When Holden arrives at Mr. Antolini’s, Mr. Antolini and his wife have just wrapped up a dinner party in their upscale Sutton Place apartment. Glasses and dishes are everywhere, and Holden can tell that Mr. Antolini has been drinking. Holden takes a seat, and the two begin talking. As Mrs. Antolini prepares coffee, Mr. Antolini inquires about Holden’s expulsion from Pencey Prep. Holden reveals that he disliked the rules and regulations at Pencey Prep. As an example, he mentions his debate class in which students were penalized for digressing from their subject. Holden argues that digressions are more interesting. Instead of offering complete sympathy, Mr. Antolini gently challenges Holden, pointing out that digressions are often distracting, and that sometimes it is more interesting and appropriate to stick to the topic. Holden begins to see the weakness of his argument and becomes uncomfortable. But Mrs. Antolini cuts the tension, bringing coffee for Holden and Mr. Antolini before going to bed.
“I have a feeling that you’re riding for some kind of terrible, terrible fall.”
After this respite, Mr. Antolini resumes the discussion on a much more serious note. He tells Holden that he is worried about him because he seems primed for a major fall, a fall that will leave him frustrated and embittered against the rest of the world, particularly against the sort of boys he hated at school. At this suggestion, Holden becomes defensive and argues that he actually, after a while, grows to semi-like guys like Ackley and Stradlater. After an awkward silence, Mr. Antolini further explains the “fall” he is envisioning, saying that it is experienced by men who cannot deal with the environment around them. But he tells Holden that if he applies himself in school, he will learn that many men and women have been similarly disturbed and troubled by the human condition, and he will also learn a great deal about his own mind. Holden seems interested in what Mr. Antolini has to say, but he is exhausted. Finally, he is unable to suppress a yawn. Mr. Antolini chuckles, makes up the couch, and, after some small talk about girls, lets Holden go to sleep.
Suddenly, Holden wakes up; he feels Mr. Antolini’s hand stroking his head. Mr. Antolini claims it was nothing, but Holden believes Mr. Antolini is making a sexual advance and hurries out of the apartment.
At first, Mr. Antolini seems to offer Holden his only chance of making a sympathetic connection with an adult. Holden respects his teacher’s intelligence and seems legitimately interested in Mr. Antolini’s lecture about finding “what size mind you have.” It is significant that Holden consistently refers to his former teacher as “Mr. Antolini,” whereas he refers to Mr. Spencer as “old Spencer” or “Spencer.” But a subtly menacing undercurrent runs through Holden’s description of his time at the Antolinis’: the unwashed glasses from the dinner party, Mrs. Antolini’s unattractive appearance without her makeup, and Mr. Antolini’s excessive drinking all contribute to a feeling of discomfort that Holden never explicitly acknowledges. When Holden wakes to find Mr. Antolini stroking his head, he snaps. The pressure of his surging sexual feelings, combined with the nervous homophobia he exhibited around Carl Luce, make Mr. Antolini’s gesture more than he can handle, and he leaves Mr. Antolini’s apartment awkwardly and hastily.
The question of whether Mr. Antolini really made a sexual advance on Holden is much more complicated than Holden implies. Holden might be right—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. But it seems far more likely that Mr. Antolini’s gesture was simply a tipsy sign of affection for a student in obvious pain, a student in whom Mr. Antolini sensed something fragile and genuine. But, as with everything else, Holden is rash and uncompromising in his interpretation of his teacher’s behavior, and, with that rash interpretation, all of Holden’s trust and faith in Mr. Antolini vanish. Mr. Antolini is clearly a more complex and multidimensional character than Holden makes him out to be. But, as we have already seen, what little stability Holden has left depends on his maintaining an oversimplified worldview—he cannot tolerate motives that are at all ambiguous. Throughout the scene, we remain as puzzled as Holden is as to what is really going on, which allows us to empathize with Holden in the crisis he experiences as a result of the encounter.
The fact that Mr. Antolini is trying to prevent Holden from “a fall” obviously parallels Holden’s image of the “catcher in the rye.” Yet, Mr. Antolini is a very different kind of catcher from the one Holden envisioned, and the type of fall he describes is different from the one Holden imagines. Holden fantasizes about protecting children from adulthood and sexuality (see Chapter 25), but Mr. Antolini describes the more frightening fall that will come if Holden himself refuses to grow up. Holden maintains an idealized view of childhood, and a simplified view of adulthood, in order to justify his withdrawal from society. He resists intimacy because the complexities of real-world relationships collapse his simplistic perspective. Mr. Antolini’s trenchant criticism forces Holden to see his own problems, while the ambiguity of his motives forces him to encounter the complexity and ambiguity of the adult world. As such, he is beginning to see the trap of painful loneliness and isolation he has created for himself with his largely self-imposed alienation.