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"I know it's crazy, but that's the only thing I'd really like to be," Holden explains to Phoebe (173). The only job Holden can see himself doing is saving children from falling off a cliff or growing up because Holden idealizes the innocence and no shame children possess; and he, himself, wants to return to that state of mind. Holden's wanting to preserve the purity of children, shows his "coming of age" because he soon realizes his roles and responsibility and how the inevitable is adulthood.
As Holden watched a little boy and "his parents [who] paid no attention to him," walk down the street, he saw that the little boy, despite not being noticed, "just kept walking next to the curb [and] singing" (115). Holden was "feel[ing] better" by this sight because he saw that this little child was in his own world (115). No matter what was going on, cars driving by him, parents not concerned about him, the little boy could escape to this imaginary world and not care about anything else. And when Holden saw this mindset-illusionary world-of a child, he longed for it because he wants to escape and leave the hustle and bustle of the city, and his depression. He enjoys the thought of working in a far off ranch, and his summers in Maine with Jane because those are the exact places that create that illusionary world.
Holden also is preoccupied with children because he himself has not matured, and is in the insecure stage of finding oneself. Holden can relate to children because they have a positive outlook on life, because they don't know what to expect. They haven't been molded or influenced by any evils of the real world. They aren't guarded or fake. And with Holden calling every adult or peer a "phony" the audience sees both Holden's hate for the world he has to grow into and his love for the world and bond with children-with purity.
Thus, Holden feels obligated to be the keeper of this purity: "I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all" (173). Holden can't see himself holding any real profession, but he has found a "self"-defined duty to keep children running in the fields and not growing up. Holden wants children to live out their life of innocence and be natural, so they don't see the real world that he, himself, has been trying to avoid.
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Holden has been evading becoming an adult because of the corruption and sin that adults possess, but he can't admit that he possesses the same impurities, showing his immaturity and ignorance to the real world. Holden doesn't understand it is inevitable to grow up, and he cannot keep any person from maturing and experiencing failure and true happiness. When he "started to cry," Holden realized that he can't keep running away from this life and knows he has to act his age (179). He "couldn't help" crying because he now knows that he has been corrupted and grown up; thus, he is thrown into this chaos, because he can't act like a child and cannot exist in childhood, and the adult world is foreign to him. He starts heavily smoking and the crying becomes more frequent, and Holden even tries to disappear from the chaotic world by leaving the city. Phoebe asks to go with Holden, but he replies, "I'm going alone" (206). Phoebe looks up to her older brother and enjoys spending time with him, but Holden doesn't want Phoebe to miss her childhood-he doesn't want her to end up like himself; thus, he turns down her want to leave with him. Holden's "coming of age" doesn't look possible, but once he spends time with his one and only sister, he understands why he is alive.
When Holden takes Phoebe to the zoo, and she sees the carrousel was open in the winter, Phoebe asks, "aren't you gonna ride too?" (211). Holden sits this ride out, signifying his want and acceptance to leaving the child's world. Holden is allowing himself to grow; he realizes it is the only way for him to live. While Holden stands and watches Phoebe it starts raining and at that moment Holden "felt so damn happy" (213). Holden is content with his moving on. He hasn't become a true adult, but he has matured and been able to watch Phoebe enjoy her childhood, and has been happy for her. Holden can let children live their life, and he now knows that everyone must grow and learn. Now with the new realization, Holden decides to both not leave and apply himself in school (212, 213). He has made a complete turn in his life. He is ready to face whatever failures and successes that are in his future because he decided not to try and escape to the country or another world-like a child would have. Thus, Holden has opened up his mind and let himself understand that he can't change the fact that he is going to grow into an adult.
"I sort of miss everybody I told you about," Holden admits to the reader (214). By Holden acknowledging he misses all the people and children he has met throughout the book, the reader realizes that he has moved past that part of his life. Holden has been able to look back on his life and accept all the pain and misconceptions he has experienced. His childish state of mind has gone; and thus, Holden realized he could never be the "catcher in the rye," and prevent children from growing. Holden knows he has an obligation to be an adult figure to children, and through that epiphany Holden really "came into his own."
Salinger, J.D. The Catcher in the Rye. New York: Little, Brown Books, 1945.