Phoebe continues to be terribly upset over Holden's dismissal from Pencey Prep. She is sure that their father will be very upset with her brother. Holden says he'll merely be sent to a military school, if he is still around; he plans to head for Colorado to work on a ranch. Holden tries to explain to Phoebe what a terrible place Pencey is. He doesn't like anything there. But she concludes that he doesn't like anything anywhere and challenges him to name one thing that he likes. Holden tries to focus on the issue, but his mind drifts. Phoebe interrupts and repeats the challenge to think of one thing that Holden likes. He says he likes Allie, but Phoebe counters that Allie is dead and doesn't count. He says he likes talking with her, but Phoebe answers, "That isn't anything really." Phoebe changes the topic and asks Holden to name something he would like to be. After some consideration, he says he would like to be the catcher in the rye and explains to her what that means to him.
In this crucial chapter, Salinger uses Phoebe's concern to elicit, from Holden, the dominating metaphor of the novel as well as its title. He sets this up with the tragic, moving story of a courageous innocent, James Castle.
Holden is confused throughout the novel. His thoughts drift. He tends to digress. Some of the most effective parts of the novel are Holden's digressions. An excellent example is the James Castle memory. Castle was a skinny, quiet, weak-looking schoolmate of Holden's at Elkton Hills. He had amazing resolve. One day, James voiced an opinion that an arrogant ruffian named Phil Stabile was "conceited," which he was. When word got back to Stabile, he and several cohorts locked Castle in his room and did unspeakable things to him, trying to get James to take back his comment, but James refused. To escape, he jumped out the window to his death. At the time of his death, Castle was wearing a turtleneck sweater that Holden had loaned him for a planned outing with a visitor.
The significance of James Castle's brave though ill-considered and tragic death is that it strikes home, once more, Holden's concern about protecting innocence. Holden says that he hardly knew James, but he feels an apparent closeness, perhaps symbolized by the fact that Castle died in Holden's sweater. Holden mentions that the two were linked alphabetically at roll call: "Cabel, R., Cabel, W., Castle, Caulfield." We can imagine the sensitive Holden's reaction the first time the roll was called without James' name. Some critics want to make something more of Castle's martyrdom, noting that he shares initials with another classic martyr, Jesus Christ, although that seems a stretch. It's enough that life's cruel side took another innocent victim, and Holden would like to do what he can to stop that.
When Phoebe asks Holden what he would like to be, she first suggests traditional professions such as a scientist or a lawyer. Holden quickly rejects those. Because it is Phoebe, he feels comfortable revealing an inner truth. What he'd really like to be is "the catcher in the rye." Holden misunderstands the line from the Robert Burns lyric that he heard the boy singing in Chapter 16. Holden thinks that the line is, "If a body catch a body comin' through the rye." Phoebe corrects him. The actual line, she says, is, "If a body meet a body coming through the rye."
Holden has a vision of thousands of small children playing in a field of rye. A cliff borders the field. In their abandon, the innocent children symbolically run too close to the edge and may fall. Holden would be there to catch them. He would be the catcher in the rye.
Phoebe doesn't respond for a long time. Then she says, with all practicality, "Daddy's going to kill you." Although she may be Holden's best friend, Phoebe occasionally demonstrates that she is only 10 years old and unable to understand the depth of Holden's desire.
Holden wants to call Mr. Antolini, his former teacher at Elkton Hills. Now an English instructor at New York University, Antolini and his wife might allow Holden to stay with them. Phoebe undercuts the intensity of the moment. Like a kid, she quickly has moved past the catcher in the rye. She casually reports that her friend Phyllis has been giving her belching lessons while Holden was at Pencey, and Phoebe demonstrates what she has learned.
ostracizing banishing, barring, excluding, etc., from a group or from acceptance by society.
fraternity a group of male students joined together by common interests, for fellowship, etc.
cockeyed tilted to one side; crooked, awry.
Robert Burns (1759-1796) Scottish poet.
rye a hardy cereal grass, widely grown for its grain and straw.