Holden shares encounters he has had with students and faculty of Pencey, whom he criticizes as being superficial, or as he would say, "phony." After being expelled from the school, Holden packs up and leaves the school in the middle of the night after an altercation with his roommate. He takes a train to New York, but does not want to return to his family's apartment immediately, and instead checks into the derelict Edmont Hotel. There, he spends an evening dancing with three tourist girls and has a clumsy encounter with a prostitute; he refuses to do anything with her and tells her to leave, although he pays her for her time. She demands more money than was originally agreed upon and when Holden refuses to pay he receives a smackdown from her pimp.
Holden spends a total of two days in the city, characterized largely by drunkenness and loneliness. At one point he ends up at a museum, where he contrasts his life with the statues of Eskimos on display. For as long as he can remember, the statues have been fixed and unchanging. It is clear to the reader, if not to Holden, that the teenager is afraid and nervous about the process of change and growing up. These concerns may largely have stemmed from the death of his brother, Allie. Eventually, he sneaks into his parents' apartment while they are away, to visit his younger sister Phoebe, who is nearly the only person with whom he seems to be able to communicate. Holden shares a fantasy he has been thinking about (based on a mishearing of Robert Burns' Comin' Through the Rye): he pictures himself as the sole guardian of numerous children running and playing in a huge rye field on the edge of a cliff. His job is to catch the children if they wander close to the brink; to be a "catcher in the rye".
After leaving his parents' apartment, Holden then drops by to see his old English teacher, Mr. Antolini in the middle of the night, and is offered advice on life and a place to sleep. During the speech on life, Mr. Antolini has a number of "highballs," an alcoholic drink popular at the time. His comfort is upset when he wakes up in the night to find Mr. Antolini patting his head in a way that seems "perverty." There is much speculation on whether or not Mr. Antolini was making a sexual advance on Holden, and it is left widely up to the reader whether or not this is true. Holden leaves and spends his last afternoon wandering the city. He later wonders if his interpretation of Mr. Antolini's actions was correct.
Holden intends to move out west, and relays these plans to his sister, who decides she wants to go with him. He refuses to take her, instead telling her that he himself will no longer go. Holden then takes Phoebe to the Central Park Zoo, where he watches with a melancholy joy as she rides a carousel. At the close of the book, Holden decides not to mention much about the present day, finding it inconsequential. It becomes clear that he is currently in some type of mental institution as he refers to himself as "sick" and writes about talking to a psychoanalyst. He does mention that he'll be attending another school in September, and that he has found himself missing Stradlater, Ackley, and the others--warning the reader that the same thing could happen to them.
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