In Grand Central Station, Holden sleeps on a bench in a waiting area. Having never felt more depressed in his life, he eventually finds it impossible to sleep when people begin to populate the building during the morning commute hours. In retrospect, he wonders if Mr. Antolini was actually acting inappropriately toward him, or if he perhaps overreacted. Maybe, he thinks, Mr. Antolini simply likes to “pat guys on the head when they’re asleep.” Thinking this way, he regrets reacting so harshly to what happened at Mr. Antolini’s apartment, and he begins to feel even more depressed than he already did.
Salinger never clarifies what, exactly, Mr. Antolini’s intentions were when he stroked Holden’s head. However, it hardly matters whether or not this contact was of a sexual nature, since the end result still rattled Holden to his core and forced him to question whether or not he could trust Antolini, who was up until that point one of the few people he could turn to in times of hardship. Alone and confused, Holden now tortures himself by second-guessing his very reasonable reaction, blaming himself for running away from one of the only people who seems to truly care about him.
As Holden exits Grand Central Station, he begins to feel sick, realizing that he has a cold coming on. To make matters worse, his stomach feels terrible, so he goes into a donut shop but finds himself unable to eat. He then begins to walk down Fifth Avenue, remembering how he took Phoebe Christmas shopping there two years ago. This is a fond memory, but it doesn’t help put Holden in a better mood. Instead, he’s overcome by a strange but sudden fear that each time he steps off the curb he’ll never get to the other side of the road. At the end of every block, he becomes convinced that he’s going to descend forever into the street, so he begs Allie to protect him.
Although Holden’s fear about never reaching the other side of the street seems quite strange and even a bit unhinged, it actually makes sense when one considers the fact that he has just spent the night thinking about the future. Indeed, the rest of his life is uncertain and difficult to predict, and he has no sense of whether or not he’ll make it through the various hardships that adulthood has already begun to throw at him. In keeping with this, whether or not he’ll make it to the other side of the street becomes a metaphor for his overall uncertainty regarding the future.
Holden decides that the only thing for him to do is leave New York City once and for all. Wanting to say goodbye to Phoebe, he goes to her school and gives an administrator in the principal’s office a note telling her to meet him at the Museum of Art during her lunchbreak because he’s going to move out West once and for all. While he’s at the school, which he too used to attend, he begins to feel excited by his plan to head West. However, his spirits sink when he looks up and sees that someone has scrawled “Fuck you” on one of the building’s walls. Enraged that somebody would write this where kids like Phoebe can see it, Holden erases the phrase and fantasizes about killing whomever wrote it.
The scrawled curse words enrage Holden because he can’t stand the idea of somebody purposefully corrupting children. Of course, his rage is most likely also linked to his experience at Mr. Antolini’s the night before, since Mr. Antolini’s inappropriate touch threatened to corrupt his own youthful sense of innocence. At the same time, though, it’s rather ironic that he reacts so negatively to the words written on the wall, since he has been using coarse language throughout the entire novel. Once again, then, readers see that he doesn’t necessarily hold himself to the same standards to which he holds everyone else.
After delivering the note for Phoebe, Holden exits the school by using a different staircase. On his way out, he notices yet another “Fuck you,” and this time he’s unable to rub it off the wall. This, he says, is the problem with the world: no matter what people do, they’ll never be able to erase all the obscene messages.
Despite Mr. Antolini’s advice to stop seeing the world so cynically, Holden finds himself depressed by humanity, believing that it’s pointless to have any faith in the goodness of other people. This, of course, is most likely because Mr. Antolini effectively nullified his own words by muddying his relationship with Holden, acting inappropriately and ultimately unsettling any sense of connection between him and Holden. As a result, Holden can’t quite accept his advice, which is why he finds himself so dispirited when he sees another “Fuck you.”
Holden sets out for the Museum of Art. On his way, he considers calling Jane Gallagher, but ultimately doesn’t feel up to the task. Once he reaches the museum, he encounters two young boys who ask him where the mummies are. Happy to show them, Holden jokes around with the boys by asking them to tell him what a mummy is, and then he leads them to the Egyptian section. On the way, he asks if they know how the Egyptians buried their dead, explaining that they used to wrap the dead people in cloth soaked in secret preservatives. As soon as he and the boys enter the dark hall with the Pharaoh’s tomb, though, the boys get scared and run away. Holden, on the other hand, finds the space peaceful until he sees yet another “Fuck you” written just beneath a glass display.
That Holden teaches the young boys about how the Ancient Egyptians preserved their dead is rather ironic, since he showed no interest in talking or learning about the Ancient Egyptians when he was in Mr. Spencer’s class. Despite his apathy regarding this subject, though, he apparently absorbed some of the information. And though what he tells the boys is a very simplified version of how the Ancient Egyptians mummified their dead, it demonstrates once again that his failure in school had nothing to do with his learning capabilities. It also confirms that Mr. Antolini was right to encourage him to embrace his own intelligence. Furthermore, it makes sense that Holden would have retained information about how to embalm dead people, since this act of preservation no doubt appeals to his desire to keep change at bay. Before he can dwell on this thought, though, he once again plunges into cynicism when he sees “Fuck you” written beneath one of the displays.
Upset, Holden goes to the bathroom in the museum, feeling suddenly ill. After he uses the toilet, he passes out on his way to wash his hands at the sink, though he wakes up shortly thereafter and is thankful that he didn’t hit his head on the floor. Exiting the bathroom, he waits for Phoebe and imagines his life out West, thinking that he’ll only let people visit him in his cabin if they promise not to be “phony.”
Holden’s physical state is in rapid decline, ultimately mirroring his mental health. At this point in the novel, it’s helpful to remember that Holden is only 16 and has been on his own in the city for several days. He has been eating very little, drinking a lot, and hardly sleeping—all signs that he’s not ready to launch himself into the adult world, though this is exactly what he has done.
Although she’s late, Phoebe finally arrives lugging a large suitcase. When Holden tells her he doesn’t need anything from home, she informs him that the suitcase is for her, since she has decided to come with him. He says that he won’t let her come, and suddenly the very prospect of arguing makes him feel faint again. He even begins to resent Phoebe, especially because he hates the idea that she would willingly miss her play in order to accompany him. Phoebe, for her part, becomes angry at him for not letting her join him. Frustrated, she takes off his hunting hat, which she has been wearing, and thrusts it into his arms.
Holden resents Phoebe in this moment because he suddenly realizes that she’s willing to do whatever he says, even if it’s against her best interest. This troubles him because it forces him to realize that he’s the one who should be responsible. Until this conversation, Phoebe has been the voice of reason in their relationship. Now, though, Holden has to assume responsibility because he can plainly see that coming with him out West will be bad for Phoebe. Consequently, he dislikes her for forcing him into the kind of adult role he’s been trying to avoid for so long.
Holden grabs Phoebe’s suitcase and leaves it at the coat-check in the museum. He then tries to walk her back to school, but she refuses to return, telling him to shut up when he tries to convince her. This shocks Holden, who hates hearing Phoebe use such harsh words. To make her feel better, he offers to take her to the zoo, but she refuses to walk with him, instead running across the street. Instead of chasing her, Holden simply starts walking toward the zoo, knowing that his sister will follow him from a distance. Sure enough, he leads her toward the park and into the zoo.
Finally, Holden begins to act responsibly. By reasoning with his sister because he doesn’t want her to do anything rash, he’s forced to behave maturely. In this capacity, he acts like an adult by leading Phoebe to the park so that she’ll be safe and won’t ruin her life like he thinks he has ruined his own.
After meandering silently through the zoo, Holden and Phoebe start to walk toward a large carousel where Holden, Allie, and D.B. used to take Phoebe when she was little. Phoebe still isn’t talking to Holden, but he can tell she isn’t as mad at him as she was before. When they reach the carousel, he buys her a ticket and convinces her to take a ride. As he watches, he notices that the carousel still plays the same song it played when he was a kid. He also worries that Phoebe might fall off her horse because she keeps straining to grab the gold ring hanging from the carousel’s ceiling. Despite his worry, though, he doesn’t tell her to be careful, knowing that it’s better to let kids fall than to interfere with them.
Holden’s sense that it’s better to let kids fall than to interfere stands in direct opposition to his former desire to be the “catcher in the rye” who protects children and preserves their innocence, suggesting that he has come to realize his own naïveté in thinking that he could stave off adulthood. It also suggests that he has developed a cynical attitude toward advice, which several adult characters have tried to give him throughout the novel. Although Holden badly needs guidance, he largely resents the people who tell him what he’s doing wrong in life. The only person whose advice resonates with him is Mr. Antolini, who frames his ideas not in terms of everything Holden has done badly, but in terms of how he might rethink some of the hard-headed convictions that are holding him back from happiness. Unfortunately, though, Mr. Antolini’s advice has also soured as a result of his odd behavior toward Holden. Accordingly, Holden thinks that all advice is nothing but an annoyance, and that people should learn by making their own mistakes. Interestingly enough, this is a fairly reasonable mentality to adopt, especially since it’s one of the only thoughts that Holden has about how to move through life while acknowledging that he won’t be able to avoid the occasional downfall.
When Phoebe finishes riding the carousel, Holden encourages her to take another ride. Before she does, though, she takes the hunting hat (which Holden put in his pocket) and places it on her brother’s head. She then asks him if he’s really going to move out West, and he assures her that he isn’t, promising to go home after they’re finished in the park. Happy with this news, she runs back to the carousel. As Holden watches her, he feels so happy he could cry.
By convincing Phoebe not to go out West, Holden fulfills his desire to protect childhood innocence. In doing so, he decides against going West, thereby saving not just Phoebe, but himself, too. In this way, he becomes “the catcher in the rye” who saves children from ruin. However, this doesn’t mean that he doesn’t still face a fair amount of emotional turmoil, as evidenced by the intense joy he feels while watching the pure and innocent image of Phoebe on the carousel. As he watches her and feels so happy that he could cry, he uses his newfound contentment to shield himself from his depression and the looming hardships of adulthood, both of which he will need to address at some point.