Illustration of a man smoking a cigarette

The Catcher in the Rye

by J. D. Salinger

Start Free Trial

What does Mr. Spencer mean when he tells Holden in The Catcher in the Rye, "Life is a game, boy. Life is a game that one plays according to the rules"?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

One way to interpret Mr. Spencer's advice is through the theory of social contract , a philosophical/theoretical agreement that exists, unspoken, in a civilized society. The core idea is that in order to live in a peaceful, organized, and safe community, individuals are required to give up certain rights...

This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

and pick up some duties—or, like Mr. Spencer says, to "play the game." It is a state all people live in, although adults are understandably more aware of it and more involved. Holden, clinging stubbornly to adolescence, does not want to be a part of it.

The social contract is necessary and beneficial, however. Featuring heavily in the works of great philosophers like Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, the opposite of the contract is anarchy. While that may appeal to some people, history shows that sooner or later everyone is drawn to a more formal system. Holden thinks that people who play the game of life are "phony," but the truth is that what he really wants is to have all the benefits of the contract and none of the responsibilities.

It is true that some laws and rules of a society are less important than others. For example, most of us have jaywalked at some point in our lives, and it's generally fairly harmless. There are plenty of things that need doing that nobody enjoys, too, like garbage disposal and taxes and dealing with people who aren't that pleasant. What Holden fails to understand is that what's important to an individual is not that important to society at large, which is composed of people just like him.

No one else particularly cares that he needs to express his teenage angst and frustration. If every person stopped being "phony" in Holden's book, it's very doubtful that he'd enjoy it. Imagine a world where no one bothered to be polite when they had a bad day or never sugar-coated anything. That, too, is a part of the social contract as much as following the laws. People have agreed, more or less, to not bother each other in exchange for not being bothered themselves.

To be fair to Holden, he lacks life experience to teach him all that. He thinks the "game" means losing all personality and hiding the truth, but it doesn't have to. A person can play by the rules and still be themselves, simply by showing others the kind of sympathy they themselves would like to receive. We may dislike parts of the playbook, but on the other hand, we require its protection. That doesn't come free of charge. Mr. Spencer is merely trying to tell Holden that although life is a game, it's still possible to play it fairly and well.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Mr. Spencer is Holden Caufield’s history teacher at Pency Prep. He is the only teacher that Holden seems to like in the book, and that is why he apologizes when he writes a terrible paper and flunks the course. Holden is a troubled teen, full of angst and angry at the entire world. He thinks that most adults are phony, and he is apathetic about school in general—he doesn’t think it matters that much, like much of what adults believe is necessary.

When Mr. Spencer tells him that life is a game, he is essentially telling Holden that he needs to fake it until he makes it—really, do what you need even to don’t feel like it. What Mr. Spencer tells Holden is right: being an adult often means doing things because you have to, not because you want to—but Holden doesn’t understand that he is moving from childhood to adulthood.

Holden ultimately rejects Mr. Spencer’s advice. He doesn’t understand what Spencer is trying to explain to him, instead of thinking it is just Mr. Spencer being a part of the phony world of adults,

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. (Chapter 2)

Holden’s rejection of Mr. Spencer’s advice is significant because it fits into his worldview for the entire novel. His rejection of school and the world of adults makes a lot of sense when you consider his rejection of the advice that Mr. Spencer gives to help him navigate the world of adults.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

At seventeen, Holden Caulfield is the epitome of teen angst. He sees the majority of people as being "phony" and he struggles against societal norms that would have him live a disingenuous life. When Mr. Spencer tells Holden that "life is a game that one plays according to the rules," he is cautioning Holden about his behavior. Mr. Spencer is old enough to know how society works, and he knows that some things are difficult, if not impossible, to change.

Playing by the rules of the game is how Mr. Spencer believes people become successful. Although it seems that he truly does like Holden, he still flunks him. He doesn't do so without at least trying to give Holden some parting words of wisdom. Telling Holden that life is a game with rules is Mr. Spencer's way of creating an analogy he thinks Holden can relate to on a simpler level. He believes Holden should mature past his teenage rebellious nature and learn to play the game of life correctly. He should study hard, do well in school, obtain an education, and then get a job and start a family. He should follow the unwritten rules of the society in which he lives. For further reading about Holden and his relationship with Mr. Spencer, you can follow the link below. Hope this helps!

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Explain Holden's response to Mr. Spencer's admonition to Holden that "life is a game played according to the rules."

To a certain extent, Holden feels a bit dismayed at the cliched setting and advice that Spencer offers.  On one level, Holden understands that Spencer cares for him and this is evident in the fact that he wished to meet with him.  On the other hand, Holden feels that Mr. Spencer has genuine and sincere feelings for his well- being.  This is contrary to the attitude at Pencey and what Holden perceives to be the overall perspective of adults, whom he considers to be phony.  The awkwardness at which Spencer seeks to establish that bond with Holden by using cliches and platitudes is something that Holden notes as representative of his overall association with adults.  In the end, Holden understands that Spencer wishes the best for him, but cannot fully embrace the expression of it because it possesses the look and feel of the in-authenticity that he feels is a part of so much human interaction.

Last Updated on