In J. D. Salinger's tale of teen angst, Holden Cauldfield slowly starts to unravel. His interactions with others cause him to lose faith in himself, and he becomes desperate to break from his feelings of aloneness. At the skating rink with Sally in Chapter 17, he asks her,
"Did you ever get fed up? I mean did you ever get scared that everything was going to be lousy unless you did something? I mean, do you like school and all that stuff?"
More and more Holden wants to run away, feeling he is a "madman" as he unravels and contemplates the meaninglessness of life and his fears of change as he thinks of the deaths of people; his brother's disillusionment after he returns from World War II, and his death, which for Holden is the ultimate change.
In this disturbed condition, then, Holden decides to return home and see "old" Phoebe "in case I died." When he arrives home and wakes up Phoebe, she realizes that Holden has been kicked out of school and becomes angry with him. She tells him he does not like anything; Holden disagrees; so, Phoebe demands that he tell her what he likes. The search through his memory awakens for Holden another image of death, that of James Castle, a boy at Elkton Hills, who would not retract a statement he made about an egotistical boy there. When this boy's friends and he confronted James, but James would not retract his remarks, even after they raped him; instead, he jumped out of the window. Mr. Antolini, Holden's English teacher, was the only person who would touch poor, bleeding James, covering him with his coat, lifting him up and carrying him to the infirmary. After that, Mr. Antolini left Elkton to teach at college in New York.
Holden phones Mr. Antolini, perhaps to have his old teacher rescue him from his own fears of death. When he visits Mr. Antolini, his former teacher expresses his anxiety about Holden,
“I have a feeling that you’re riding for some kind of terrible, terrible fall.” (Ch.24)
This supports Holden's wish that he could be the "catcher in the rye" of the children,
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 just be the catcher in the rye and all, protecting them.
For, Holden fears adulthood, and he wishes to "catch" and hold the children in their young state; likewise, he hopes Mr. Antolini can "catch" him as he spirals downward in his own fears of adulthood.