After going into the living room to fetch a cigarette from a small box on the table, Holden reenters Phoebe’s room. She is still “ostracizing” him, but she has at least started talking to him again, though only to repeat that their father is going to kill him. Again, he insists that he’s moving to Colorado to work on a ranch, but she merely laughs at this idea, pointing out that he doesn’t even know how to ride a horse. When she continues to scold Holden for failing out of Pencey, he asks her to stop trying to make him feel bad, telling her that everyone at Pencey is mean and that it’s a terrible place. He says that even the nice teachers were still “phonies,” and he tells her about how Mr. Spencer used to act completely different whenever Dr. Thurmer sat in on his classes.
In contrast to Holden, Phoebe is grounded and realistic, which is why she tries to help him see that he can’t simply pick up and move to Colorado. Nonetheless, Holden makes his usual claim that his problems are society’s fault, citing the rampant “phoniness” at Pencey as the primary reason he left. Of course, this simply isn’t true, since the real reason he left is because he got kicked out for failing the majority of his classes. Rather than owning up to this, though, he tries to reframe the situation and act like he made a conscious decision to leave.
Phoebe doesn’t say anything to Holden, but he can tell she’s listening, so he keeps talking about how much he hates Pencey. He relates a story about a Pencey alumnus who visited the school and asked Holden and Stradlater to show him the bathroom because he wanted to see if his initials—which he had carved into the stall years before—were still there. This deeply depressed Holden, which is why he tells the story to Phoebe, trying to explain why he needed to get away from Pencey.
One of Holden’s worst nightmares is the idea of becoming somebody who is so attached to a place like Pencey that he can’t move on with his life. This is rather ironic, considering that Holden himself is extremely attached to the past and does whatever he can to trick himself into thinking that he can fight off inevitable changes. In the same way that Holden cherishes his memory of Allie and idealizes his conception of Jane, this alumnus sees his high school years as the best ones of his life. Funnily enough, though, Holden is unable to see the parallels between himself and this man.
Phoebe accuses Holden of never liking anything. When he argues this point, she challenges him to name one thing that he genuinely likes. At first, he dithers, asking if he has to think of something that he likes or something that he likes a lot. When she says that he has to think of something he likes a lot, he has trouble answering. While thinking, his mind wanders to the nuns he met that morning. It also wanders to James Castle, an Elkton Hills student who committed suicide while Holden was also a student there. Holden didn’t know Castle very well, but he remembers him because Castle jumped out a window after a group of boys tried to get him to take back something he said about one of them. Unwilling to take back his insult, Castle flung himself out the window and died.
Holden thinks back to James Castle because Castle is unnervingly similar to him. After all, Holden is the kind of person who refuses to stop calling people “morons” even when they’re threatening to beat him up. He’s also the kind of person who fantasizes frequently about death and suicide. As such, Holden sees Castle as a tragic but oddly heroic version of himself, somebody who actually followed through with what Holden has thus far only thought about. As he thinks about this, though, he ultimately fails to answer Phoebe’s question, proving that she’s right to point out his unrelenting cynicism.
Finally, Holden says that he likes Allie and talking to Phoebe. Phoebe, for her part, says this doesn’t count because Allie is dead, but Holden says this shouldn’t matter, since Allie was nicer than anyone he’s ever met. Changing the nature of the question, Phoebe tells Holden to think of something he’d like to be, such as a scientist or a lawyer. Right away, Holden says he could never be a scientist because he’s horrible at science, and though he admits that being a lawyer wouldn’t be so bad, he struggles with whether or not lawyers advocate for innocent people because they want to help them or because they simply want to be good lawyers. Because of this misgiving, he has trouble picturing himself as a lawyer, wondering how he would know if he’s being a “phony.”
The only two things Holden can confidently say he likes are Phoebe and Allie, both of whom he has idealized in his mind. It’s as if he has decided that they’re the only good parts of his life and has now refused to admit that anything else could ever bring him happiness. Then, when Phoebe suggests that Holden might like becoming a scientist or a lawyer, he immediately rejects this notion, fearing that he wouldn’t be able to continue identifying what’s “phony” and what isn’t. Ironically, this constant focus on “phoniness” is exactly what makes it impossible for him to like anything in the first place.
Still trying to answer Phoebe’s question, Holden mentions the song he heard a little boy singing on the street earlier that day. He outlines the lyrics, singing, “If a body catch a body comin’ through the rye.” Before he can finish his point, Phoebe interjects to tell him that the lyric is actually, “If a body meet a body coming through the rye.” Admitting that she’s right, Holden says he keeps envisioning a field of rye with a large group of children running around in it. In this image, there is a cliff of some sort. Holden is standing on the edge and must catch the children before they accidentally run off and fall. Having explained this, he says that all he really wants to be is “the catcher in the rye.”
Holden’s fantasy about becoming “the catcher in the rye” is rather abstract and surreal, but it spotlights his desire to preserve what little innocence he believes is left in the world. To him, children represent the purity of youth, but he recognizes that this purity inevitably recedes as they grow older. For this reason, he wants to protect this purity from corruption, and wishes he could spend all of his time keeping the hardships of the adult world at bay. In and of itself, this is a rather innocent and naïve thing to want, and this naivety becomes even more pronounced when readers consider the song Holden is quoting. Indeed, “Comin’ Thro’ the Rye” is an old poem set to a folk melody that has extremely sexually explicit implications—implications that Holden completely misunderstands. When he quotes it, then, he not only exhibits his attachment to innocence, but inadvertently demonstrates that he himself is still quite innocent and immature when it comes to adult matters.
After listening to Holden talk about becoming the catcher in the rye, Phoebe once again reminds him that their father is going to be furious with him. Nevertheless, Holden says he doesn’t care what his parents think. With this, he decides to call his former English teacher at Elkton Hills, Mr. Antolini. Telling Phoebe to stay awake, he goes to the living room and picks up the phone.
When Phoebe corrects Holden by reminding him of the real lyrics of “Comin’ Thro’ the Rye,” she takes him out of his fantasy. As he comes crashing back to the real world, then, he looks for a new escape by calling Mr. Antolini.