Holden takes the elevator up to his family’s apartment. Luckily for him, the regular elevator operator is gone, and he is able to convince the new one, who doesn’t recognize him, that he wants to visit the Dicksteins, who live across the hall from the Caulfields.
Holden sneaks into his family’s apartment and looks for Phoebe, but she isn’t in her room. Holden tiptoes to D. B.’s room, because Phoebe likes to sleep there when D. B. is in Hollywood. He finds Phoebe sleeping peacefully, and he remarks that children, unlike adults, always look peaceful when they are asleep. As he watches Phoebe sleep, he reads through her schoolbooks. She has signed her name “Phoebe Weatherfield Caulfield,” even though her middle name is Josephine. He enjoys reading the notes to friends, the curious questions, and the random imaginative jottings she has scribbled on the pages.
He finally wakes Phoebe, and she is overjoyed to see him. Bursting with energy, she talks feverishly about one thing after another: her school play (in which she plays Benedict Arnold), a movie she has just seen, a movie D. B. is working on, a boy at school who bullies her, and the fact that their parents are at a party and won’t come home until later. But after her enthusiastic flurry of conversation, she realizes that Holden is home two days early and must have been kicked out of school. Over and over, she repeats that their father will “kill” him. Holden tries to justify his behavior, but she refuses to listen and covers her head with a pillow. Holden leaves the room to get some cigarettes.
Holden returns to Phoebe’s room and eventually gets her to listen. He tries to explain why he fails his classes and tells her all the things he hates about school. She responds by accusing him of hating everything. He tries to refute her claim, and she challenges him to name one thing he likes. He becomes preoccupied, thinking about the nuns he met at breakfast. He also thinks about James Castle, a boy he knew at Elkton Hills School who jumped out of a window to his death while being tormented by other boys.
He finally tells her that he likes Allie, and she reminds him angrily that Allie is dead. She asks what he wants to do with his life, and his only answer is to mention the lyric, “If a body catch a body comin’ through the rye.” Holden says that he imagines a gigantic field of rye on a cliff full of children playing. He wants to stand at the edge of the cliff and catch the children when they come too close to falling off—to be “the catcher in the rye.” Phoebe points out that Holden has misheard the words—the actual lyric, from the Robert Burns poem, “Coming Thro’ the Rye,” is “If a body meet a body coming through the rye.”
Holden leaves Phoebe’s room for a moment to call Mr. Antolini, an English teacher he had at Elkton Hills. Mr. Antolini is shocked that Holden has been kicked out of another school and invites Holden to stay the night at his house. Holden mentions to us that Mr. Antolini was the only teacher who approached James Castle’s body after his death, the only one who demonstrated any courage or kindness in the situation. Holden goes back into Phoebe’s room and asks her to dance. After a few numbers, they hear the front door open—their parents have come home from their dinner party. Holden tries to fan away his lingering cigarette smoke and jumps into the closet. His mother comes in to tuck Phoebe in, and he hides until she leaves. He then tells Phoebe goodbye, letting her know of his plan to leave New York and move out west alone. She loans him the Christmas money she’d been saving, and he leaves for Mr. Antolini’s. On the way out, he gives Phoebe his red hunting hat.
The scene in which Holden watches Phoebe sleep and reads through her notebooks is one of the most famous in the book, one of the few moments of respite Holden finds from the brutality of the outside world. As he says, adults “look lousy” when sleeping, but kids “look all right.” After Phoebe wakes up, however, things become more difficult. Phoebe's insistence in Chapter 22 that Holden tell her something he likes sends his mind skittering away from the question, and he remembers the violent death of James Castle, who committed suicide in a turtleneck he borrowed from Holden. After remembering the death of this young boy, the only thing Holden can think to tell Phoebe he likes is “Allie.” His mind is increasingly preoccupied with childhood and childhood death; he thinks to call Mr. Antolini when he remembers the teacher picking up James Castle’s broken body in his coat. He grows increasingly emotional and unstable; Phoebe’s unaffected kindness when she loans him her Christmas money causes him to break into tears.
And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff. . . .
One of the most important passages in the novel comes when Holden tells Phoebe he would like to be the catcher in the rye, saving little children from falling off the cliff. This passage elucidates the novel’s metaphoric title. The rye field is a symbol of childhood—the rye is so high that the children cannot see over it, just as children are unable to see beyond the borders of their childhood. Standing on the precipice that separates the rye field of childhood from the cliff of adulthood, Holden wants to protect childhood innocence from the fall into disillusionment that necessarily accompanies adulthood. Trapped between states, with his innocence in jeopardy, Holden wants to be a “catcher in the rye,” a savior of the innocence missing in the world around him, a world that has let him fall over the cliff into adulthood alone.
Holden’s mistake about the line from the Robert Burns song—his substitution of “catch a body” for “meet a body”—is highly significant, as its placement in the novel’s title suggests. Burns’s song “Comin’ Thro’ the Rye” exists in several versions, each with somewhat different lyrics. In some versions, the song is about a woman who has gotten her clothes wet while she was out in a rye field, while in other versions the speaker of the song is a woman discussing being out in a rye field. All versions of the song ask the question: is it wrong to “kiss” and “greet” someone you are attracted to if you meet them out in the fields, even if you don’t tell the rest of the world about it and you aren’t committed to that person? Implicitly, the song asks if casual sex, in the sense of sex without a commitment, is always wrong. Thus, in Burns’s song, “meeting” means encountering a potential sex partner, and the word itself may even connote having sex with that person. Casual sex is precisely the kind of sex that Holden finds most upsetting throughout the novel. By “catching” children from falling off a cliff, he really wants to protect them from the fall out of innocence into the adult world. In Chapter 25, Holden is quite explicit that he specifically wants to protect children from knowledge of sex. He rubs the words “fuck you” off the school wall because he worries that someone will explain to the children what it means. Thus, what the lyric means to Holden is almost the exact opposite of what the song is about.