When Holden arrives at Mr. Antolini’s apartment, he sees that Mr. Antolini and his wife have just had a party. The apartment is full of glasses and dishes, and Mr. Antolini is still drinking highballs of liquor while Mrs. Antolini makes coffee in the kitchen. Holden has a good relationship with Mr. Antolini, who often comes to his parents’ house for dinner and belongs to the same tennis club as his family. Once Holden and Mr. Antolini get settled in the living room, Mr. Antolini says, “So. You and Pencey are no longer one.” The way he puts this annoys Holden, who sometimes thinks that Mr. Antolini tries too hard to sound interesting.
Even Mr. Antolini, whom Holden respects and thinks is a good teacher, can’t escape Holden’s judgment. Holden’s annoyance at his teacher’s phrasing reminds readers of his tendency to estrange himself from people, even when they only want to help him.
Mr. Antolini questions Holden about his expulsion, saying that he hopes he didn’t fail English. Holden assures him that English is the only class he passed, but he goes on at length about a course called Oral Expression. In this class, each student was required to stand up and deliver a speech. If the speaker got off topic, Holden explains, his classmates had to yell “Digression!” at him. Holden tells Mr. Antolini that he hated this, saying that he actually likes it when people digress. Playing devil’s advocate, Mr. Antolini asks him if he really enjoys it when he’s talking to somebody who gets off topic, but Holden suddenly doesn’t feel like having this conversation. As he sits in the living room, he realizes that he feels physically terrible.
It's helpful to remember at this point that Holden has spent the majority of the night drinking scotch. Consequently, he’s suffering the effects of over-consuming alcohol as he tries to have a serious conversation with Mr. Antolini. Holden uses his unsteady physical state to justify why he doesn’t want to have this conversation with Mr. Antolini. In reality, though, Holden most likely doesn’t want to have this discussion because it’s about his performance in school, which is a source of shame for him. To make matters worse, Mr. Antolini—whom Holden respects—seems to be gearing up to give him the same kind of lecture that Dr. Thurmer and Mr. Spencer have already given him. If this is the case, then Holden will undoubtedly feel like he can’t find anyone who will understand him—after all, even Phoebe was angry when she learned that he failed out of Pencey.
Mr. Antolini tells Holden that he had lunch with his father recently. This apparently took place shortly before Holden’s parents went to Pencey to have a frank discussion with Dr. Thurmer about his academic standing. Mr. Antolini says that Holden’s father is very worried about him, but Holden doesn’t have the energy to engage in this conversation. Still, Mr. Antolini goes on, saying that he thinks Holden’s heading for a “terrible fall” that will result in a life of bitterness. Holden protests, but Mr. Antolini continues: the “fall” Holden is destined for, according to Antolini, happens when a man expects more from his environment than it can possibly offer him. When this happens, he claims, many people simply stop trying to find contentment, giving up hope without putting in a real effort to lead good lives.
Although Mr. Antolini seems about to deliver the same kind of lecture that Holden has already received from Mr. Spencer and Dr. Thurmer, his words are more effective because he doesn’t phrase his advice in terms of success. He understands that Holden thinks of success as phony and that Holden isn’t necessarily wrong to think this way. Instead of emphasizing how important it is to follow the rules in the game of life, then, he tries to show the effects that Holden’s unrelenting cynicism might have on his long-term happiness. If, he says, Holden never puts any effort into his life because he sees it as pointless, he will most likely give up hope of ever manifesting a pleasant existence for himself.
Mr. Antolini elaborates on his ideas, telling Holden that he can envision him dying “nobly” for some pointless cause. He then quotes a psychoanalyst named Wilhelm Stekel, saying, “The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one.” He writes this down and hands it to Holden, who promises to keep it (he notes as an aside that he does indeed still have it). Holden thanks him for this and puts it in his pocket, but he feels too tired to fully focus on what Mr. Antolini has told him.
The quote Mr. Antolini writes down for Holden emphasizes the young man’s obsession with authenticity. Although Mr. Antolini understands that Holden is right to recognize that many people are shallow and dishonest, he tries to get him to see that he has fixated too much on this cynical worldview. To that end, he suggests that Holden will cut himself off from enjoyment in life because he’s too willing to “die nobly” for the unworthy cause of exposing “phonies.” Instead of focusing on this, Mr. Antolini implies, Holden should find a way to accept the things that upset him and move on.
Unlike Holden, Mr. Antolini shows no signs of being tired. Continuing his lecture, he says he suspects that Holden will soon realize that he has to apply himself in school. This, he argues, is because Holden is a natural student, someone who inherently treasures knowledge. Once Holden gets over the trivial annoyances of going to school, Mr. Antolini says, he’ll realize that he’s not the first young person to be fed up with the way other humans behave. In fact, many people have been just as disillusioned as Holden. He points out that Holden can learn from the people who have written about this process of maturing, adding that perhaps one day people will learn from his story, too. As Mr. Antolini says this, though, all Holden notices is that his former teacher is a bit drunk—that, and how badly he himself wants to go to sleep.
It's unclear how much of what Mr. Antolini says Holden takes to heart. Regardless, though, it’s undeniable that Mr. Antolini has expressed these ideas more effectively than Mr. Spencer, who simply made Holden feel bad about failing out of school. Instead of shaming Holden, Mr. Antolini suggests that he’s a very smart young man, thereby encouraging him to independently pursue knowledge, which he thinks would help him grapple with some of the misgivings he has about society. Holden has always seen school as something that requires him to give up his unique viewpoint, but Mr. Antolini now suggests that Holden can use education to further define himself and, in doing so, facilitate his personal growth.
As Mr. Antolini holds forth with his advice, Holden accidentally yawns. He immediately feels rude for doing this, but Mr. Antolini simply laughs and tells him to get some sleep, helping him turn the couch into a makeshift bed. Before long, Holden is asleep, but he wakes up a short time later and feels Mr. Antolini’s hand brushing his forehead. Startled, he jumps up, but Mr. Antolini claims that he was only “admiring” him. Nevertheless, Holden suspects his former teacher of “being perverty” toward him, so he declares that he has to leave, saying that he left his suitcases in a locker at Grand Central Station and must go collect them. As he scrambles to get dressed, Mr. Antolini tries to convince him to stay, and when Holden refuses, Mr. Antolini calls him strange. Undeterred, Holden thanks Mr. Antolini for his advice and leaves.
Regardless of Mr. Antolini’s intentions, it’s obvious that his actions are inappropriate, since an adult in his position shouldn’t be showing any kind of physical affection to a former student, especially if that student is asleep in the adult’s house. If Mr. Antolini’s affection toward Holden truly is sexual, this is quite tragic, because he is—until this point—one of the only people who encourages Holden to feel more or less at ease with himself. When this relationship suddenly takes on inappropriate overtones, though, Holden is forced to second-guess the nature of their bond. To protect himself, he alienates himself from Antolini, once again finding himself estranged from everyone around him.