On the train to New York, a woman sits next to Holden. She notices his Pencey bag and says that her son is a boy named Ernest Morrow, a student in Holden’s class. Holden hates Ernest, but lies and says that the boy is extremely popular and would be class president if it weren’t for the fact that he’s too humble to accept his peers’ nomination. This flatters Ernest’s mother and entertains Holden, who actually thinks Ernest is one of the “biggest bastards” at Pencey. At the same time, though, he begins to feel bad about lying to Ernest’s mother, who he can tell is quite kind.
Once again, Holden contradicts his hatred of “phonies” by lying to Ernest’s mother. Although he has no good reason to lie, he gets a kick out of saying that Ernest is a well-respected boy at Pencey. What’s most interesting about this moment isn’t that Holden lies (which happens frequently), but that he does so in order to please his fellow passenger. Accordingly, this suggests that Holden is eager to make others happy, though he doesn’t seem to know how to put this into practice without lying. In this sense, he is socially estranged from other people, finding it easier to lie than to genuinely relate to them or outwardly show any vulnerability.
Flirting with Ernest’s mother, Holden invites her to have a drink with him in the train’s bar, explaining that he’s able to order drinks because of his grey hairs. This entertains Ernest’s mother, who politely declines Holden’s offer. She then asks why he’s coming home so early, and he lies again, this time saying he has a small brain tumor that his doctor needs to remove. This elicits a huge reaction from Ernest’s mother, who is so sympathetic that Holden instantly feels guilty for misleading her. When she gets off the train in Newark, she urges him to visit Ernest that summer in Massachusetts, but Holden tells her that he’ll be in South America with his grandmother—another lie.
By this point, it begins to seem that Holden is something of a compulsive liar. He hates phoniness in others, but can’t avoid it in himself, lying to people because it makes him feel in control of the conversation. However, this tactic tends to backfire, leaving him feeling guilty for deceiving someone as kind as Ernest’s mother, who genuinely wishes the best for him. As a result, his dishonesty only further isolates him from others, making it harder for him to establish genuine connections. In fact, the only true effort he makes to relate to Ernest’s mother happens when he invites her for a drink—an inappropriate offer that she obviously can’t accept, since he’s underage and is her son’s classmate.