Holden Caulfield writes his story from a rest home to which he has been sent for therapy. He refuses to talk about his early life, mentioning only that his brother D. B. is a Hollywood writer. He hints that he is bitter because D. B. has sold out to Hollywood, forsaking a career in serious literature for the wealth and fame of the movies. He then begins to tell the story of his breakdown, beginning with his departure from Pencey Prep, a famous school he attended in Agerstown, Pennsylvania.
Holden’s career at Pencey Prep has been marred by his refusal to apply himself, and after failing four of his five subjects—he passed only English—he has been forbidden to return to the school after the fall term. The Saturday before Christmas vacation begins, Holden stands on Thomsen Hill overlooking the football field, where Pencey plays its annual grudge match against Saxon Hall. Holden has no interest in the game and hadn’t planned to watch it at all. He is the manager of the school’s fencing team and is supposed to be in New York for a meet, but he lost the team’s equipment on the subway, forcing everyone to return early.
Holden is full of contempt for the prep school, but he looks for a way to “say goodbye” to it. He fondly remembers throwing a football with friends even after it grew dark outside. Holden walks away from the game to go say goodbye to Mr. Spencer, a former history teacher who is very old and ill with the flu. He sprints to Spencer’s house, but since he is a heavy smoker, he has to stop to catch his breath at the main gate. At the door, Spencer’s wife greets Holden warmly, and he goes in to see his teacher.
“Life is a game, boy. Life is a game that one plays according to the rules.”
Holden greets Mr. Spencer and his wife in a manner that suggests he is close to them. He is put off by his teacher’s rather decrepit condition but seems otherwise to respect him. In his sickroom, Spencer tries to lecture Holden about his academic failures. He confirms Pencey’s headmaster’s assertion that “[l]ife is a game” and tells Holden that he must learn to play by the rules. Although Spencer clearly feels affection for Holden, he bluntly reminds the boy that he flunked him, and even forces him to listen to the terrible essay he handed in about the ancient Egyptians. Finally, Spencer tries to convince Holden to think about his future. Not wanting to be lectured, Holden interrupts Spencer and leaves, returning to his dorm room before dinner.
Holden Caulfield is the protagonist of The Catcher in the Rye, and the most important function of these early chapters is to establish the basics of his personality. From the beginning of the novel, Holden tells his story in a bitterly cynical voice. He refuses to discuss his early life, he says, because he is bored by “all that David Copperfield kind of crap.” He gives us a hint that something catastrophic has happened in his life, acknowledging that he writes from a rest home to tell about “this madman stuff” that happened to him around the previous Christmas, but he doesn’t yet go into specifics. The particularities of his story are in keeping with his cynicism and his boredom. He has failed out of school, and he leaves Spencer’s house abruptly because he does not enjoy being confronted by his actions.
Beneath the surface of Holden’s tone and behavior runs a more idealistic, emotional current. He begins the story of his last day at Pencey Prep by telling how he stood at the top of Thomsen Hill, preparing to leave the school and trying to feel “some kind of a good-by.” He visits Spencer in Chapter 2 even though he failed Spencer’s history class, and he seems to respond to Mrs. Spencer’s kindness. What bothers him the most, in these chapters and throughout the book, is the hypocrisy and ugliness around him, which diminish the innocence and beauty of the external world—the unpleasantness of Spencer’s sickroom, for instance, and his hairless legs sticking out of his pajamas. Salinger thus treats his narrator as more than a mere portrait of a cynical postwar rich kid at an impersonal and pressure-filled boarding school. Even in these early chapters, Holden connects with life on a very idealistic level; he seems to feel its flaws so deeply that he tries to shield himself with a veneer of cynicism. The Catcher in the Rye is in many ways a book about the betrayal of innocence by the modern world; despite his bitter tone, Holden is an innocent searching desperately for a way to connect with the world around him that will not cause him pain. In these early chapters, the reader already begins to sense that Holden is not an entirely reliable narrator and that the reality of his situation is somehow different from the way he describes it. In part this is simply because Holden is a first-person narrator describing his own experiences from his own point of view. Any individual’s point of view, in any novel or story, is necessarily limited. The reader never forgets for a moment who is telling this story, because the tone, grammar, and diction are consistently those of an adolescent—albeit a highly intelligent and expressive one—and every event receives Holden’s distinctive commentary. However, Holden’s narrative contains inconsistencies that make us question what he says. For instance, Holden characterizes Spencer’s behavior throughout as vindictive and mean-spirited, but Spencer’s actions clearly seem to be motivated by concern for Holden’s well-being. Holden seems to be looking for reasons not to listen to Spencer.