After leaving Mr. Antolini’s, Holden goes to Grand Central Station and spends the night sleeping on a bench in the waiting room. The next day, he walks up and down Fifth Avenue, watching the children and feeling more and more nervous and overwhelmed. Every time he crosses a street, he feels like he will disappear, so each time he reaches a curb, he calls to Allie, pleading with his dead brother to let him make it to the other side. He decides to leave New York, hitchhike west, and never go home or to school again. He imagines living as a hermit, never talking to anybody, and marrying a deaf-mute girl.
He goes to Phoebe’s school and writes her a note telling her to meet him at the Museum of Art so he can return the money she lent him. As he wanders around his old school, he becomes even more depressed when he finds the words “fuck you” scrawled on the walls.
While waiting at the museum, Holden shows two young kids where the mummies are. He leads them down the hallway to the tomb exhibit, but they get scared and run off, leaving Holden alone in the dark, cramped passage. Holden likes it at first, but then sees another “fuck you” written on the wall. Disgusted, he speculates that when he dies, somebody will probably write the words “fuck you” on his tombstone. He leaves the exhibit to wait for Phoebe. On the way to the bathroom, he passes out, but he downplays the incident.
Phoebe arrives at the museum with a suitcase and begs Holden to take her with him. He feels dizzy and worries that he will pass out again. He tells her that she cannot possibly go with him and feels even closer to fainting. She gets angry, refuses to look at him, and gruffly returns his hunting hat. Holden tells her he won’t go away and asks her to go back to school. She angrily refuses, and he offers to take her to the zoo.
They walk to the zoo, Holden on one side of the street, Phoebe following angrily on the other. After looking at some animals, they walk to the park, now on the same side of the street, although still not quite together. They come to the carousel, and Holden convinces Phoebe to ride it. He sits on a park bench, watching her go around and around. They have reconciled, he is wearing his red hunting hat, and suddenly he feels so happy he thinks he might cry.
Holden concludes his story by refusing to discuss what happened after his day in the park with Phoebe, although he does say that he went home, got sick, and was sent to the rest home from which he now tells his story. He says he is supposed to go to a new school in the fall and thinks that he will apply himself there, but he doesn’t feel like talking about it. He wishes he hadn’t talked about his experiences so much in the first place, even to D. B., who often comes to visit him in the rest home. Talking about what happened to him makes him miss all the people in his story.
Holden’s breakdown reaches its climax in Chapter 25. As the chapter begins, Holden feels surrounded on all sides by ugliness and phoniness—the profanity on the walls, the vulgar Christmas-tree delivery men, the empty pomp of Christmas—and his recent interactions with Phoebe and Mr. Antolini have left him feeling completely lonely and alienated. As he wanders the streets of New York, he looks at children and prays to Allie to keep him from disappearing as the ducks disappeared and as Allie himself disappeared. It’s clear that Mr. Antolini was, at least in part, correct: Holden does not feel connected to his environment. He imagines that he is an ephemeral presence that will instantaneously vanish. Not only does he feel that he cannot relate to anybody, but he doesn’t know how to deal with adult encounters, because they don’t fit neatly into the worldview he has constructed for himself. As a result, he makes the only decision that seems logical in such a situation: he decides to run away. Unable to deal with the world around him, and realizing that his cynical view of the world is not grounded in reality, he decides to leave.
Phoebe demands to go with Holden, but it is unclear whether she needs him or whether she worries that he needs her. Despite her young age, it’s safe to assume that she has a clearer perspective on the situation than Holden, so the latter explanation seems more likely. Nevertheless, Holden sees the effect his plans have on someone he cares about—his first sign of true maturity. He begins to come out of his shell, demonstrating concern for Phoebe and a willingness to love people around him. After Holden makes the decision to stay and Phoebe forgives him, she returns his hunting hat, reciprocating his gesture of kindness. It is the only moment of reciprocal interaction that Holden experiences in the book: from Stradlater to Sally Hayes, most characters just want to take things from him or use him for a specific purpose. The few characters who try to give Holden something, like Mr. Spencer or Mr. Antolini, find that Holden is unwilling to reciprocate. He remains suspicious of accepting their advice and unwilling to communicate. But here, he and Phoebe demonstrate true interaction, both selflessly giving and humbly taking from each other. It is the kind of intimacy Holden has been longing for and sorely missing.
When Holden watches Phoebe go around and around on the carousel, he finds himself deliriously happy as he participates in a scene of childhood joy and innocence. With Phoebe, he seems to have found the human contact he was looking for. The implication is that now, perhaps, he can begin the process of introspection and healing that he needs.
In Chapter 26, despite his refusal to talk any more about his story, Holden nevertheless fills in some key missing details: he went home; he was sent to a rest home to recover from the breakdown; he’s in psychotherapy; and he plans to go to a new school in the fall. Holden’s defensively cynical tone continues throughout the chapter, which raises the question of whether the novel’s ending is tragic. He says he plans to apply himself in school next year and seems contemplative, but he is unable to express his feelings and says that he wishes he hadn’t told so many people his story.
The novel’s ending is ambiguous. It is unclear whether Holden will fulfill the promise of recovery that is suggested as he watches the carousel. Holden’s final statement—“Don’t tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody”— suggests that he is still shackled by the same problems he has dealt with throughout the book. He still seems scared and alone, and he continues to dread communication. On the other hand, his final words suggest that he has begun to shed the impenetrable skin of cynicism that he had grown around himself. He has begun to value, rather than dismiss, the people around him. His nostalgia—“missing everybody”—reveals that he is not as bitter and repressed as he was earlier in the book.