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CHAPTERS 23 & 24
Holden's phone call to Mr. Antolini, "about the best teacher I ever had," brings us back to the beginning of the novel, when he visited Mr. Spencer before leaving Pencey. When you read about his visit with this teacher, contrast it with the visit he made in Chapter 2. Antolini is an adult Holden wants to talk to, in the hope that he can get some helpful advice.
Before Holden can leave the apartment, his parents come home unexpectedly. He hides in the closet and listens as Phoebe deftly handles the questions her mother asks. The conversation between Phoebe and Mrs. Caulfield is interesting because Phoebe is completely in control, and her mother is being manipulated.
Mrs. Caulfield goes to bed, and Holden prepares to leave. Before he leaves he starts to cry, which upsets his sister very much. His crying seems to have been brought on by the appearance of his mother. Holden has told us before that he feels guilty about the trouble he causes her, and his guilt feelings have grown worse since Allie's death.
As he's trying to bring himself under control, he says, "I thought I was going to choke to death or something." This is the first in a series of physical symptoms that signal Holden's approaching breakdown.
He slips out of the house successfully, but he seems to be wearying of the freedom he anticipated when he left Pencey on Saturday night. At the end of Chapter 23 he says he almost wished his parents had caught him on the way out.
Mr. and Mrs. Antolini live on Sutton Place, one of the most expensive streets in Manhattan. Unlike Mr. Spencer, Mr. Antolini is young, sophisticated, rich, and witty. Holden comes to see him because he wants to, not because he thinks he should. He's hoping to get some help from Antolini, something he wouldn't dream of asking from Spencer.
He takes a cab to their house because he feels dizzy when he leaves his building. The dizziness is compounded by a severe headache; Holden's physical condition is deteriorating.
Read Chapter 24 carefully. The conversation summarizes much of what has been happening to Holden, and Antolini's advice, unlike Spencer's well- meaning cliches, is personalized and to the point. Antolini is genuinely concerned about Holden, so much so that he has recently met with Mr. Caulfield to discuss Holden's problems.
Because school is where most of Holden's problems are evident, school is what he talks about with his former teacher. Their conversation amounts to a discussion of educational philosophy, though Antolini is understandably more articulate than Holden on the subject.
Antolini warns him about people who destroy themselves by "looking for something their own environment couldn't supply them with." That's not a bad description of Holden's trouble. He seems to expect something from the world that the world can't deliver.
Antolini warns Holden about what might happen if he doesn't overcome this problem. He also explains how doing well in school could help someone in that situation, and how it could be particularly valuable to Holden. Education, he says, will help Holden learn that "you're not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior."
Antolini's advice is right on the mark, and you could read this chapter with some optimism, some hope that maybe he can help Holden improve his situation. Then Antolini spoils it all by putting his hand on Holden's forehead and scaring the wits out of him.
You can read the last section of the chapter a dozen times and never be absolutely sure if Antolini makes a pass at Holden. Some readers say that there's no doubt that he does and that Salinger has even prepared us for it.
"How're all your women?" Antolini asks Holden just before he goes to sleep on the couch. And the last thing he says to Holden is, "Good night, handsome." In addition, he and his wife never seem to be in the same room, there's a great difference in their ages, and their attraction for each other may not be sexual.
Other readers think Antolini never makes a pass at all. He's genuinely concerned with Holden's welfare, they say, and he knows what a fragile state Holden is in. Even if he were homosexual, he wouldn't put Holden's health in jeopardy because he's clearly a responsible teacher.
The question is, was Holden premature in assuming that Antolini was making a pass? There is no definite answer. You'll have to draw your own conclusion.
More important than that question is the effect the scene has on Holden. He's just been given some valuable advice by a man he respects. Now he has run out of the man's house in fear. The real problem is that he might run from the advice as well as from the man who gave it.