In Chapters 19-26 of Catcher in the Rye Holden enters another stage of his teen angst. As he wanders about New York City, while he has contact with others that he knows, Holden has no meaningful conversations or genuine enjoyment with them. Along with this sense of meaninglessness, Holden also feels pressured to come to terms with his struggle to pass into adulthood.
In Chapter 20, after sensing an existential meaningless with Sally and Carl Luce and Mr. Antolini from whom he has hoped he would be given some insights into life, Holden Caulfield is more bereft than ever. Always unsettled about his losses, his beloved brother Allie's death and his brother D.B.'s loss of integrity after his having "sold out" to Hollywood, along with any faith in people or in God, Holden leaves Pencey in search of some meaningful relationship which will give some purpose to his approaching adulthood. At the same time, Holden knows that he himself has values that are empty and is involved in self-destructive behavior.
In Chapter 20, Holden seeks the ducks that are in Central Park, a place he often frequents. On the way, he drops a record of Phoebe's; this broken record and the ducks who are missing greatly disturb Holden who is so frightened about changing his life.
Then, finally, I found it. What it was, it was partly frozen and partly not frozen. But I didn't see any ducks around. I walked all around the whole damn lake--I damn near fell in once, in fact- -but I didn't see a single duck. I thought maybe if there were any around, they might be asleep or something near the edge of the water, near the grass and all. That's how I nearly fell in. But I couldn't find any.
Like the broken record, the lake is in two parts, one frozen and the other is not. So, too, is Holden's life half broken. And, change is terrifying to Holden, who tells his sister Phoebe that he would like to protect children by being a "catcher in the rye" who holds onto children who come past him, preventing their maturation. Holden perceives childhood as a safe time, while the approaching adulthood is unknown territory. Like the ducks, Holden considers himself homeless and without direction, bereft in his loneliness.