As he roams about the city, Holden encounters his brother’s old friends, calls strangers to whom friends have referred him, mixes in a hotel bar, and invites a prostitute into his hotel room, only to be shaken down by her pimp. He arranges a date to a theater performance with an old girlfriend, Sally Hayes, and the evening ends in a fight over his plea for her to run away with him to the Vermont wilderness.
After taking Sally home, Holden goes to a movie at Radio City, then stops off for a drink at the Seton Hotel with an old school friend named Luce who chastises him for his social and sexual immaturity. Holden finally sneaks into his parents’ apartment and wakes up his little sister Phoebe. His long conversation with Phoebe provides a partial motive for Holden’s alienation, revealing much about his personality that has been masked, particularly his love for the innocence of young children and his desire to save them from the pain and corruption of the adult social world. On a sudden impulse, Holden sets out for a late night visit to a favorite old teacher, Mr. Antolini.
This visit gives readers further insight into Holden’s unusual sensitivity. Antolini gives Holden wise advice about the need to adjust to adult society and to outgrow dangerous illusions in order to avoid suffering a serious “fall” or disillusionment, but Holden remains unconvinced. Holden falls asleep and awakes to find Mr. Antolini touching his head in an affectionate gesture. Confused about sexuality, Holden interprets the gesture as a homosexual act and quickly departs.
Later, he realizes that he may have misinterpreted Mr. Antolini and senses the wisdom of his advice, but Holden remains unable to overcome his feelings of alienation toward what he perceives as society’s hypocrisy and selfishness or his longing for a more pure, uncorrupt world of childhood innocence. He visits Phoebe at her school and dreams of escape to some peaceful, isolated place in the American West.
The book ends suddenly with Holden describing his “illness” and treatment by psychoanalysts at a country hospital, treatment apparently meant to “cure” Holden of his alienation so he can adjust to the adult world.
Although a wide variety of Characters appear in this short novel, many of them quickly exit the story. Furthermore, several important Characters never actually appear. All, however, are important primarily for what they reveal about Holden’s values, values that imply the novel’s Themes.
Holden’s fellow students, such as Stradlater and Ackley at Pencey, and Luce from Whooton school, represent the youth of prosperous America, sent off to prep schools to be educated for entry into elite universities or to prepare to inherit America’s businesses. Holden sees them as quite “uneducated” in what is important to him: the needs and feelings of individual people. Unlike Holden, who is both confused about and sensitive to the adolescent transition to adult sexuality and social requirements, Stradlater represents the self-centered, often crude young adult dating girls to “score” sexually without concern for their feelings. Luce, on the other hand, typifies a false maturity, a young adult who acts and speaks with a knowing condescension that his limited experience cannot justify. Ackley, awkward and self-conscious, demonstrates feelings of social inadequacy and adolescent discomfort with the biological changes the body undergoes in years of late youth.
Holden’s parents, although never seen in the novel, clearly represent an adult world that expects high achievements but little inconvenience from children. Adults throughout this novel, with the exception of Mr. Antolini, seem unable to relate to adolescents. They treat them as mature while, perhaps unconsciously, wanting the Holdens of life to remain unaware, like younger children, of the social hypocrisy by which adult society often operates.
Mr. Antolini represents an adult who understands Holden’s alienation and his deeply disturbed sensibility. Yet the only advice he seems able to offer is to conform, adapt, and “grow up,” something Holden cannot or will not do.
Holden’s sister Phoebe, in contrast, represents an innocent world he has outgrown yet wishes to forever regain. Phoebe constantly reminds Holden of the years when he played imaginatively, unburdened by sadness, guilt, or responsibility. His urgent pleas to Phoebe and Sally Hayes to join him in running away to some idyllic place in Vermont or the mountainous West symbolize his impossible quest to return to this lost innocence.
Holden’s dream of escape would be unconvincing if it were not justified by some legitimate motives. Those motives are represented by both of his brothers, neither of whom ever appears in the book. Holden’s older brother D. B. is a scriptwriter in Hollywood. This character reappears in Salinger’s later fiction, and some critics have argued that he represents an aspect of Salinger himself. To Holden, the writer who adapts to America’s commercial entertainment industry by supplying soporific, “phony” popular entertainment corrupts his or her own integrity by offering dangerous illusions that may lead the public to false interpretations of reality.
Finally, Holden’s younger brother Allie has died of leukemia. This death haunts Holden and further alienates him from what he perceives to be a casual acceptance of the human condition. An extremely sensitive teenager hiding behind his public veneer of flippant cynicism, Holden finds the human condition deeply troubling and spiritually empty.