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Holden tries to coax Phoebe out of her anger, but she is too disappointed. She knows that the family will once again be thrown into chaos with the news of Holden’s most recent expulsion. Each time Holden tries to steer the conversation away from his actions, Phoebe draws him back in. Finally, Phoebe challenges Holden to name any one thing that he really likes, and asks him what he would like to become. After some thought Holden tells her that he wants to be the catcher in the rye. Phoebe’s response after a long silence is, "Daddy’s going to kill you". Holden says he does not care; then goes into the living room to call Mr. Antolini, his English teacher from Elkton Hills.
Holden manages to coax Phoebe into talking to him again, but she insists they talk about his problems. Holden tells her not to worry; he is going to go out west and live on a ranch. Phoebe reminds him practically that he cannot even ride a horse. She adds insult to injury by saying, "I suppose you failed every subject again" and inquires as to why. Holden cries out in anguish, "Oh God, Phoebe, don’t ask me. I’m sick of everybody asking me that." Up to this point, however, only Mr. Spencer has asked Holden these questions. His outcry suggests that he has been asking himself the same question over and again.
Holden goes off on a tangent. He tells Phoebe that artificiality has penetrated to the very core of human beings, so that even Mr. Spencer, in order to keep his job, would "practically kill himself chuckling and smiling" when Thurmer interrupted his lectures with "corny jokes". It is the fact that this artificiality abounds in society that troubles Holden. While Stradlater and Maurice are the more obvious symbols of brutality, thoughtlessness and insensitivity are inherent to all the people Holden comes in contact with.
Holden wants to protect children, like Phoebe, from the insensitivity. When he says he wants to be the catcher in the rye, he is saying he wants to protect the innocent children playing and enjoying their youth. He tells Phoebe that when he hears the song about the catcher in the rye, he imagines children playing in a field, innocent and free. But somewhere in that field there is a cliff, and sooner or later, the children will come near the cliff. Holden wants to catch them, keep them from falling off the field. He believes that is his calling to be the catcher, to be their protector. Obviously, since the title comes from this scene, there is symbolic meaning behind Holden’s words. The rye field becomes a symbol for the freedom and purity of childhood. Holden wants to shield the children from the hidden cliff, which symbolizes the cruel realities of the adult world. Children are not phonies; they live and love without artifice and ulterior motives. Holden wants to be a part of that world, not the grown-up world of pretension and cruelty.
Phoebe, ever the realist, points out that Holden has misquoted Burns, for the poem goes, "If a body meet a body coming through the rye", not "if a body catch a body." Her correction suggests that Holden’s goal is unrealistic and impossible, because he does not even know what the song means. Phoebe, his little sister, also understands and accepts that everyone must change. No one can stay in the rye field forever.