallagher in the past, when they lived in the same neighborhood. Holden and Jane were good friends, who shared an almost romantic attachment. Holden is still angry about Stradlater taking Jane out on a date. Holden takes a cab to a club called Ernie’s, where he is served a scotch and soda. He soon leaves Ernie’s and returns to the Edmont Hotel.
An elevator operator asks Holden if he’d like to be visited by a prostitute, and Holden agrees. When the girl, Sunny, arrives in his room, Holden feels more depressed than aroused. He pays Sunny for her time and sends her away without having sex, but Sunny and her pimp, Maurice, return to demand more money. Sunny takes an extra $5 from Holden’s wallet. When Holden protests, Maurice punches him in the stomach.
The next morning, Holden goes out and has a pleasant conversation with a pair of nuns. He gives the nuns $10 to contribute to a charity. In the afternoon, Holden meets his friend Sally Hayes for a date at the theater. They watch a play, which Sally enjoys but Holden dislikes, and Holden becomes angry with Sally for flirting with a college boy, who was also at the play. The two go ice-skating. Then Holden asks Sally if she will run away with him to live in a cabin in the woods. He says he is tired of living in his fake world and wants to escape. When Sally points out the logical flaws in his plan, Holden insults her and makes her cry. The two part ways.
Holden calls his old schoolmate Carl Luce and arranges to meet with him. Holden’s childish question about sex annoy Carl Luce when the two of them meet, and Luce leaves Holden after suggesting that he be psychoanalyzed. Holden sits by himself at the Wicker Bar and gets drunk before walking out to visit the Central Park duck pond. It is freezing cold by the duck pond at night in December, and Holden wonders what would happen if he died of pneumonia. He recalls the death of his younger brother and remembers how he missed Allie’s funeral because he was in the hospital with broken hands.
Holden walks to the apartment complex where his parents live. His parents are out at a late-night party, but his 10-year-old sister, Phoebe, is sleeping peacefully. Phoebe is thrilled to see Holden when she wakes up, and she enthusiastically tells him all the details of her life at school. Phoebe is upset to learn that Holden is only visiting her because he has been kicked out of another school. She asks him what he wants to do with his life. Holden replies that he wants to be a catcher in the rye. He references the children’s song "Coming Thru’ the Rye,” based on a poem by Robert Burns, and misquotes the song. Holden says that in his own interpretation, the song is about children playing in a rye field on the edge of a cliff, and it is his duty to protect the children and catch them if they stray too far near the cliff.
Holden leaves his family’s apartment and goes to visit his former English teacher, Mr. Antolini, and his wife. Mr. Antolini welcomes Holden into his apartment and tries to figure out why Holden is failing all but one of his subjects at Pencey Prep. Mr. Antolini is worried that Holden is about to experience some horrible kind of breakdown because he has become disillusioned with life. Mr. Antolini says that Holden is not the first person to feel disgusted by human behavior, but that if he keeps applying himself to his schoolwork, he will discover that many great thinkers have been in his exact situation, mentally and spiritually.
Holden briefly falls asleep at Mr. Antolini’s apartment, but wakes up to find Mr. Antolini patting his head. Holden believes that Mr. Antolini is making a sexual advance, so he leaves the apartment and spends the night at Grand Central Station. The next morning, Holden walks along Fifth Avenue, imagining a future where he abandons his life in New York and travels west to live a simple life. Holden walks to Phoebe’s elementary school and leaves a note asking her to meet him at the art museum.
Holden feels sick most of the day, and he faints while waiting for Phoebe at the museum. When Phoebe meets Holden, she is dragging a suitcase because she has decided to run away with her brother. Holden angrily tells Phoebe that she can't come with him, and then he says he has changed his mind about going away. The two of them visit the zoo and look at the animals before walking to a carousel. Holden buys a ticket for Phoebe and enjoys watching her as she rides it.
In the epilogue, Holden mentions that he has been in a resting home recovering from a serious sickness, but he will be going to a new school in September. He plans to apply himself to his schoolwork this time.