“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 is from an exchange of opinions between Holden and one of his teachers at Pencey in Chapter 2. The teacher explains the way the world works and we can clearly see the contempt Holden has for both the teacher and what he is saying. Holden completely identifies with those on the other side of the game. The mere fact that life is explained as a “game” is utterly offensive to Holden.
Life is not a game and those who operate as if it were just a game are the problem in life and the world. At the same time, we see in Holden’s attitude here that he has shut himself off to the world. He is closed off in his own cynical bubble and unwilling to listen to others. His teacher is giving him this advice because Holden is in fact failing out of school.
[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 occurs in Chapter 3 as Ackley barges in and begins bothering Holden. We see Holden become defensive over his red hunting hat. The hat is a symbol of Holden’s sense of individuality. Holden sees this hat as a true expression of his difference from the herd of humanity. At the same time, we can see how defensive Holden becomes in this moment. Holden’s own internal insecurities are betrayed in these lines as he overstates his case by claiming he is going to shoot people. Holden’s beliefs are flimsy as he is confronted with a world that is not what he wants it to be.
“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.”
In Chapter 16 Holden visits the Natural History Museum. Here he explains the virtues of the exhibits contained under glass. He clearly idealizes the immutable things that are preserved in the museum. These things will forever remain in the state they are in and Holden sees this as an image of the perfection he so desires. It is crucial to note here that Holden switches to the second person “you” instead of the first person. In this way, he removes himself from the taint of changeable nature that he sees in others but will not recognize in himself.
“. . . 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.”
These lines obviously state the title, but they also encapsulate Holden’s view of life. To be the catcher in the rye is to remain the guardian of innocence forever and without ever changing. He wants to remain this guardian forever and without fail. The perfection of an image of the adult world that never disappoints or causes harm, and the perfection of childlike innocence in the children at play are all in these lines. The storybook fantasy also represents just how unrealistic Holden’s beliefs actually are. He is unwilling to confront life and his cynicism stems from his inability to be the man he wishes others could be.