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This is one of the most important chapters in the book because Holden comes very close to verbalizing what's been bothering him. (Remember, he hasn't been holding back. He just doesn't know what's bothering him.)
He has some final thoughts about the nuns, which he sums up in a curious way: "That's what I liked about those nuns. You could tell, for one thing, that they never went anywhere swanky for lunch. It made me so damn sad when I thought about it, their never going anywhere swanky for lunch or anything."
Think about that for a minute. What he likes about them is the same thing that makes him sad. That isn't exactly a self-contradiction, but it is strange. And it's a clue to why Holden is so troubled. Even the positive things he encounters are tainted in some way. He's unable to enjoy anything because nothing is perfect. The result is that even good things make him sad.
What he likes about certain people should make him happy. Why doesn't it? Because the world doesn't value the things he values. There's a gap- sometimes a huge one-between the beautiful world inside Holden's head and the ugly one outside him. And Holden isn't having much luck bridging that gap.
The rest of the chapter is almost exclusively about children, and that's what makes it very important. You know that Holden has an idealized picture of the world in his mind, but where does that picture come from? In this chapter you'll learn that it comes from his ideas about childhood.
While he's walking the streets, killing time until his date with Sally, Holden comes across a six-year-old boy walking with his parents. The boy is singing the Scottish folk song "Comin' Through the Rye," but he doesn't have the lyrics quite right. The lyrics actually are, "If a body meet a body...." The boy is singing, "If a body catch a body comin' through the rye." (Later, the boy's mistake will appear in the significance of the book's title.)
"It made me feel better," Holden says. "It made me feel not so depressed any more." Just the sight of a child enjoying himself in his own little world, totally oblivious to everything around him, is enough to overcome what seems to be constant sadness in Holden. Without doing anything special, the boy lifts Holden out of his depression. This is your first clue about how important children are to him.
After buying Phoebe a record on Broadway, Holden walks uptown to Central Park, where he hopes to find his sister skating. When he reaches the park, he has another of those strange symptoms that seem to be indications of a serious physical or mental illness.
He's talking about the park when he says, "It made you depressed, and every once in a while, for no reason, you got goose flesh when you walked." The gooseflesh is like his dizziness or the feeling that he's about to disappear. These symptoms appear with no warning, but he talks about them casually, as though they happen to everybody. He stops and talks to a girl who knows Phoebe. She tells him Phoebe is probably at the American Museum of Natural History, and Holden helps her tighten her skates. Helping her and being thanked make him nearly ecstatic.
When the girl leaves, he begins walking to the museum, where he used to go regularly when he was Phoebe's age. On the way there, he gives us a detailed description of the museum's lifelike statues and dioramas, and we begin to get a picture of how much Holden loved his childhood.
The museum represents Holden's childhood to him. "I loved that damn museum," he tells us. One of the things he means is that he loved the way the world was (or seemed, at least) when he was a child.
"The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was," he explains. And in the next paragraph he adds, "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."
Holden is close to revealing-to himself as well as to us-just what's wrong with his life. His next sentence is, "I know that's impossible." But does he really know that?
If he knows it's impossible to preserve things as they were in childhood, why does he talk to Allie in moments of stress? Why is his ten-year-old sister one of the few people he admires? Why does he continue to think of Jane as a frail creature who keeps her kings in the back row, when she's matured enough to date someone like Stradlater?
He remembers his own experience of being different each time he went to the museum, though everything there remained exactly as it had been before. He thinks about Phoebe being different every time she goes. "It didn't exactly depress me to think about it," he says, "but it didn't make me feel gay as hell, either."
Those changes he remembers were signs that his life had progressed, that he had grown up little by little. He knows the same thing will happen to Phoebe, but he doesn't like thinking about it.
Just before he reaches the museum, Holden offers a helping hand to two small children on a seesaw, although "you could tell they didn't want me around, so I let them alone." That may be the saddest event in this chapter, but Holden doesn't comment on it.
He seems to be overflowing with good feelings for small children, much as a parent would be for his or her own children. But he also shares something else with parents: the knowledge that they can't do everything they'd like to do for their children, that they have to let them do as much as possible by themselves. Holden may be unconscious of this knowledge, but it's what keeps him from helping the children, no matter how much he'd like to.
When he reaches the museum he has so lovingly described, he decides not to go inside. He probably knows it won't be as beautiful as he remembers it. After all, if Jane Gallagher can grow up, what's to prevent the museum from changing?