The Catcher in the Rye ends ambiguously. The ambiguity is mostly due to the significant time gap between the book’s last two chapters. Chapter 25 concludes with Holden feeling happy as he watches Phoebe ride on the Central Park carousel. He confesses, “I was damn near bawling, I felt so damn happy.” But Holden also admits he doesn’t know why he feels so happy, or why he’s on the brink of tears. Even so, his sense of relief after his long depression feels palpable. The chapter ends there. The next (and final) chapter begins with Holden abruptly cutting himself off: “That’s all I’m going to tell about.” He explains, “I could probably tell you what I did after I went home, and how I got sick and all, and what school I’m supposed to go to next fall, after I get out of here, but I don’t feel like it.” In explaining what he doesn’t feel like telling us about, Holden inadvertently lets us in on what happened. But without more details, we are left in the dark as to why Holden ended up in some unspecified facility in southern California.
How you read the ending of The Catcher in the Rye depends on how you interpret the gap between Chapters 25 and 26. One possible reading would take Holden at his word. This would entail believing that his happiness at the end of Chapter 25 is genuine and that this happiness predicts an eventual, full recovery. Such a reading sees Holden shedding his cynicism about the world and developing warmer feelings about other people. Holden indicates as much when in Chapter 26 he claims, “I sort of miss everybody I told about.” If it is true that Holden has grown less bitter by the end of the book and that he’s learned the value of other people, then he may grow past his current depressive slump and go on to have a more successful career at his new school and in his life beyond. This reading emphasizes a sense of optimism, if not outright happiness.
Another, more doubtful reading would cast suspicion on Holden’s optimism. Over the course of the book his evaluations of other people have consistently proven inaccurate and oversimplified. It seems likely, then, that Holden’s own self-evaluation would suffer from a similar shortsightedness. Take, for example, the scene with Phoebe on the carousel, where Holden’s happiness borders on delirium. After his long and laboring depressive spell, the suddenness of his emotional breakthrough seems suspicious. Also suspicious is the apparent simplicity of his happiness. The fact that Holden is “damn near bawling” suggests that his emotions are far more complex than he understands. As Holden himself repeatedly admits in the novel’s final pages, he doesn’t really know what he feels or why. In his emotional immaturity, he may have reduced this complexity to an overly simple label: “happiness.” If this is the case, then it becomes more difficult for the reader to share in Holden’s optimism. Indeed, he may be just as troubled and confused as ever.