Holden Caulfield’s interpretation of his teacher’s behavior is neither surprising nor unwarranted. After all, the drunken Mr. Antolini calls Holden “handsome,” creeps into the room where Holden is sleeping, and strokes the boy’s hair while he sleeps. Many readers might leap to conclude, as Holden does, that Mr. Antolini is making a pass at his student. However, Holden himself provides clues that suggest that Mr. Antolini’s interest in him is not sexual. Rather, Mr. Antolini sees himself as a guardian of wayward boys, the kind of “catcher in the rye” that Holden aspires to be.
James Castle, the Elkton student who committed suicide before the novel begins, seems to have given Mr. Antolini a burning need to help struggling boys. Mr. Antolini’s failure to see James’s depression or to save the boy after he jumped from the window permanently changes him. Holden’s initial description of his teacher’s response to Castle’s death comprises just one brief paragraph, which suggests that Holden does not understand the transformative effect James’s death had on Mr. Antolini. But Salinger means for us to look beneath the surface of Holden’s quick description and see the horror and power of the situation: the impressionable youth of the teacher whom Holden describes as “a pretty young guy, not much older than my brother D.B.”; the bravery of touching the corpse when no one else could bring himself to do it; the selflessness of draping a coat over the bloody body—all of the details that Holden provides suggest that Mr. Antolini responded to James’s suicide with true empathy, and that the incident had a profound effect on the kind young teacher.
Mr. Antolini’s lengthy exchange with Holden underlines his urge to help young people he perceives as needy, depressed, or heading for a fall. It is true that Mr. Antolini inquires about Holden’s love life, flatters him, and teases him. But this conversation is the same kind of idle chitchat Mr. Antolini engages in with everyone in his life. A witty man by nature, Mr. Antolini reflexively turns on the charm no matter whom he’s speaking to, whether it’s his students or his wife. He reserves his true passion and forcefulness for his long speech to Holden, in which he cautions him not to die “for some highly unworthy cause,” urges him to find direction, and advises him to seek comfort and a creative outlet in education. This speech, which Holden quotes in its entirety, comprises several pages. By devoting so much space to the speech, Salinger makes it clear that Mr. Antolini’s words are the most important part of this chapter. Holden also largely refrains from his usual editorializing here. By presenting Mr. Antolini’s words directly, rather than filtering them through Holden, Salinger encourages the reader to make up his or her own mind about Mr. Antolini’s intentions. When Holden offers his interpretation of events, it remains just that—an interpretation. The reader is not required to believe Holden’s version in this case. In fact, because The Catcher in the Rye is usually so concerned with Holden’s subjective response to the world around him, the fact that we are presented with an unvarnished account of Mr. Atonolini’s speech actually casts even stronger doubt on Holden’s interpretation of this particular incident.
Mr. Antolini does not see Holden as an object of lust. Rather, he sees him as a potential second James Castle. He wants to save Holden from despair just as Holden himself wants to save innocent children from the cruel truths of life. Although Holden’s initial reaction to Mr. Antolini’s kindness is repulsion, that does not mean that the teacher has failed. Perhaps the knowledge that there is one loving, intelligent adult in his life—a fact that Holden seems to grasp almost as soon as he leaves his teacher’s apartment—is what ultimately helps save the depressed boy.