The Catcher in the Rye: Novel Summary: Chapter 21-26
Chapter 21: This chapter is the first one in which Salinger actually describes genuine inter-personal relations. In this chapter Holden sneaks into his own house in order to say hello to Phoebe. It’s obvious that Phoebe is the only person in Holden’s life now worth mentioning. Holden sneaks into her room in the middle of the night, apparently no longer drunk.
When Phoebe awakes she hugs Holden, not expecting him to be home so soon. She tells him that their parents will be out late— this is fortunate for Holden, the refugee in his own home. Salinger devotes a few pages to their conversation. Quickly Phoebe, very bright for a ten-year-old, realizes that Holden has been kicked out of school. Despite Holden’s assurances, she constantly repeats the phrase, "Daddy’s going to kill you!." Finally when she refuses to speak to her older brother any longer, Holden decides to leave the room to look for cigarettes.
Chapter 22: In this chapter, Holden returns to the room where Phoebe is sleeping to continue their conversation. Phoebe, still very upset at Holden, asks him why he flunked out again. Holden is unsure how to respond, so as usual, he blames his academic problems on the phony teachers he has to put up with. He even criticizes Mr. Spencer, his one time role-model and mentor, for changing his personality to impress the headmaster. This marks another end to a possible adult mentor-ship for the sixteen-year-old.
Next, he describes the annual veteran’s day at Pencey Prep. where alumni return. Holden explains it as an opportunity for old "jerks" to carve their initials on the stall doors to the bathroom. Soon Phoebe challenges Holden to name one thing that he likes about anything, and not surprisingly, he cannot name one thing. Holden desperately searches his memory, seeming to draw out random experiences. He thinks about the nuns and then about James Castle, the boy who jumped out of the window in order to escape the beating of the bullies he called snobs. Holden seems to particularly admire this. Martyrs always seem to be admired by Holden throughout the book. Finally Holden says that he likes Allie. Phoebe jumps on this, saying that one can’t like someone who’s dead. This deeply troubles Holden.
Finally when asked what he wants to be, Holden says that he wants to be a catcher in the rye. He describes an elaborate fantasy where he is standing on the edge of a cliff in a rye field and his sole job is to keep the kids who are playing from falling over the cliff. This is obviously very psychotic, but very real to Holden. The whole meaning of Holden’s life is revealed in this paragraph.
Chapter 23: After Holden and Phoebe dance to music from her room, Holden decides to spend the night at Mr. Antolini’s and his wife’s house. Mr. Antolini is described by Holden as, "about the best teacher I ever had." It seems finally Holden has found an adult mentor who he can trust as a friend in time of trouble. Mr. Antolini, he says, was the only one willing to touch James Castle after he jumped from the window. It seems Mr. Antolini is genuinely a nice guy.
Suddenly Holden’s parents return to the home and he is forced to hide in a closet. After his mother says goodnight to Phoebe, who maintains that nothing unusual is going on, Holden quietly leaves his house and heads for the Antolini’s. Before he goes, he borrows Phoebe’s "Christmas dough." Holden feels bad about doing this but Phoebe insists, sensing the urgency of his situation.
Chapter 24: In this chapter Holden enters the house of Mr. Antolini, who seems amazingly friendly and not at all bothered that Holden just shows up in the middle of the night. They have polite conversation for awhile. Soon Mr. Antolini, his former English teacher, asks Holden if he flunked English at Pencey Perp. Holden truthfully answers no, saying that the compositions came easy for him. Eventually Holden gets into a long narration about how he hated Oral Communication class because whenever someone got up to speak, the other students were encouraged to yell "digression" whenever the speaker got off the topic. Holden admits that he didn’t like this idea (not surprisingly, since he is no stranger to digressions himself), and felt truly sorry for one boy who was being yelled at constantly for straying from the assigned subject.
After listening to Holden for awhile, Mr. Antolini, like any good teacher, tries to offer him some advice. He says, "The mark of an immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of a mature man is he wants to live humbly for one.... Among other things, you’ll find that you’re not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. You’re by no means alone on that score, you’ll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now."
While this all seems to be very good advice, Holden becomes increasingly tired as the conversation progresses. He doesn’t seem to be soaking much in. Finally, Mr. Antolini tells him to pursue his education in efforts to find what he is looking for in life. He also tells him not to be the martyr-image he so idolizes. Yet this seems to confuse rather than comfort the tired teenager, so Holden sets up a bed on the couch and goes to sleep quickly.
Suddenly a few hours later, Holden awakens to find Mr. Antolini kneeling next to him, stroking his hair. Holden is terribly frightened by this, thinking that his favorite teacher is really a pervert. Holden quickly makes up an excuse to leave and then exits the house, more confused than ever.
Yet the important thing is that unlike previous situations in the dorm where Holden is quick to judge others, this time the boy refrains from thinking anything about Mr. Antolini. This marks a progression in Holden’s growth as a person and especially as a catcher in the rye. Holden simply absorbs everything around him, both good and bad, being unable and unwilling to judge between good and evil anymore. Holden will try to save all the children, not just the good ones.
Chapter 25: Holden leaves Mr. Antolini’s house dazed and confused, yet still unwilling to judge him without knowing all the facts. Holden is unsure where to go. On impulse it seems, Holden decides to go out west to find a new start and wants to meet Phoebe for the last time to say goodbye.
The rest of the chapter involves Holden going to Phoebe’s school to deliver the message to meet him in the museum. While inside, Holden tries to erase dirty graffiti messages to protect the minds of the innocent elementary children. At the museum, he comforts a couple of small boys who are frightened to see the mummies. Now he is really becoming a catcher in the rye.
Later, Holden and Phoebe meet and have an argument about him going out west. Eventually Holden gives in and decides not to go. Instead he goes to the zoo with Phoebe and the scene ends with her riding on the carousel alone while Holden watches her, again acting as a catcher in the rye.
Chapter 26: Salinger’s last chapter is really not much of a chapter, but just a brief commentary note to the reader by Holden, who provides an update of his current plans. As usual, he isn’t really sure what those plans are, not knowing whether or not he’ll apply himself in school next fall. The book ends with Holden saying that he misses everyone, even Maurice, the seemingly ruthless arch enemy of Holden. This just proves for the last time that Holden has become a true catcher in the rye— someone who wants to protect everyone, no matter whether he is good or evil. Holden can’t distinguish between the two and doesn’t wish to. Perhaps he is even trying to protect his most valuable asset: his own perceptions of others.