After Luce leaves, Holden stays at the bar, getting “drunk as hell.” He tries to invite one of the singers to join him for a drink and imagines that he is wounded.
Holden leaves the bar to call Jane Gallagher, but when he gets to the phone booth he decides to call Sally Hayes instead. He tells Sally that he’ll help her trim the tree on Christmas Eve. Sally tells him that he’s drunk and that he should go to bed.
After speaking with Sally, Holden goes to the men’s room and dunks his head in cold water. He strikes up a conversation with the piano player, who tells him to go home to bed. Beginning to cry, he gets his coat and record from the friendly girl at the hat-check room.
Even though it’s cold, Holden decides to walk through the park to see if the ducks are there. Along the way, he drops the record and puts the broken pieces in his pocket.
Holden doesn’t see any ducks and begins to shiver with the cold. Sitting down on a bench, he imagines his own funeral and being buried in a cemetery; details of his brother Allie’s death merge with his fantasy. He wishes that Allie were still alive.
Holden counts his dwindling supply of money and skips the last of his coins across the unfrozen part of the lake. He thinks about his sister and decides to go to his house to see her.
Tricking the elevator boy, Holden sneaks into his family’s apartment. Holden finds Phoebe in his brother D.B.’s room and, watching her sleep, he feels “swell, for a change.” Smoking his last cigarette, Holden reads Phoebe’s school notebooks on the desk.
Holden wakes Phoebe up and she greets him affectionately. Phoebe tells Holden about the play she is in at school, and she says that their parents are out at a party. Holden gives her the record he bought for her, explaining how he broke it, and Phoebe keeps the pieces. Phoebe keeps asking Holden why he is home early; Holden tries to lie to her, but she knows that he got expelled from Pencey. She is upset by this, putting her pillow over her head. She worries about their father’s reaction, but Holden tells her that he is going to go work on a ranch in Colorado. Holden tries to get Phoebe to take the pillow off of her head, but she refuses, so he leaves the room to find some more cigarettes.
When Holden returns to Phoebe’s room, she has removed the pillow but is still upset. She continues to worry about their father’s reaction and asks Holden why he was expelled. Holden tries to explain to her some of the reasons he hated Pencey. He tells her that Pencey was “full of phonies,” students and teachers alike. He recounts a story of a Pencey alumnus whose search for his initials in the bathroom struck Holden as depressing.
Phoebe tells Holden that he doesn’t like “a million things” and challenges him to think of one thing that he truly likes. Holden struggles to concentrate as he tries to think of an answer. All he can think about are the two nuns he met, as well as James Castle, a former schoolmate of his who committed suicide. Finally, Holden tells Phoebe that he likes Allie and he likes sitting talking with her. Phoebe argues that those aren’t adequate answers and demands that he name a career that he would like to pursue.
Holden tells Phoebe that he...
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wants to be “the catcher in the rye.” He imagines children playing in a field of rye, and himself catching them before they go over the cliff.
Suddenly, Holden decides to call Mr. Antolini, one of his former English teachers.
Holden calls Mr. Antolini, and Mr. Antolini invites him to come over. Holden describes Mr. Antolini as “about the best teacher [he] ever had,” and he remembers how it was Mr. Antolini who picked up James Castle’s body.
Holden goes back to Phoebe’s room, and they dance together. Holden’s parents come home, and Holden hides in the closet as his mother checks on Phoebe. After she leaves, Holden tells Phoebe that he’s going to leave.
Phoebe insists on giving Holden her Christmas money, and Holden begins to cry. He cries for “a long, long time”; Phoebe puts her arm around him and tells him that he can stay. Holden says he is going to Mr. Antolini’s and gives her his red hunting hat.
Holden takes a taxi to Mr. Antolini’s “swanky apartment,” and he describes the Antolinis as “very intellectual.”
Mr. and Mrs. Antolini greet Holden warmly. Mr. Antolini asks Holden about Pencey, and Holden describes how he failed his Oral Expression course because the teacher forced the students to keep to their main point.
Mr. Antolini tells Holden that he met with his father and that his father is concerned about him. He warns Holden that he might be headed for a “terrible, terrible fall.” He writes down a quote for him, and advises him to pursue academics as a way to find others who have shared his struggles and as a way to make his own contribution.
Holden is tired, so Mr. Antolini makes up the couch for him, and he falls asleep quickly.
Holden is startled awake and finds that Mr. Antolini is petting his head. He hurriedly gets dressed and insists that he needs to get his bags from the station. Mr. Antolini tries to convince him to stay, but Holden leaves, saying that he’ll come back with his bags.
Since leaving Pencey, Holden has been in public places, often interacting with strangers. Adrift in the world by himself, Holden slips deeper into depression, occasionally imagining his own death in detail.
Finally, Holden decides that it is time to go home. Upon entering his house, he immediately recognizes the familiar smell. In contrast to the strangers who have repeatedly declined Holden’s requests to share a drink, Phoebe greets him affectionately, and Holden notes that she is “glad as hell to see me.” Holden finds himself in a familiar place where he is loved, and he views his sister with love instead of his typical criticism and sarcasm.
During his conversation with Phoebe, Holden is challenged about his perspective on the world. His vision of being a “catcher in the rye,” the consequence of a misread poem, illuminates the title of the novel. Holden sees children as innocent and pure, in contrast to the hypocrisy of adults, and he longs to preserve their innocence. Immediately after he narrates the story of James Castle falling to his death, Holden describes his desire to stop children from falling. At times, Holden himself feels the pull of suicide. Before leaving his house, he “almost wished” that his parents “caught me.” Holden’s fantasy of the “catcher in the rye” demonstrates his longing to protect children but also his desire for someone to protect him as well. An adolescent at the threshold between childhood and adulthood, Holden longs for innocence, even as it slips from his grasp.
At the bar, Holden pretends to be wounded while at the same time “concealing the fact that I was a wounded sonuvabitch.” This illustrates Holden’s inner pain and his inability to share his vulnerability with others. It is with Phoebe, however, that this façade is removed. Holden cries in front of her, and they embrace. He cries so hard that he thinks he is “going to choke to death,” and is unable to stop for “a long, long time.”
When Holden goes to Mr. Antolini’s, readers once again sense that he is in a safe, familiar place. Here is an adult who seems to be able to reach him, who knows him and cares for him. Mr. Antolini warns him that he may be “riding for some kind of a terrible, terrible fall.” This language reminds readers of Holden’s fantasy of “the catcher in the rye” stopping children before they fall.
In contrast to his night in the hotel room, Holden falls asleep quickly on Mr. Antolini’s couch. His ability to sleep deeply demonstrates the trust he has in Mr. Antolini.
This feeling of safety is abruptly shattered by what happens next. Although it is unclear exactly what Mr. Antolini’s intentions are, what is important is that Holden feels afraid and uncomfortable. He is startled out of his sleep and very upset. Previous “perverty” experiences are triggered in his memory, giving readers important information about Holden’s past. Holden’s obsession with protecting children’s innocence and his conflicting views about sexuality are understood by readers in a new way after this revelation.
Leaving Mr. Antolini’s, Holden once again finds himself let down by the adults in his life, and he flees alone into a world of strangers.