“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.
[Ackley] took another look at my hat . . . “Up home we wear a hat like that to shoot deer in, for Chrissake,” he said. “That’s a deer shooting hat.”
“Like hell it is.” I took it off and looked at it. I sort of closed one eye, like I was taking aim at it. “This is a people shooting hat,” I said. “I shoot people in this hat.”
This brief passage occurs in Chapter 3, after Holden has returned to his dorm room and is being pestered by Ackley. Of all the places in the novel where Holden discusses his hat, the most famous and recognizable symbol in the book, this is probably the most enlightening. It is obvious from the start that Holden uses the hat as a mark of individuality and independence. Here, we see how deeply his desire for independence is connected to his feeling of alienation, to the bitterness he has for the rest of the world. Of course, Holden will not really shoot people in this hat, but it remains a symbol of his scorn for convention. Holden nevertheless does “shoot people” in his own way: when he is in this cynical frame of mind, he expends all of his mental energy denigrating the people around him. He desires independence because he feels that the world is an inhospitable, ugly place that, he feels, deserves only contempt.
The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move. . . . Nobody’d be different. The only thing that would be different would be you.
This passage, in which Holden explains why he loves the Museum of Natural History, is located in Chapter 16. Killing time before his date with Sally, Holden decides to walk from Central Park to the Museum of Natural History. Along the way, he remembers in detail his school trips to the museum. Holden has already demonstrated that he fears and does not know how to deal with conflict, confusion, and change. The museum presents him with a vision of life he can understand: it is frozen, silent, and always the same. Holden can think about and judge the Eskimo in the display case, but the Eskimo will never judge him back. It troubles him that he has changed each time he returns, while the museum’s displays remain completely the same. They represent the simple, idealistic, manageable vision of life that Holden wishes he could live.
It is significant that in the final sentence Holden uses the second-person pronoun “you” instead of the first-person “me.” It seems to be an attempt to distance himself from the inevitable process of change. But the impossibility of such a fantasy is the tragedy of Holden’s situation: rather than face the challenges around him, he retreats to a fantasy world of his own making. When he actually gets to the museum, he decides not to go in; that would require disturbing his fragile imaginative construction by making it encounter the real world. He wants life to remain frozen like the display cases in the museum.
. . . I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff—I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all.
This, the passage in which Holden reveals the source of the book’s title, is perhaps the most famous in the book. It occurs in Chapter 22, after Holden has slipped quietly back into his apartment and is speaking with Phoebe. They talk, argue, and then reconcile, and Phoebe asks Holden what he wants to do with his life. Holden responds with this image, which reveals his fantasy of idealistic childhood and of his role as the protector of innocence. His response makes sense, given what we already know about Holden: he prefers to retreat into his own imaginary view of the world rather than deal with the complexities of the world around him. He has a cynical, oversimplified view of other people, and a large part of his fantasy world is based on the idea that children are simple and innocent while adults are superficial and hypocritical. The fact that he is having this conversation with Phoebe, a child who is anything but simple and innocent, reveals the oversimplification of his worldview. Holden himself realizes this to a degree when he acknowledges that his idea is “crazy,” yet he cannot come up with anything more pragmatic; he has trouble seeing the world in any other way. His catcher in the rye fantasy reflects his innocence, his belief in pure, uncorrupted youth, and his desire to protect that spirit; on the other hand, it represents his extreme disconnection from reality and his naïve view of the world.
“I have a feeling that you’re riding for some kind of terrible, terrible fall. . . . The whole arrangement’s designed for men who, at some time or other in their lives, were looking for something their own environment couldn’t supply them with. . . . So they gave up looking.”
The conversation in which Mr. Antolini speaks these words takes place in Chapter 24. Holden has just left his parents’ apartment, following his conversation with Phoebe, and he is reaching a point of critical instability, having just burst into tears when Phoebe lent him her Christmas money. He goes to Mr. Antolini’s because he feels he can trust and confide in him—it seems to be his final chance to save himself. But Holden’s interaction with Mr. Antolini is the event that precipitates his full-blown breakdown. It completely unsettles him, and leaves him feeling confused and unsure. While most of Holden’s confusion stems from what he interprets as a homosexual come-on from Mr. Antolini, some of it stems from the conversation they have. Both the conversation and Mr. Antolini’s head-rubbing serve a similar purpose: they upset Holden’s view of the way things are or the way he believes they ought to be.
Mr. Antolini’s words here resonate with the desires Holden has just expressed to Phoebe: like the catcher in the rye that Holden envisions, Mr. Antolini is trying to catch Holden in the midst of a “fall.” But the fall Mr. Antolini describes is very different from the one Holden had imagined. Holden pictured an idyllic world of childhood innocence from which children would fall into a dangerous world; Mr. Antolini describes Holden in an apathetic free fall—giving up, disengaging himself from the world, falling in a void removed from life around him. In both cases, we sense that although Holden envisions himself as the protector rather than the one to be protected, he is the one who really needs to be caught. Mr. Antolini guesses that Holden feels disconnected from his environment, and, as we have already seen, his assessment is accurate. Holden has isolated himself in an attempt to be his own savior, but Mr. Antolini’s image of falling presents a more accurate image of what awaits Holden on the other side of the “cliff.” It thus reveals the weaknesses of Holden’s romantic outlook.