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CHAPTERS 20 & 21
Holden is repeating himself, going around in circles that are becoming smaller and smaller. At the beginning of Chapter 20, still in the bar and drinking heavily after Luce has left him, he asks a waiter to invite one of the female dancers to have a drink with him. The waiter says he'll deliver the message, but Holden doubts that he will. "People never give your message to anybody," he says.
Compare this to the scene at Ernie's in Chapter 12 when he told a waiter to invite Ernie to his table for a drink. His comment on that waiter was almost exactly the same.
Holden gets so drunk that he has to dunk his head in a sink filled with cold water. He goes out and starts walking uptown toward the lake in Central Park. outside in the cold air, the water begins to freeze in his hair, and he starts thinking about catching pneumonia and dying.
He talks about this in the same offhand tone he uses for everything, so it would be easy to miss its significance. Review his situation for a minute. He's drunk; he has no money left; he's freezing; he's been thrown out of school; he can't go home; he has no other friends to call; he's desperate for someone to talk to; he's even more desperate for someone to tell him what to do; and he has no reason to think his situation will be better in the morning.
When he talks about dying, it isn't in the same way he pretended to have a bullet in his stomach, after the elevator operator had punched him in the hotel room. Dying would be a relief to him. It would solve all the problems he can't get a grip on. From his angle, getting pneumonia might be the best thing that's happened to him in a long time.
He has these thoughts, and the thoughts about Allie in the cemetery, while he's at the lake in Central Park. He's still curious about those ducks, which he finds are gone now that the lake is frozen.
Remember Holden's need to protect the vulnerable. His concern for the ducks is one expression of that need. He may have lost his perspective by giving the ducks more importance than they should have. But his concern comes from the same urge that makes him worry about Jane Gallagher and about Phoebe having to grow up.
Now you're finally about to meet Phoebe. Holden leaves the deserted lake, intent on sneaking into his apartment and talking with his sister. He describes his "breaking and entering" in a funny passage at the beginning of Chapter 21.
Pay special attention to everything he says about Phoebe. When he talks about her, Holden is happy. He becomes tender and avoids the wisecracks that usually fill his sentences. Everything he says sounds touching. He's telling you about the only living person he loves.
Not only does he love her, but she's also a child, and children are among the vulnerable people. As you saw in Chapter 16, children make Holden very happy. In this chapter he says, "I can read that kind of stuff, some kid's notebook... all day and all night long. Kid's notebooks kill me."
When he wakes Phoebe up and talks to her, you'll see why he loves her so. She's bright, articulate, and mature for her age, the kind of little sister any teenage boy would love to have.
There are two things to note especially in Holden and Phoebe's conversation. First, Phoebe's announcement of the exciting news that they have a radio in the car is a detail that reminds you that the novel was written in the 1940s. Second, when Phoebe realizes why Holden is home three days early, she begins to sound like his older sister.
You'll see more of that in the next chapter.