After breakfast, Holden goes for a walk. He thinks about the selflessness of the nuns and can’t imagine anyone he knows being so generous and giving. He heads down Broadway to buy a record called “Little Shirley Beans” for Phoebe. He likes the record because, although it is for children, it is sung by a black blues singer who makes it sound raunchy, not cute. He thinks about Phoebe, whom he considers to be a wonderful girl because, although she’s only ten, she always understands what Holden means when he talks to her. He sees an oblivious little boy walking in the street, singing, “If a body catch a body coming through the rye.” The innocence of the scene cheers him up, and he decides to call Jane, although he hangs up when her mother answers the phone. In preparation for his date with Sally, he buys theater tickets to a show called “I Know My Love,” which stars the Lunts.
The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was.
Holden wants to see Phoebe, and he goes to look for her in the park because he remembers that she often roller-skates there on Sundays. He meets a girl who knows Phoebe. At first, she tells him that his sister is on a school trip to the Museum of Natural History, but then she remembers that the trip was the previous day. Nevertheless, Holden walks to the museum, remembering his own class trips. He focuses on the way life is frozen in the museum’s exhibits: models of Eskimos and Indians stand as though petrified and birds hang from the ceiling, seemingly in mid-flight. He remarks that every time he went to the museum, he felt that he had changed, while the museum had stayed exactly the same.
At two o’clock, Holden goes to meet Sally at the Biltmore Hotel; she is late but looks very attractive, so he immediately forgives her tardiness. They make out in the taxi on the way to the theater. At the play, the actors annoy Holden because, like Ernie the piano player, they are almost too good at what they do and seem full of themselves. During intermission, Sally irritates Holden by flirting with a pretentious boy from Andover, another prep school, but he nonetheless agrees to take her ice-skating at “Radio City” (Radio City Music Hall is part of Rockefeller Center, where there is an ice-skating rink) after the show. While skating, Holden speculates that Sally only wanted to go ice-skating so she could wear a short skirt and show off her “cute ass,” but he admits that he finds it attractive.
When they take a break and sit down indoors, Holden begins to unravel. Oscillating between shouting and hushed tones, he rants about all the “phonies” at his prep schools and in New York society, and talks about how alienated he feels. He becomes even more crazy and impetuous, saying that he and Sally should run away together and escape from society, living on their own in a cabin. When she points out that his dreams are ridiculous, he becomes more and more agitated. The quarrel builds until Holden calls Sally a “royal pain in the ass,” and she begins to cry. Holden starts to apologize, but Sally is upset and angry with him, and, finally, he leaves without her.
Things go from bad to worse for Holden in these chapters. His behavior during his date with Sally is the surest sign yet that he is heading toward emotional collapse. Throughout his tirade, Sally asks Holden to stop yelling, and he claims not to have been yelling, indicating that he is unaware of his own extreme agitation. His attempt to convince a shallow socialite like Sally to run away with him to a cabin in the wilderness also shows his increasing distance from reality—or, at least, his inability to deal with the reality in which he finds himself.
Though Holden admits his behavior is odd when he says, “I swear to God I’m a madman,” he doesn’t do much to explain its significance. Salinger continues to drop hints—like Sally’s requests for Holden to stop yelling—to signal that the story behind Holden’s narration is darker and more troubling than it might at first appear. His mood swings with Sally serve a similar purpose. When he first sees her, he is convinced he is in love with her. He then alternates between annoyance and rapturous passion for the duration of their date, until he finally tells her that she gives him “a royal pain in the ass.” Sally’s coldness and her lack of compassion are reflective of the greater world’s lack of concern about Holden’s plight. Except for Jane and Phoebe, no one in his world seems to care how he feels, so long as he observes social norms. Only when his actions violate those norms does anyone notice his disturbed state, and even then, their usual response, like Sally’s, is to criticize him. Despite the fact that Sally is obviously not a good match for him, Holden claims that at the moment he proposed that they run away together, he did truly love her. His feelings are irrational, but they indicate how desperate he is to find love.
This desperate need for love is counterbalanced by his inability to deal with the complexities of the real world. Like his encounter with the nuns in Chapter 15, his date with Sally demonstrates how ill-equipped he is to deal with actual people. Sally does not seem to be a very complex character, but Holden cannot connect with her at all. His wild proposals are not the kind of thing Sally is interested in, and he displays callousness when he insults her. As Holden proposes impossible schemes only to lash out when their ridiculousness is made apparent, his oversimplified, idealized fantasy world begins to seem less endearing and more dangerous.
After the fiasco with Sally, Holden retreats into nostalgic desires to return to childhood. In recalling his visits to the Museum of Natural History, Holden indicates that he wants life to be like the tableaux he loves: frozen, unchanging, simple, and readily comprehensible. He says that he wishes that everything in life could be placed inside glass cages and preserved, like in the museum. His encounter with Sally shows that he cannot deal with the complexity, conflict, and change of real life. In the museum’s world, communication is unidirectional: Holden can judge the exhibits, but the exhibits cannot judge him back. After he upsets Sally, he feels terrible and tries desperately to set things right, but he fails, and he cannot tolerate the stressful situation in which he has enmeshed himself. Isolation, he finds, is simpler than the stress that accompanies conflict.
Holden’s nostalgic love of the museum is rather tragic: it represents his hopeless fantasizing, his inability to deal with the real world, and his unwillingness to think about his own shortcomings. He mentions that every time he returns to the museum, he is disturbed because he has changed while the displays have not. But he is unwilling to probe further. He readily admits that he can’t explain what he means, and probably wouldn’t want to even if he could. Holden is unwilling to confront his own problems, protecting himself with a shell of cynical comments and outlandish behavior.