In a way, the carousel is reminiscent of the statues in the Museum of Natural History, because, like them, it never changes. It continues to move in circles and always stays in the same pace; it stays the same while the children who ride it continue to grow older. It would seem, then, that the pleasure Holden takes in watching Phoebe ride is, like his moments at the museum and watching Phoebe sleep, self-deceptive.
But Holden does show some signs of growth. He comments: “All the kids kept trying to grab for the gold ring, and so was old Phoebe . . . but I didn’t say anything . . . if they want to grab the gold ring, you have to let them do it . . . If they fall off, they fall off.” Holden’s pronouncement references his emendation of his “catcher in the rye” fantasy. Now he has come to terms with the idea that every child will eventually “fall”—out of innocence and into adulthood. Holden cannot prevent them from doing it or save them, just as he cannot prevent or save himself from becoming an adult. This recognition brings about a huge emotional release for him, and he begins to cry; the sky emulates him with a thunderstorm. Most of the other adults take refuge under the carousel’s canopy, but Holden stays out in the rain. Whether we are meant to take this action as one of defiance or acceptance is, like the remainder of the novel’s ending, unclear.
Though Holden never describes his psychological breakdown directly, it becomes clear as the novel progresses that he is growing increasingly unstable. How does Salinger indicate this instability to the reader while protecting his narrator’s reticence?
Salinger uses two main techniques with great efficiency. The first is to emphasize a contrast between Holden’s relatively casual description of his actions and the apparent desperation of the actions themselves. When Holden describes walking to the Central Park duck pond late at night, for instance, he casually mentions that he had icicles in his hair and worried about catching pneumonia, but he does not seem to consider it strange to walk outdoors with wet hair in freezing weather. It does seem strange to the reader, however, and Salinger uses that sense of strangeness, as well as Holden’s apparent obliviousness to it, to emphasize his mental imbalance. His other technique is to provide alternative viewpoints in the other characters’ responses to Holden’s behavior as guidelines. For instance, when Holden has his meltdown with Sally and tries to persuade her to flee society and live with him in a cabin, she repeatedly asks him to stop shouting. In his account of the…