In Chapter 4 of The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, tap dancing and half nelson are mentioned. WHAT DO THESE TWO THINGS HAVE IN COMMON?
J.D. Salinger’s protagonist in The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield, is the personification of the concept of alienation. That is one of the reasons Salinger’s novel has resonated with so many young adults since its publication. But, like so many teenagers experiencing a sense of loneliness and isolation from society, Holden aspires to more. One cannot analyze Chapter Four of The Catcher in the Rye in isolation from the rest of the novel. The character of Holden is the story’s narrator as well as its key figure, and those first three chapters, understandably, set the tone for what follows. Holden has struggled to find his position in the world, and Pencey Prep represents the ultimate alternative universe into which he most definitely does not fit. His most important personal connection with 10-year-old sister Phoebe. It is Phoebe whom Holden regularly thinks of calling when he needs a personal connection. At the beginning of Chapter Nine, Holden is contemplating his next move following his arrival at the train station:
“The first thing I did when I got off at Penn Station, I went into this phone booth. I felt like giving somebody a buzz. I left my bags right outside the booth so that I could watch them, but as soon as I was inside, I couldn't think of anybody to call up. My brother D.B. was in Hollywood. My kid sister Phoebe goes to bed around nine o'clock--so I couldn't call her up. She wouldn't've cared if I'd woke her up, but the trouble was, she wouldn't've been the one that answered the phone.”
Again, at the outset of Chapter Ten, he again feels the need for human contact, for interaction with someone who he feels understands him and with whom he can relate, and again he considers his little sister:
“While I was changing my shirt, I damn near gave my kid sister Phoebe a buzz, though. I certainly felt like talking to her on the phone. Somebody with sense and all. But I couldn't take a chance on giving her a buzz, because she was only a little kid and she wouldn't have been up, let alone anywhere near the phone. . . I certainly wouldn't have minded shooting the crap with old Phoebe for a while.”
Chapter Ten, in fact, can be considered Phoebe’s chapter. Phoebe loves to dance, as does Jane Gallagher, a figure from Holden’s past who resurfaces in his conversation with Stradlater, who is to meet her after he finishes grooming himself. Additionally, we discover in Chapter Five that Holden's friend Mal is on the wrestling team, thereby suggesting the origins of the half-nelson. All of this, the insights into Phoebe, the existence of Jane Gallagher, and the wrestling background of Mal, occur subsequent to the following passages in which Holden describes himself tap-dancing and, soon after, grabbing his far more athletic and equally self-absorbed roommate:
“I got bored sitting on that washbowl after a while, so I backed up a few feet and started doing this tap dance, just for the hell of it. I was just amusing myself. I can't really tap-dance or anything, but it was a stone floor in the can, and it was good for tap-dancing. I started imitating one of those guys in the movies. In one of those musicals. I hate the movies like poison, but I get a bang imitating them. Old Stradlater watched me in the mirror while he was shaving. All I need's an audience. I'm an exhibitionist. ‘I'm the goddarn Governor's son,’ I said. I was knocking myself out. Tap-dancing all over the place. ‘He doesn't want me to be a tap dancer. He wants me to go to Oxford. But it's in my goddam blood, tap-dancing.’ Old Stradlater laughed.”
“All of a sudden--for no good reason, really, except that I was sort of in the mood for horsing around--I felt like jumping off the washbowl and getting old Stradlater in a half nelson. That's a wrestling hold, in case you don't know, where you get the other guy around the neck and choke him to death, if you feel like it. So I did it. I landed on him like a goddam panther.”
Those two passages are relevant in the former’s connection to Holden’s past, in effect, his fondness for Phoebe and the yet-to-be fully-realized dimension of Jane’s character. Phoebe and Jane both enjoyed dancing. That in Chapter 4 Holden, in a rare display of emotional exuberance, should spontaneously break out in a tap-dance, and then playfully grab Stradlater in a half-nelson, both illuminate the potentially bipolar nature of this young man’s existence and his nostalgia for those about whom he has cared the most. That Jane remains his unrequited love from his youth, and that she was probably the victim of sexual abuse at the hands of her stepfather, instills in her character, and in Holden’s love for her, a particular poignancy that helps put that spontaneous tap-dancing and the more physically violent half-nelson in some kind of context. The key to understanding the tap-dancing and the half-nelson, then, lie in understanding what transpires in subsequent chapters of Salinger’s novel.
In Chapter Three, Holden jokes around with Ackley, who resides in the connecting room, and who seriously dislikes Holden's roommate, Stradlater. In so doing, he comments on his behavior:
"Sometimes I horse around quite a lot, just to keep from getting bored."
"You're nuts. I swear to God," Ackley said.
"Mother darling, give me your hand, Why won't you give me your hand?"
"For Chrissake, grow up."
"I started groping around in front of me, like a blind guy, but without getting up or anything. I kept saying, 'Mother darling, why won't you give me your hand?" I was only horsing around, naturally. That stuff gives me a bang sometimes. Besides, I know it annoyed hell out of old Ackley. He always brought out the old sadist in me. I was pretty sadistic with him quite often'."
Okay, this tells us that Holden has a playful side, and is prone to spontaneity when he's comfortable with his surroundings and with his friends. It still does not indicate a connection between the half-nelson and the tap-dancing. My earlier comments extrapolate from the entire text of the novel, and these observations from Chapter Three really don't add anything of substance to my earlier answer. The tap-dancing could be inspired by the dancing enjoyed by Phoebe and by Jane, but its connection to a wrestling move seems tenuous at best.
I am interested in what your teacher has to say. Thanks for the comments.