Holden also struggles with family and class expectations. Like Salinger, his socioeconomic background is at least upper-middle class. His family and culture expect him to be reasonably successful at a prestigious prep school and move on to the Ivy League. Holden can't see himself in that role, so he seeks escape, but his plans are spontaneous fantasies that cannot work. First, he wants to run off with Sally Hayes and maybe get married. This frightens the practical, unimaginative Sally, who is more interested in social status than she is in Holden. Later, Holden decides to flee to the West where he will live as a deaf mute, ideal because he wouldn't have to talk with people. Holden is a romantic but a negative one. His imagined ventures are escapes from reality rather than ascensions toward a goal. The one exception is a beautiful but hopeless dream. When asked by Phoebe what he would like to be, Holden rejects standard choices such as a lawyer or a scientist. He says he would like to be "the catcher in the rye," standing by the edge of a cliff and keeping children, playing in an adjacent field of rye, from falling off.
Holden's alienation is disenchantment mingled with hope. He sees ugliness all around him, but he also sees beauty. The 6-year-old boy singing "If a body catch a body coming through the rye" as he marches down the street is, for Holden, a symbol of authenticity and possibility. He feels less depressed as he watches the boy. The sight of Phoebe on the carrousel is a kind of epiphany (a clarity of insight). It is one of those moments that he would like to keep forever. On the carrousel, there is movement, but the carrousel never actually goes anywhere: just round and round with Phoebe in her blue coat. It is beautiful, and, for a moment, even Holden feels joy.
This novel presents a coming-of-age story, but with a twist. The usual pattern in this genre of fiction is for the protagonist to begin in turmoil, struggle toward maturity, face various obstacles that initially defeat him but that he can overcome through virtue and perseverance, and eventually triumph. That is not Holden's story, however. Holden begins in turmoil, struggles in turmoil, has a moment of epiphany watching Phoebe at the carrousel, and eventually suffers physical and emotional collapse.
Holden does evolve toward the end of the novel. His acceptance of Phoebe's need to "grab for the gold ring" indicates that he sees her as a maturing individual who must be allowed to live her own life and take her own risks. At this point, he finally sees that children have to do this, and adults must let them. That's a step forward from believing that he must be their protector. For better or worse, Holden's own maturation has begun. He seems ready to surrender to the inevitability of growing up. He is exhausted, physically and emotionally, ready to go home and collapse.
Holden may or may not have progressed enough, learned enough, matured enough at the sanitarium to make it in the future. We can cheer for him, but we can't know what will happen. Salinger does not spoon-feed the reader a "happy" ending, which is all the better for readers of the novel. As Holden says in the final chapter, "I mean how do you know what you're going to do till you do it?"