Holden Caulfield is portrayed as an exceptionally intelligent, observant, sensitive, and articulate but still an immature, naïve adolescent. His description of Mr. Antolini shows both his perceptivity and naiveté. In Chapter 22 he writes,
I wanted to phone up this guy that was my English teacher at Elkton Hills, Mr. Antolini. He lived in New York now. He quit Elkton Hills. He took this job teaching English at NYU.
Holden does not realize the implications of what he has written. Later, the reader will guess that Antolini probably did not “quit” Elkton Hills but may have been asked to leave because he was showing the same interest in boys he subsequently shows in Holden at his apartment. Holden says, “He lived in New York now.” This implies that Antolini was a resident teacher at Elkton Hills.
The job he “took teaching English at NYU” was most likely part-time and untenured, because a man teaching at a prep school for adolescent boys would have been highly unlikely to have a PhD to step into a secure, full-time faculty position. Married to a wealthy woman, he might only want the university as a sort of aegis or facade, just as his relationship with an older woman was evidently a mariage de convenance as well as a meal ticket. Being married would have disguised his sexuality, and his older wife would have known that her money had bought her a pleasant companion, escort, host, and conversationalist.
When Antolini answers the door,
He had on his bathrobe and slippers, and he had a highball in one hand. He was a pretty sophisticated guy, and he was a pretty heavy drinker.
Antolini continues drinking heavily throughout their conversation and right up until the time he makes up the couch for Holden. The young guest misses most of the implications in Antolini’s questions and remarks, which become more and more suggestive. With his heavy drinking, Antolini seems to be working up the courage to hit on Holden, who is described as a handsome young man. Here are a few of Antolini’s questions which should have given Holden a warning:
“How’re all your women?”
“They’re okay.” I was being a lousy conversationalist, but I didn’t feel like it.
“How’s Sally?” He knew old Sally Hayes. I introduced him once.
“She’s all right. I had a date with her this afternoon.” Boy, it seemed like twenty years ago! “We don’t have too much in common any more.”
“Helluva pretty girl. What about that other girl? The one you told me about, in Maine?”
“Oh—Jane Gallagher. She’s all right. I’m probably gonna give her a buzz tomorrow.”
Antolini evidently gives up trying to get Holden to talk about his love life. He says,
“All right. Good night, handsome.”
By now, Antolini must be very drunk. Holden should have taken that comment as a warning—but he sees and does not see. That is what is unique about him, what characterizes him. He sees everything but does not necessarily understand everything, because so much is new to him in this complicated and devious world. He is a good example of a faux naïf narrator. He mentions that
I didn’t have any pajamas either and Mr. Antolini forgot to lend me some. So I just went back in the living room and turned off this little lamp next to the couch, and then I got in bed with just my shorts on.
Mr. Antolini most likely did not forget. The entire novel is about how a sheltered young man from an upper-class home learns many lessons about the real world, and this experience with Antolini will be one of the most significant. The man Holden respects and trusts ends up violating that trust when Holden is at his most vulnerable.