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This chapter gives us a good picture of how Holden sees himself, especially in relation to the adult world. In talking with his history teacher, Mr. Spencer, Holden constantly swings back and forth between what Spencer wants to hear and what he himself feels to be true.
He gives us a short sketch of Spencer as a man he thinks is too old to still be 2living, much less teaching. But then he admits that even people as old as the Spencers can enjoy things as simple as buying an authentic Navajo blanket.
This sudden reversal illustrates another of Holden's interesting characteristics-his need to look at both sides of a question, even when he seems to have a strong opinion favoring one side. This trait keeps him from totally disliking anyone, because as soon as be becomes angry at someone, he thinks of the person's human side and tempers his opinion. The same characteristic keeps him from deciding many things about himself.
Holden has come to the home of his history teacher, who is sick in bed, even though he knew in advance that he wouldn't enjoy the visit. still, he wasn't prepared for just how depressing the scene would be, and he regrets coming as soon as he walks into Spencer's bedroom. Throughout the visit Holden is uncomfortable and eager to leave.
As he talks with his teacher, Holden often mimics both the speech and the sentiments of adults. When he says he hasn't "communicated" with his parents, for example, he uses a word from Spencer's question, not from his everyday vocabulary. He does this often when he's talking with adults, not to impress them, but to hide his feelings of inferiority.
When he mimics adult sentiments, however, he uses them as a protective shield for his real feelings. Read what he says about Dr. Thurmer's comment that life is a game; then read how he really feels about that comment.
Why does Holden pretend to agree that life is a game when he feels so strongly that it isn't? Is it because he wants Mr. Spencer to think he's not such a "bad kid" after all? Or does he want to avoid arguing with Spencer (and with Thurmer) for some reason? As you learn more about Holden, you'll begin to form an opinion on that question and others like it. At this point it may be too early for you to tell.
Although Holden doesn't believe that life is a game, he does hold himself responsible for not measuring up like everyone else he knows. He berates himself for having "a lousy vocabulary," for acting young for his age, and for displeasing teachers like Spencer. He goes his own way often enough to have been expelled from four schools, but something inside him keeps telling him that he should be doing what other people do. You'll want to keep this personality conflict in mind as you read.
In this chapter Holden picks up on something he mentioned only briefly before, a topic he'll return to again and again. The topic is phonies.
He told us in the first chapter that Pencey Prep's ad campaign was a phony, "strictly for the birds." Early in this chapter he's caught short by the word grand, a word he says he hates because it's a phony.
When Spencer mentions one of Holden's earlier schools, he decides not to try to explain his trouble there to Spencer because it "wasn't up his alley at all." He was "surrounded by phonies" at that school, Holden tells us, and his teacher wouldn't understand what he meant by that.
Even the headmaster was a phony there because he wouldn't spend much time with "little old funny-looking parents" on visiting day. Holden calls people phony because they are less perfect than he wants them to be. He is also at an age where it is easier to judge people than to try to understand them.
Holden's urge to protect the weak and vulnerable leads him to wonder (while he's giving Spencer "the old bull" about what a terrible student he is) about the ducks on the pond in Central Park in New York City. What happens to those ducks when the pond freezes during the winter? Does someone take care of them, or do they fly to a warmer climate? Like all sensitive adolescents, Holden has come to recognize the existence of sorrow and suffering in the world, and refuses to accept its inevitability.