Holden Caulfield is 17 when he recounts the events of a few "madman" days but was 16 when they happened. He is a thoughtful, sensitive teen from a well-off family. Holden is drawn to narrative and uses stories, true and false, to make sense of his life. Holden has flunked out of several schools because he refuses to study what doesn't interest him or to participate in the "phony" world of adult work and play. By turns insightful beyond his years and childish in his confusion, Holden is a relatable but unreliable narrator. Readers grasp that emotional traumas have hurt Holden deeply; many sympathize with, identify with, and are frustrated by this discontented and judgmental narrator as he describes the world he perceives.
Phoebe is Holden's adored 10-year-old sister. Holden speaks often of Phoebe's quirky, creative traits. She doesn't like her middle name, so she keeps making up new ones. She writes diaries, dances seriously, and embodies the joy of childhood as Holden imagines it. He calls her "old Phoebe" and says that her endearing ways "kill" him, and she is the only person he trusts. Yet Phoebe, despite being younger than Holden, is less naive about childhood than he is. She rejects his discontent and forces him to confront his traumas rather than flee them.
Allie was Holden's younger brother. When Holden was 13, Allie died of leukemia. Allie's red hair may be one reason Holden likes the red hunting hat. Remembering Allie's intelligence and sweetness comforts Holden, despite his unhealed grief. Holden's memories of Allie become a lifeline when he is exhausted, ill, and terrified.
D.B. is Holden's older brother, a writer who served in the army during World War II and who now writes screenplays in Hollywood. Because movies strike Holden as "phony," he considers his brother a sellout who trades his talent for cash. Readers don't get to know D.B. well, but Holden does briefly describe the trauma D.B. suffered during the war.
Mr. Antolini is Holden's former English teacher and perhaps the only adult whom Holden perceives as not "phony." He accepts Holden rather than judges him for his failures. Mr. Antolini doesn't order Holden to obediently do his homework. Instead, he explains how education, and especially reading, can help him grow into meaningful adulthood.
Sally is a conventional teenager adept at playing the roles that help teens find their place in the adult world. She and Holden have dated in the past, but Holden sees her, through his veil of bitter discontent, as "quite the little phony."
Stradlater, Holden's roommate at Pencey, is the most influential of Holden's peers. Good-looking and confident, Stradlater is successfully moving into the adult world. He acts as a foil for the younger Holden, who distrusts his roommate's adoption of adult behaviors. Yet Holden wants the older teen's approval.