Holden returns home, where he is very quiet so as not to awake his parents. Phoebe is asleep in D.B.'s room. He sits down at D.B.'s desk and looks at Phoebe's stuff, such as her math book, where she has the name "Phoebe Weatherfield Caulfield" written on the first page (her middle name is actually Josephine). Holden finally wakes up Phoebe and hugs her. Ecstatic, she tells about how she is playing Benedict Arnold in her school play. Then, she gushingly tells about how she saw a movie called The Doctor, and how their parents are out for the night. Holden shows Phoebe the broken record, and admits that he got kicked out of Pencey. Phoebe tells him that "Daddy's going to kill you," but Holden says that he is going away to a ranch in Colorado. Phoebe places a pillow over her head and refuses to talk to Holden.
Phoebe tells Holden that she thinks his scheme to go out to Colorado is foolish, and asks why he failed out of yet another school. He claims that Pencey is full of phonies. He tells her about how everyone excluded Robert Ackley as a sign of how phony the students are. Holden admits that there were a couple of nice teachers, including Mr. Spencer, but then complains about the Veterans' Day ceremonies.
Phoebe tells Holden that he doesn't like anything that happens. She asks Holden for one thing that he likes a lot. He thinks of two things. The first is the nuns at Grand Central. The second is a boy at Elkton Hills named James Castle, who had a fight with a conceited guy named Phil Stabile. He threatened James, who responded by jumping out the window, killing himself. However, he tells Phoebe that he likes Allie, and he likes talking to Phoebe right now.
Finally Holden confesses to Phoebe that he would like to be a catcher in the rye: he pictures a lot of children playing in a big field of rye around the edge of a cliff. Holden imagines that he would catch them if they started to go over the cliff. Putting Phoebe back to bed, Holden decides to call up Mr. Antolini, a former teacher at Elkton Hills who now teaches English at NYU.
Holden narrates that Mr. Antolini was his English teacher at Elkton Hills and was the person who carried James Castle to the infirmary. Holden and Phoebe dance to the radio, but their parents come home and Holden hides in the closet. When he believes that it is safe, Holden asks Phoebe for money and she gives him eight dollars and change. He starts to cry as he prepares to leave, which frightens Phoebe. He gives Phoebe his hunting hat and tells her that he will give her a call soon.
Mr. Antolini had married an older woman who shared similar intellectual interests. When he arrives at his apartment, Holden finds Mr. Antolini in a bathrobe and slippers, drinking a highball. Holden and Mr. Antolini discuss Pencey, and Holden tells how he failed Oral Expression (debate). He tells Holden how he had lunch with his father, who told him that Holden was cutting classes and generally unprepared. He warns Holden that he is riding towards some kind of terrible fall. He says that it may be the kind where, at the age of thirty, he sits in some bar hating everyone who comes in looking as if he played football in college or hating people who use improper grammar. Furthermore, he tells Holden that the fall that he is riding for is a special and horrible kind, and that he can see Holden dying nobly for some highly unworthy cause.
He gives Holden a quote from the psychoanalyst Wilhelm Stekel: "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 finally tells Holden that once he gets past the things that annoy him, he will be able to find the kind of information that will be dear to his heart. Holden goes to sleep, and wakes up to find Mr. Antolini's hand on his head. He tells Holden that he is "simply sitting here, admiring" but Holden interrupts him, gets dressed and leaves, claiming that he has to get his bags from Grand Central Station and will be back soon.
When Holden gets outside, it is getting light out. He walks over to Lexington to take the subway to Grand Central, where he slept that night. He thinks about how Mr. Antolini will explain Holden's departure to his wife. Holden feels some regret that he didn't come back to the Antolini's apartment. Holden starts reading a magazine at Grand Central; when he reads an article about hormones, he begins to worry about hormones, and worries about cancer when he reads about cancer.
As Holden walks down Fifth Avenue, he feels that he will not get to the other side of the street each time he comes to the end of a block. He feels that he will just go down somehow. Furthermore, he also makes believe that he is with Allie every time he reaches a curb. Finally, overwhelmed, Holden decides that he will go away, never go home again and never go to another prep school. He thinks he will pretend to be a deaf-mute so that he won't have to deal with stupid conversations.
Holden goes to Phoebe's school to find her and say goodbye. At the school he sees "fuck you" written on the wall, and becomes enraged as he tries to scratch it off. He writes her a note asking her to meet him near the Museum of Art so that he can return her money. While waiting for Phoebe at the Museum, Holden chats with two brothers who talk about mummies. He sees another "fuck you" written on the wall, and is convinced that someone will write that below his name on his tombstone. Holden, suffering from diarrhea, goes to the bathroom, and as he exits the bathroom he passes out. He goes unnoticed, however, and when he regains consciousness, he feels better.
Phoebe arrives, wearing Holden's hunting hat and dragging Holden's old suitcase. She tells him that she wants to come with him. She pleads ceaselessly, but Holden refuses and causes her to start crying. She throws the red hunting hat back at Holden and starts to walk away. She follows Holden to the zoo, but refuses to talk to him or get near him. He buys Phoebe a ticket for the carousel there, and watches her go around on it as "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" plays. Afterwards, she takes back the red hunting hat and goes back on the carousel. As it starts to rain, Holden cries while watching Phoebe.
Holden ends his story there. He refuses to tell what happened after he went home, descended further into sickness, and ultimately sought treatment. He says that people are concerned about whether he will apply himself next year. He tells that D.B. visits often, and he often misses Stradlater, Ackley, and even Maurice. However, he advises not to tell anybody anything, because it is the sharing of one's heart that causes a person to start missing others.
In Chapter 21, Holden views his sister with a sense of wonder: he recounts with a sentimental appreciation each aspect of Phoebe's life, viewing her as a complete innocent. Of all the characters in The Catcher in the Rye, Phoebe is the only one that Holden treats with any degree of tenderness or respect. He listens intently to everything she says and does not react with the cynical observations that mark the rest of Holden's commentary. This is the most obvious manifestation of Holden's idealization of childhood.
However, the child Phoebe does not share her brother's views. Where Holden is sentimental, Phoebe is realistic. She realizes how angry her father will be at Holden and refuses to listen to Holden when he tells how he will go to a ranch in Colorado. Like Carl Luce, Phoebe confronts Holden with his own immaturity and lack of direction, but this criticism goes farther. Even a nine year old child can realize that Holden needs to mature, yet Holden has not come to this revelation himself.
In Chapter 22, of all of the characters in The Catcher in the Rye, Phoebe ranks with Carl Luce and Mr. Spencer as one of the most mature and perceptive. She realizes that Holden's major problem is his overwhelmingly negative attitude toward everything and everyone around him and confronts him on this attitude. When Holden talks with Phoebe, he once again reveals his hypocrisy. He laments that everyone at Pencey excluded Robert Ackley, yet Holden himself loathed Ackley, considering him boorish and obnoxious. Significantly, Holden has difficulty finding an answer to the question of what he actually likes. When he does think of a response to that question, his answers are both questionable and disturbing. That Holden appreciates the suicide of James Castle indicates his own emotional state and gives greater credence to earlier foreshadowing that Holden himself will attempt to kill himself. Holden attaches some sense of nobility to death, which he additionally shows through his idealization of Allie. This also relates to Holden's sentimental feelings about childhood. His dream of becoming a "catcher in the rye" shows that Holden has an affection for childhood. He wishes to save these children from danger so that they may frolic in the fields; one can interpret this as Holden's wish to save the children from the difficulties of adulthood.
Holden responds to Phoebe's confrontation by preparing to leave the house. This continues a pattern for Holden: he escapes responsbility, whether leaving a club early when he sees someone he dislikes or running away from boarding school. When Holden faces something that he dislikes, he cannot confront it; instead, he chooses to leave for another random destination, whether New England or Colorado.
Salinger fills in some information in Holden's biography in Chapter 23, relating Mr. Antolini to the previous story about James Castle. This serves to show Holden's thought processes. Holden's choice of Mr. Antolini seems a more desperate move once he relates it to James Castle, as if that story was more than a momentary reminder of any person who can give Holden a place to stay that night.
Holden's gift of the hunting hat to Phoebe is a significant event, for it is one of Holden's few meaningful possessions. He gives her the hunting hat as a sign that he may never see Phoebe again, whether because he has run away to Colorado or because of impending tragedy. He sets off for Mr. Antolini's, as if fully aware - even hopeful - that he may suffer the same fate as James Castle. He wants a glorious death that will end with his body taken in loving arms to a funeral where people he doesn't know will mourn him.
In Chapter 24, Mr. Antolini is the third consecutive person whom Holden encounters who forces him to confront his difficulties. Like both Carl Luce and Phoebe, Mr. Antolini senses that Holden suffers from serious problems, and definitively tells him that he is headed for a fall. However, where Mr. Antolini departs from the previous two confrontations is that he grasps the seriousness of the situation. His observation that Holden will end up having contempt for nearly everyone he meets has been made in different forms by others, yet only Mr. Antolini senses the mortal seriousness of the situation. When he quotes Wilhelm Stekel, he implies that he expects Holden to commit suicide as a form of foolish martyrdom.
Mr. Antolini is perhaps the only adult in the story whom Holden can trust and respect; Holden even does not derisively call him “old” as he does with other adults, instead referring to him by his proper title. However, like all other adults in the story, Holden feels that Mr. Antolini betrays his trust. When Holden awakens to find Mr. Antolini touching his head, he immediately concludes the worst, suspecting him of "flitty" behavior. However, Holden is a notoriously unreliable narrator, coming to Mr. Antolini's apartment inherently suspicious of all adults and perhaps still drunk from the evening's escapades.
It seems questionable that Mr. Antolini had any malicious intent, yet Holden suspects the worst. Here is Holden's 'last adult refuge in a disintegrating world,' and yet once again Holden must escape from a situation to avoid any sort of difficult confrontation (Graham 25). Holden can now dismiss Mr. Antolini's advice to him, for he can now perceive this once-respected teacher as a predator. At the same time, if Mr. Antolini was making advances on Holden, then it's clear that perhaps Holden is right about the world - that it's incapable of offering true love, only phony attempts at connection coupled with arbitrary pain.
Holden becomes increasingly paranoid and delusional throughout Chapter 25, the last one in which he recounts his tale. Throughout this chapter he operates under the assumption that he will not survive much longer, as when he is convinced that he will not get to the other side of the street. Holden's observations become increasingly random and disjointed, as when he obsesses over profane graffiti on the school. Holden's obsession with the profanity is notable, for it shows his distaste for anything that may corrupt the innocence of children. Holden wishes to shelter children from any adult experiences, revealing his own fear of maturity. Salinger bolsters this aspect of Holden's character by concluding the chapter with Holden watching Phoebe on the carousel.
Although Holden decides to leave New York after seeing Phoebe for once last time, he has no definitive plan of action. His behavior in this chapter demonstrates a tenuous grip on sanity. Holden wishes to reject society altogether, proposing extreme ideas such as pretending to be a deaf-mute, and appears barely in control of himself throughout the chapter. His physical health begins to mirror his emotional state; he suffers from illness that renders him less than lucid and even loses consciousness. By the conclusion of this chapter, Holden finds himself completely broken down both physically and emotionally, comforted only by the sight of Phoebe and her simple, childish pleasures.
In the final chapter, Salinger leaves the actual events of Holden's presumed suicide attempt and hospitalization ambiguous; Holden only uses euphemisms such as "getting sick" to describe what has happened to him, but the implications are clear. Yet even more ambiguous than what happened to Holden is whether or not Holden will recover from his difficulties. Holden seems to harbor some sense of regret over what has happened; he claims that he even misses Stradlater and Ackley, and has used the telling of his story as a form of penitence for his behavior.
Nevertheless, while looking back on his situation Holden still harbors some of the same suspicions and deep cynicism that afflicted him throughout the novel, as shown when he dismisses the question whether or not he will apply himself. Salinger ends the novel inconclusively: he gives no strong indication what Holden has learned from his difficulties, if he has learned at all, and allows for a strong possibility that Holden will continue his self-destructive and suicidal behavior.