Mr. Antolini is the adult who comes closest to reaching Holden. He manages to avoid alienating Holden, and being labeled a “phony,” because he doesn’t behave conventionally. He doesn’t speak to Holden in the persona of a teacher or an authority figure, as Mr. Spencer does. He doesn’t object to Holden’s calling him in the middle of the night or to Holden’s being drunk or smoking. Moreover, by opening his door to Holden on the spur of the moment, he shows no reservations about exposing his private self, with his messy apartment, his older wife with her hair in curlers, and his own heavy drinking.

Mr. Antolini’s advice to Holden about why he should apply himself to his studies is also unconventional. He recognizes that Holden is different from other students, and he validates Holden’s suffering and confusion by suggesting that one day they may be worth writing about. He represents education not as a path of conformity but as a means for Holden to develop his unique voice and to find the ideas that are most appropriate to him.

When Mr. Antolini touches Holden’s forehead as he sleeps, he may just be displaying concern for his former student. However, there is little evidence to suggest that it’s not a sexual overture. Mr. Antolini’s inquiries about Holden’s girlfriends and the fact that he calls Holden “handsome” as he wishes him goodnight could be read as flirtatious advances, and Holden’s genuine panic upon waking up to Antolini’s touch indicates more than a paternal gesture. Regardless of Mr. Antolini’s intentions, the inappropriate nature of his physical affection destroys Holden’s trust and faith in him. What little stability Holden has left depends on his maintaining an oversimplified worldview, and he cannot tolerate Mr. Antolini’s ambiguous—or downright predatory—motives, especially if Holden is in fact a victim of previous sexual assault. Though we remain as puzzled as Holden as to what is really going on, we can empathize with Holden more than Mr. Antolini because of the crisis Holden experiences as a result of the encounter.