“I have a feeling that you’re riding for some kind of terrible, terrible fall. . . . The whole arrangement’s designed for men who, at some time or other in their lives, were looking for something their own environment couldn’t supply them with. . . . So they gave up looking.”
The conversation in which Mr. Antolini speaks these words takes place in Chapter 24. Holden has just left his parents’ apartment, following his conversation with Phoebe, and he is reaching a point of critical instability, having just burst into tears when Phoebe lent him her Christmas money. He goes to Mr. Antolini’s because he feels he can trust and confide in him—it seems to be his final chance to save himself. But Holden’s interaction with Mr. Antolini is the event that precipitates his full-blown breakdown. It completely unsettles him, and leaves him feeling confused and unsure. While most of Holden’s confusion stems from what he interprets as a sexual advance from Mr. Antolini, some of it stems from the conversation they have. Both the conversation and Mr. Antolini’s head-rubbing serve a similar purpose: they upset Holden’s view of the way things are or the way he believes they ought to be.
Mr. Antolini’s words here resonate with the desires Holden has just expressed to Phoebe: like the catcher in the rye that Holden envisions, Mr. Antolini is trying to catch Holden in the midst of a “fall.” But the fall Mr. Antolini describes is very different from the one Holden had imagined. Holden pictured an idyllic world of childhood innocence from which children would fall into a dangerous world; Mr. Antolini describes Holden in an apathetic free fall—giving up, disengaging himself from the world, falling in a void removed from life around him. In both cases, we sense that although Holden envisions himself as the protector rather than the one to be protected, he is the one who really needs to be caught. Mr. Antolini guesses that Holden feels disconnected from his environment, and, as we have already seen, his assessment is accurate. Holden has isolated himself in an attempt to be his own savior, but Mr. Antolini’s image of falling presents a more accurate image of what awaits Holden on the other side of the “cliff.” It thus reveals the weaknesses of Holden’s romantic outlook.