Analysis: Chapters 18–20

Holden’s off-kilter ramblings in Chapter 18 about being killed by an atom bomb sound like the bravado of a frightened, threatened boy. We have seen Holden’s bravado throughout the novel—when he worries that he is a coward, when he screams at Maurice, when he imagines himself as a vengeful movie character seeking justice through extreme force. But bravado is most important in this section because Holden’s interaction with the effeminate Carl Luce causes him to exhibit a subtle vein of homophobia that will be important later in the novel. Like many adolescent boys, Holden is uncomfortable with sexuality and especially uncomfortable with the idea of homosexuality. Though Luce seems to prefer women, Holden finds him slightly “flitty,” and Luce brings out an unpleasant lewdness in Holden’s behavior.

Holden aggressively questions Luce about sex and seems to feel titillated throughout their conversation. Holden clearly wants Luce to give him some kind of guidance and insight into adult sexuality, but his attempts to raise the subject are clumsy and immature, and Luce refuses to interact with Holden on the same footing that they had at Whooton. When Luce leaves, Holden feels depressed and uncomfortable, and we get the sense that he is disappointed in himself—that despite his protestations that Luce is a phony, he wanted to connect with him and failed. With each successive interaction, Holden loses more faith in himself. He withdraws deeper into his cynicism, while at the same time feeling more and more desperate to break out of his loneliness. After Luce departs, Holden gets extremely drunk and acts completely unhinged. He hits on Valencia and the hat-check girl and then senselessly breaks into tears before walking through the freezing cold to the duck pond.

Though Holden does not acknowledge his imbalances, we again see how little control Holden has over both himself and his worsening situation. Holden’s lack of introspection deepens our sense of the danger in which he finds himself. His thoughts as he walks to the pond reveal what may lie at the root of his manic behavior: he is upset and miserable at the memory of Allie’s death. His memory of leaving flowers on Allie’s grave leads him to another one of his defensive understatements. He was obviously shaken by the trips to the cemetery, but all he says in his narration is that he used to go with his parents, but he stopped accompanying them because he “certainly didn’t enjoy seeing him in that crazy cemetery.” The conjunction of Allie’s memory with the image of the duck pond helps to explain Holden’s preoccupation with the pond and establishes it as one of The Catcher in the Rye’s key symbols. Allie is gone forever, and Holden does not believe in afterlife; his atheism was mentioned in Chapter 14. Now, Holden is troubled by unexplained disappearances. He is anxious to know where the ducks have gone, since he feels extremely threatened by the idea that people and things just vanish, as Allie did. The pond itself becomes a minor metaphor for the world as Holden sees it. It is “partly frozen and partly not frozen,” in a transitional state just like Holden himself and the world he inhabits.

Holden’s curiosity about the ducks also demonstrates an appealingly childlike quality: his willingness (shared with his siblings) to pay attention to details that are conventionally ignored. Holden’s interest in the kettledrum player at Radio City is another of these details. Holden associates adulthood with an unwillingness to explore subtle and mysterious questions, but there are many difficult questions that he himself is unwilling to explore. He never ponders what the duck pond means to him, why memories of Allie’s death trouble him so much, or why he is having such difficulty dealing with the world around him.