The Catcher in the Rye

by: J. D. Salinger

Chapters 16–17

After the fiasco with Sally, Holden retreats into nostalgic desires to return to childhood. In recalling his visits to the Museum of Natural History, Holden indicates that he wants life to be like the tableaux he loves: frozen, unchanging, simple, and readily comprehensible. He says that he wishes that everything in life could be placed inside glass cages and preserved, like in the museum. His encounter with Sally shows that he cannot deal with the complexity, conflict, and change of real life. In the museum’s world, communication is unidirectional: Holden can judge the exhibits, but the exhibits cannot judge him back. After he upsets Sally, he feels terrible and tries desperately to set things right, but he fails, and he cannot tolerate the stressful situation in which he has enmeshed himself. Isolation, he finds, is simpler than the stress that accompanies conflict.

Holden’s nostalgic love of the museum is rather tragic: it represents his hopeless fantasizing, his inability to deal with the real world, and his unwillingness to think about his own shortcomings. He mentions that every time he returns to the museum, he is disturbed because he has changed while the displays have not. But he is unwilling to probe further. He readily admits that he can’t explain what he means, and probably wouldn’t want to even if he could. Holden is unwilling to confront his own problems, protecting himself with a shell of cynical comments and outlandish behavior.