The Catcher in the Rye By J. D. Salinger Summary and Analysis Chapter 16

Summary

When Holden finishes his conversation with the two nuns, it is almost noon. He has two hours until he is to meet Sally at the Biltmore Hotel so he goes for a walk toward Broadway. He wants to buy a recording, for Phoebe, of an old song called "Little Shirley Beans." Along the way, Holden notices an apparently underprivileged family walking home from church. The young son is walking in the street and singing.

Fortunately, the first music store that he visits has a copy of the record. Holden tries to telephone Jane, but her mother answers so he hangs up. Still burdened with the responsibility of procuring theater tickets, he chooses a play, I Know My Love, that he thinks Sally will like because it stars the Lunts. He decides to visit Central Park in hopes of finding Phoebe who often skates there on Sundays. He almost visits the Museum of Natural History but decides not to go in. Although he doesn't feel like going through with the date, he catches a cab to meet Sally at the Biltmore Hotel as planned.

Analysis

Much of the chapter is devoted to Holden's considerations of artistic performances. Simply put, he likes what he finds to be authentic and dislikes what he sees as phony. The dominating theme of the rest of the chapter is the mutability of time and its relationship to death.

The first example of Holden's aesthetics in Chapter 16 is the recording that he wants to buy for Phoebe, an old song about a shy kid who won't go out of her house because she is missing two front teeth. It is called "Little Shirley Beans" and is sung by the black jazz singer Estelle Fletcher. What Holden likes is that it is authentic. Despite the topic, it is neither maudlin nor sentimental. The artist sings it "very Dixieland and whorehouse," not all mushy and cute the way he thinks a white girl would do it. Holden consistently holds in contempt any artist who caters to the audience at the expense of the work of art, even a song about a girl missing two front teeth. He feels the same way about Ernie's piano playing or D.B.'s writing. Holden pays five dollars for the recording at a time when most records could be purchased for fifty cents or less.

A less professional example of authenticity is the kid on the street. He is "swell" because he goes his own way. The parents are on the sidewalk, but the kid marches along the street, next to the curb, singing, "If a body catch a body coming through the rye." He has a pretty voice and is just singing "for the hell of it." Cars zoom by, some apparently having to screech their brakes to miss the boy, but he is not perturbed. For Holden, this is pure, innocent, and real, a living example of art for art's sake although he does not state it that way. The performance is the better because neither the kid nor Holden, his only audience, takes it very seriously. The event brightens Holden's day. The scene is even more significant because it foreshadows Salinger's revelation of the central metaphor of the novel, the source of the novel's title, in Chapter 22.

In contrast are movies and the theater. It "depresses hell" out of Holden when people make too much of going to a movie, especially when they form lines all the way down the block. Live performances are just as bad. He hates Broadway, and he hates actors, even the so-called "great" performers like Sir Laurence Olivier. When D.B. took Phoebe and Holden to see Olivier's legendary performance in Shakespeare's Hamlet, Holden didn't much care for it. He thought that Olivier was handsome and had a great voice but acted more like a general than a "sad, screwed-up" guy struggling to find his way, which is what he thought the play was supposed to be about. Holden usually does not enjoy performances because he is concerned that the actors will do something phony at almost any moment. Even if an actor is good, Holden thinks the actor acts as though he knows he's good and ends up pandering to the audience the way Ernie does when he plays the piano. Audiences usually can't distinguish between phony and authentic, as Holden sees it, and applaud at all the wrong times.

The chapter's other major theme is the mutability of time and its relationship to death. At the park, Holden runs into a schoolmate of Phoebe's who suggests that Holden's sister might be at the museum, "the one with the Indians." That proves to be unlikely, since it is Sunday and Phoebe's class would not be meeting, but mention of the Museum of Natural History triggers memories for Holden. He attended Phoebe's school when he was her age and toured the same museum. He likes to think that the museum would be pretty much the same if he visits it now, but it bothers him to think that he has changed. Phoebe, too, will change. Life is change, as most of us learn, but Holden doesn't want to accept that. He likes the glass cases in the museum that freeze a moment of history in time and space. An Eskimo, for example, might be fishing through a hole in the ice. The same Eskimo was there when Holden visited the museum and will be there for Phoebe when she visits. Holden would like it if our lives, too, could be frozen in time. It is an adolescent view of the world, the motive behind a young person's saying to a friend, "Don't ever change." The wish is impossible, but it is shared by Holden. He'd surely like to freeze certain moments with Allie or Phoebe for all time: "Certain things they should stay the way they are. You ought to be able to stick them in one of those big glass cases and just leave them alone." In Holden's world, good things would never die.

Glossary

Broadway street running north and south through New York City, known as the center of the city's main theater and entertainment section.

the Lunts Alfred Lunt (1893-1977) and Lynn Fontanne (1887-1983), husband and wife, were revered stage actors of the day, often performing together.

Flys Up a baseball or softball playground game in which the fielder who catches a fly ball is allowed to bat next.

Back to Top

Take the Quiz

What animals in Central Park does Holden worry about?




Quiz