“Life is a game, boy. Life is a game that one plays according to the rules.”
“Yes, sir. I know it is. I know it.”
Game, my ass. Some game. If you get on the side where all the hot-shots are, then it’s a game, all right—I’ll admit that. But if you get on the other side, where there aren’t any hot-shots, then what’s a game about it? Nothing. No game.
This quotation is from Holden’s conversation with Spencer in Chapter 2. His former teacher is needling him about his failures at Pencey; at this point, he lectures Holden about the importance of playing by the rules. The conversation succinctly illuminates key aspects of Holden’s character. We see his silent contempt for adults, which is evidenced by the silent ridiculing and cursing of Spencer that Holden hides beneath his nodding, compliant veneer. We also see how alienated he feels. He clearly identifies with those on the “other side” of the game, and he feels alone and victimized, as though the world is against him. At this point in the novel, Holden’s sense of disadvantage and corresponding bitterness seem somewhat strange, given his circumstances: he’s clearly a bright boy from a privileged New York family. As the book progresses, however, we learn that Holden has built a cynical psychological armor around himself to protect himself from the complexities of the world.