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—a 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’ll 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.