Catcher in the Rye tells the story of Holden Caulfield, a student at a private prep school in New Jersey. Though the book was written in the '40s and '50s, the context of time is immaterial to the setting.
Holden is a very popular student at school. In addition to being captain of the fencing team, class president and a cheerleader at football games, he maintains the highest academic standards and many teachers remark that he is headed for Princeton or Harvard.
When Holden goes home for Christmas break he discovers that his only brother -- Alec -- has died in a car accident. Furious, he takes Alec's baseball bat, upon which Alec had written innumerable limericks, and breaks all the windows in the Caulfield's garage. This is the bat with which they used to play baseball in a field of rye during the summer. Holden pitched, Alec played catcher.
Holden drops out of school and spends the time trying to find his identity and purpose with his older sister, Phoebe, who works at a museum. A dominant symbol during this period is Holden's red hunting cap, which he wears constantly. It is clear that this is symbolic of Holden's quest to hunt for his true calling, as well as his inner conflict between superego and id. Also, it is a reminder of his violent tendencies -- "This is my people shooting hat," he says.
In the end, Caulfield discovers that the only way to come to grips with this tragedy is to travel the country telling stories about his life. "It was funny," he says. "I told anybody anything. I didn't miss anybody." Through this he learns who he, Holden Caulfield, truly is, and the meaning of his brother Alec -- the "catcher in the rye."