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In Chapter 24 of J. D. Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye, Mr. Antolini, Holden Caulfield’s former English teacher, worries that Holden may be headed for a “fall”:
"This fall I think you're riding for--it's a special kind of fall, a horrible kind. The man falling isn't permitted to feel or hear himself hit bottom. He just keeps falling and falling. The whole arrangement's designed for men who, at some time or other in their lives, were looking for something their own environment couldn't supply them with. Or they thought their own environment couldn't supply them with. So they gave up looking. They gave it up before they ever really even got started. You follow me?"
Mr. Antolini’s words can be interpreted as follows:
- He worries that Holden has no real direction or purpose in life. He therefore worries that Holden may become depressed or disillusioned.
- He worries that Holden may, for those reasons, ultimately sacrifice himself unnecessarily for what Antolini later calls “an unworthy cause.”
- He worries that Holden may be immature and thus dominated by self-destrctive pride and self-centeredness.
- He worries that Holden’s self-centeredness may distort his life; later he seems to suggest that Holden will live a worthier life when he becomes more humble.
- He worries that Holden insufficiently appreciates the value of a disciplined, focused education.
- He worries that because of Holden’s self-centeredness, Holden will fail to realize how much he has in common with other thoughtful people.
- He worries that Holden will fail to achieve the intellectual and spiritual potential he possesses.
- He worries that Holden will not ever learn the genuine capacities of his own mind, including both his potential and his limitations.
The advice Holden receives from Mr. Antolini may or may not be good advice, and Mr. Antolini’s motives in giving it may or may not be worthy. At the time he gives the advice, Mr. Antolini seems simply an older person genuinely interested in Holden’s welfare, as a father or an older brother might be. Later, however, when Holden awakens to find Mr.Antolini patting him on the head, Holden suspects that Mr. Antolini’s interest in him is sexual. Even this possibility, however, is uncertain, and later, in the following chapter, Holden wonders if he hasn’t jumped to the wrong conclusion. In that chapter, while rethinking the whole episode with Mr. Antolini, he even feels gratitude to Antolini for giving him the “advice about finding out the size of your mind and all.”
In short, the encounter with Antolini is a puzzling one, both for Holden and for the novel’s readers. Neither Holden nor the novel’s readers can feel entirely sure how they should react to Antolini or to the advice he gives. Is Antolini a wise person who gives Holden valuable counsel? Or is Antolini a small-minded man who can’t truly appreciate a person as sincere as Holden? The novel leaves it to readers to decide.
The "fall" Mr. Antolini refers to is the downward mental spiral Holden is caught in. He's suffering from PTSD caused by the traumatic death of his little brother and the death of a classmate who committed suicide by hurling himself out his dorm window wearing Holden's sweater.
Without profesional help, Holden continues to deteriorate in his crisis, self-sabotaging every relationship except the one with his little sister, who's not mature enough to comprehend his condition.
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