The Catcher in the Rye

by: J. D. Salinger

Phoebe Caulfield

You’d like her. I mean if you tell old Phoebe something, she knows exactly what the hell you’re talking about. I mean you can even take her anywhere with you. If you take her to a lousy movie, for instance, she knows it’s a lousy movie. If you take her to a pretty good movie, she knows it’s a pretty good movie.

This quote represents the first time Holden speaks about his younger sister at length, and it appears in Chapter 10. Holden’s words show how much he cares about Phoebe, and in a rare instance of positivity he sings her praises for another couple of pages. Holden loves Phoebe because he can easily connect with her. Not only is she a good listener, but she also has a keen sense of discernment. These characteristics make Holden feel like they are on the same page. For instance, they share an understanding of what makes a movie “lousy” or “pretty good.”

When the light was on and all, I sort of looked at her for a while. She was laying there asleep, with her face sort of on the side of the pillow. She had her mouth way open. It’s funny. You take adults, they look lousy when they’re asleep and they have their mouths way open, but kids don’t. Kids look all right. They can even have spit all over the pillow and they still look all right.

This quote comes from Chapter 21, when Holden sneaks back into his family’s home to visit his sister. When he comes into Phoebe’s room, he finds her asleep. Holden finds the sight of Phoebe sleeping with her mouth open “funny,” but he states that adults in the same position lack all charm and just “look lousy.” The way he moves from a comment about Phoebe to a generalization about kids versus adults indicates that Phoebe functions for Holden as a stand-in for the innocence of all children.

“You don’t like anything that’s happening.”

Phoebe issues this challenge to Holden in Chapter 22, confronting her brother with his bleak outlook on the world. Holden’s reaction to her challenge shows that he really does respect her opinion. Although he struggles against her accusation at first, he quickly realizes she’s right. And even though he has been confronted elsewhere in the book—and he will be confronted again by Mr. Antolini—Phoebe is the one person Holden really listens to.

“I said I’m not going back to school. You can do what you want to do, but I’m not going back to school,” she said. “So shut up.” It was the first time she ever told me to shut up. It sounded terrible. God, it sounded terrible.

Faced with Holden’s stubborn refusal to let her leave town with him, Phoebe issues these words of defiance in Chapter 25, when he commands her to go back to school. The phrase “shut up” strikes Holden as profanity. Holden doesn’t think children should be exposed to profane language, as evidenced by his attempts to remove the words “Fuck you” from the walls of Phoebe’s school. The fact that he has pushed Phoebe to the point of profanity troubles him greatly. Instead of protecting her innocence, he nearly destroys it.