The Catcher in the Rye Analysis of Chunk 8 (Chapters 21 - 23)
Holden's conversation with Phoebe encompasses all three chapters and is easily the most revealing section of the book, marking the first major change in Holden. Throughout the book, unknown even to himself, Holden has been searching for something true and honest. In a few instances, such as with the nuns, he finds it, but those instances are brief and are dwarfed by the weight of society and its phoniness.
Here, in the safety of his own house with his little sister Phoebe, Holden finally begins to relax and feel good. There are no phonies here-there is simply an innocent child. Reading her notebook makes him happy because it reflects Phoebe's blatantly honest way of approaching the world.
Upon awakening, Phoebe exclaims "Holden! Whenja get home?" which gladdens Holden. Salinger probably intends this as a contrast to Sally's "Holden! It's marvelous to see you! It's been ages," which teems with empty words and trite expressions.
Immediately after awakening, Phoebe begins to talk. At one point she mentions a prank she pulled on another boy, and Holden chides her: "That isn't nice. What are you-a child, for God's sake?" It becomes apparent that it's not the immaturity of childhood which Holden admires, but the lack of pretensions. He seeks the respect and maturity with which adults conduct themselves, but not their falseness. We also note Holden's kindness to little kids-he doesn't appreciate the prank.
Phoebe's criticisms of Holden run deep and true. Her first comment is that Holden not swear so much, an aspect of himself Holden will come to deplore in the last sections. Perhaps more critical is her attack, one that should mirror the reader's thoughts at this point, that "You don't like anything that's happening. . . . You don't like any schools. You don't like a million things. You don't."
In response to Phoebe's challenge to come up with something he likes a lot, Holden thinks about three things: the unpretentious nuns, a classmate, James Castle, who committed suicide rather than be yellow and take back an honest insult, and finally names Allie, his dead brother. It is worth noting that when naming Castle, Holden admits to himself that "I hardly even know James Castle." He hardly even knew the nuns either, and his brother Allie was dead and thus not known fully, and not known at all in adulthood. Perhaps part of Holden's problem is that once he gets to know someone he learns that person's faults and can't see past them. Perhaps what he can imagine about a person is better than what he can know. Perhaps Dickinson's war poetry is better than Brooke's.
Sometime during the conversation, Holden realizes one crucial thing: that he is no longer a child. Physically and mentally, Phoebe is in a world foreign to him: "She was about a thousand miles away," he notes. As a result of Holden's criticism of him, Holden realizes that he himself is, to a certain degree, a phony, and that there is no way to return to the innocence of childhood. Thus stems his fantasy of being the "catcher in the rye." The cliff in his dream of sorts is the precipice upon which all children stand. To fall off that cliff is to fall out of innocence and into adulthood. Holden imagines that change as a tragic one, one of almost suicide-certainly a great fall of sorts. He positions himself against that loss of innocence, and proposes to save the kids from the fall, catching them and keeping them from society. Though noble, the reader must realize that Holden's dream is both shallow and unattainable. Holden still has some discovering to do.
A last thing Phoebe does for Holden is to provide someone to converse with. "I like it now," Holden tells her. "Sitting here with you and just chewing the fat. " "That isn't anything really!" replies Phoebe. This depresses Holden because Phoebe is reflecting the sentiments of society, where talking isn't seen as something productive (as seen by his interaction with Sunny).
Holden's last thought before leaving the house is a desire for his parents to catch him, so he wouldn't have to be dishonest anymore, hiding out. Holden is ready to cast off his own falseness.