The process of growing up exposes people to the ugliness and complexities of adulthood, which contrasts significantly with the innocence and simplicity of childhood. In the Catcher in the Rye, Holden, a high school student who is sick and tired of the phoniness in society, leaves school and starts wandering New York City seeking real human connections. Considering adulthood as a terrifying fall from innocence, Holden refuses to make any connections with the people whom he believes to be phony, which leads him to the pain of loneliness and despair. In Chapter 24 of the Catcher in the Rye, through Holden’s conversation with Mr. Antolini, Salinger suggests that Holden would suffer from self-imposed alienation if, in his idealism, he refuses to accept the complexity of adulthood, whereas, faith in human connections would save Holden from the fall of despair and stagnation.
Mr. Antolini reveals a power of human connections in which Holden does not believe: disappointment with human behaviors should not stop individuals from trying to make connections again. Mr. Antolini indicates that when people are looking for human connections, some of them “[give] up looking … before they ever really even [get] started [because] they [think] their own environment [can’t] supply them with [the connections]” (Salinger 244). Holden spends a lot of energy focusing on people’s phoniness and shuts himself off when he interacts with others because he does not want anything involved in the complexity of adulthood to “corrupt” him. Before Holden even begins reaching out to others, he already believes that real human connections are impossible to find, which leads to self-imposed isolation. Mr. Antolini tells him that he “… is not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior” (246 Salinger). For Holden, the maturation into adulthood leads to more complex human behaviors, chiefly, hypocrisy. Holden’s disappointment with humanity--“[sitting] in some bar hating everybody who comes in looking as if he might have played football in college” -- comes from the lack of courage to make connections with others (Salinger 242). Holden does not understand the point of “[keeping] records of [his] troubles” even though he is “… troubled morally and spiritually” (Salinger 246). Mr. Antolini offers the option of opening up to someone and learning from them: “If you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It’s a beautiful reciprocal arrangement” (Salinger 246). In Mr. Antolini’s view, human connections are predicated on the choice of reaching out to others spiritually. Holden has to believe in the possibility of making the connection first, before he can open up to others, before he can begin the learning process.
The fall mentioned in the novel, though different from the idea of fall that Holden conceives, is a fall of despair and stagnation. The novel suggests that growing up and receiving education are necessary processes, even though people are exposed to more ugliness and complexity throughout those processes. Holden stops reaching out to others because he fears falling from innocence as he gradually steps into adulthood. He wants to “… be the catcher in the rye” and to save children who “start to go over the cliff” when they are running around in a field (Salinger 225). After learning of Holden’s disgust and disappointment at the phoniness in the world, Mr. Antolini “‘[has] a feeling that [Holden is] riding for some kind of a terrible, terrible fall…’” (Salinger 243). The fall that Mr. Antolini suggests is different from Holden’s conception--a fall of stagnation where “… the man falling isn’t permitted to feel or hear himself hit bottom” (Salinger 243). The fall will never end if Holden does not look forward and embrace his growing pains; the refusal to progress leads him to self-imposed alienation from his peers, and the suffering of loneliness and despair. Mr. Antolini suggests that an academic education “… will begin to give [him] an idea what size mind [he has],” helping Holden escape from ignorance and the fall of stagnation (Salinger 247). The inevitable transition into adulthood requires an open mind and maturity, while education leads Holden onto a path to seek for “[his] true measurements and dress [his] mind accordingly” (247 Salinger). Education can provide Holden with a strong mind to face the complexities of adulthood, allowing him to “express [himself] more clearly [and] have a passion for following [his] thoughts through to the end” (Salinger 246). With the help of an academic education, Holden would be able to break down the barrier of self-alienation, connect with others better, and begin his life-long journey into self-inquiry.
Mr. Antolini’s ambiguous behavior towards Holden and Holden’s reaction lead to irony in speaking and acting; knowing the right path to follow can sometimes lead to the wrong decision. After Holden falls asleep on the couch, he suddenly wakes up to find Mr. Antolini “… sort of petting [him] or patting [him] on the goddam head” (249 Salinger). Holden becomes extremely angry, yelling, “What the hellya doing?” and claims that he is “… embarrassed as hell” (Salinger 249). The ambiguity in Mr. Antolini’s actions leads to irony in speech and action. If Mr. Antolini’s intentions are actually improper, they then contradict with his teachings significantly; though encouraging Holden to make connections and learn from others, his actions not help Holden to step out of his self-isolation through abnormal intimacy. On the other hand, if the petting on the head is just a way for Mr. Antolini to express his empathy with and care for Holden, Holden’s reaction does not show any sign of having gained knowledge from this interaction. A few moments before he falling asleep, Holden states that he still admires Mr. Antolini as “… a pretty smart guy …” and thinks about “… all that stuff Mr. Antolini'd told [him]” (249 Salinger). After the incident, Holden affirms that Mr. Antolini is a “pervert,” losing all peace of mind, “… shaking like a madman [and] sweating like a bastard” (Salinger 251).
The shift in tone reveals that Holden’s fear still prevents him from truly opening up to others, since his old ideology of self-alienation still guides him to refuse any human connections with others. The conversation does not necessarily save Holden from the fall.
Holden alienates himself from society because he does not believe in the possibility of making real human connections. He dreads the fall from innocence, yet willingly steps into the endless fall of stagnation when he refuses to progress into the complexity of adulthood. Mr. Antolini’s suggestions prioritize the significance of academic education and faith in humanity. However, Holden seems to fall into his old form of communication which is full of doubt, fear and rejection. The faith in human connections drives people to reach out to others, which leads to more possibilities, instead of being stuck in the darkness of stagnation and despair. The fall of innocence is inevitable; however, Holden should look forward to the beauty lying beyond the visible, instead of creating barriers blocking himself from the light shining in the outside world.