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Free Study Guide-The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger-Free BookNotes
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Chapter 12


On the way to the bar in a taxi, a depressed Holden mentally complains that he always gets "those vomity kind of cabs." Once again Holden tries to strike up a conversation with the driver and find out where the ducks take refuge in winter. The taxi-driver scowls at his question and begins to talk about fish instead. As earlier, Holden asks the taxi-driver to have a drink with him and is again rejected.

Holden enters Ernie’s and is surprised at how crowded it is at such a late hour. He is shown to yet another bad table, at which he is able to hear the miserable conversations of the couples on either side of him. While Holden sits there smoking and drinking, a girl named Lillian Simmons comes up to him and asks about his brother D.B., whom she once dated. She introduces the sailor who is with her and asks Holden if he would like to join them. Holden refuses the offer, saying he is about to leave. Holden is immediately sad that he told this lie, for he now feels compelled to leave since he has said he was going.


Holden is obsessed about the fate of the Central Park ducks in the same way he is obsessed about Jane’s date with Stradlater. On the way to Ernie’s, he again asks the taxi driver about them, and his question is like a sad, repeated refrain heard often in the novel. The reader now understands that the ducks are really a symbol for Holden, and he is really asking where can he go and how he can escape the unbearable. The taxi drivers never have an answer about the ducks, just as Holden has no answer about his miserable existence. The constant repetition of the duck question serves to unify the plot and strengthen the picture of the frustrated, trapped existence that Holden is stuck in. Similarly, his descriptions of his journeys by train and taxi are reflective of the mechanical nature of his life and enhance the quest motif of the novel.

Holden’s depression increases at Ernie’s, largely because of the people seated around him. He desperately wants and needs human contact, but he cannot view the people in the bar as human. On one side of Holden, some guy is "giving his girlfriend a feel under the table" while telling her about someone who almost committed suicide. On the other side, an unattractive guy talks to his interested but even more unattractive date about football. Holden is disgusted by both couples and also by Lillian and her sailor. Holden seems to harbor a deep-seated resentment for those who are the center of attention, part of the in-crowd to which he will never belong.

Holden’s thoughts about the proprietor, Ernie, are in a similar vein. Ernie has "a big damn mirror in front of the piano, with this big spot light on him, so that everybody could watch his face while he played." He also attracts attention by "putting all these dumb, show-offy ripples in the high notes, and a lot of other very tricky stuff", to which the crowd reacts with a lot of cheering. Holden feels sad that an artist sells himself out to the crowd in order to gain approval. He feels that Ernie has succeeded in the total commercialization of art, which is vulgar to Holden.

In Holden’s opinion, the approval of the general public is a detriment to any good thing. When a person becomes a part of the in-crowd, the soul seems to be lost. Popularity has destroyed the writing of D.B., the music of Ernie, and the sensitivity of Stradlater.

There is deep irony in this chapter. Holden goes to the bar because he desperately wants to be around people, to leave his isolation behind; but his depressed state of mind will not let him connect to anything. Everything he sees and hears is painted in a negative light. The taxi is "vomity." The couples seated beside him engage in "miserable" conversation. Ernie is "vulgar" as he sells out his art to popularity. Even the personal invitation to sit with Lillian and the sailor is disgusting to him. When he leaves Ernie’s, he is more depressed than ever.

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