What is symbolic about the scene on the cliff, which Holden describes to Phoebe? How does it relate to the idea of entering adulthood?
In J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, Phoebe and Holden discuss Holden's belief that he will never be able to be a traditional person with a traditional job, like being a lawyer. Instead, he believes he will be the person who runs through the fields of rye, protecting children from falling off a cliff if they are not watching.
In Chapter Twenty-two, Phoebe explains that the Robert Burns poem does not refer to a "catcher" in the rye, which Holden had never realized.
"You know that song, 'If a body catch a body comin' through the rye'? I'd like—"
"It's 'If a body meet a body coming through the rye!'" old Phoebe said. "It's a poem. By Robert Burns."
"I know it's a poem by Robert Burns."
She was right, though. It is "If a body meet a body coming through the rye." I didn't know it then, though.
"I thought it was 'If a body catch a body.'" I said. "Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody's around—nobody big, I mean—except me. And I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff—I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going. I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That's all I'd do all day. I'd be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it's crazy, but that's the only thing I'd really like to be. I know it's crazy."
This role of protector is ironic in that Holden is much like the children he envisions who need protection. As Mr. Antolini will infer in Chapter Twenty-four, he fears Holden will fall, sacrificing himself for some "unworthy cause," and never be successful because he quits too easily.
Holden is like one of the children, running through the field of rye, who needs someone to stop him from running over the cliff and falling. Perhaps his perception could be seen as a Freudian slip, for if ever someone needed a protector or someone to watch over him, it is Holden. We can see that in many ways, Holden is a failure, but he is also a very sensitive person. He understands the needs of others (the falling children) perhaps better than he understands his own needs.
...he understands and cares about people who are outcasts or powerless.
The cliff, as Mr. Antolini points out, represents Holden's potential fall. It could be failure to become a responsible adult who can take care of himself, or a failure to find that in life which will make him happy, or it could even symbolize a potential loss of life, as seen with Holden's classmate (James Castle) who commits suicide. Holden is a child on that cliff, in danger of falling over the edge. The point regarding Holden's hoped-for entrance into adulthood is also found in Mr. Antolini's discussion with Holden: at some point Holden has to figure out how to avoid that cliff on his own. He needs to grow up and decide what he wants to do with his life, and he must stop blaming the teachers, the courses, and the students for his failure to pass classes or excel in life. This will be indicative of is movement into adulthood—when he is able to stand on his own, assume responsibility for his actions, and rise above those things that present difficulties, as is the choice presented to all people…he must overcome his need to make excuses like a child, to pull himself together and grow up.