Free Study Guide for The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger

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Holden visits Mr. Spencer, and their conversation inevitably turns to Holdenís failure in school and his pitiful career as a student. As the visit progresses, Holden grows increasingly impatient and annoyed with old Mr. Spencer for pointing out all of his shortcomings. Mr. Spencer forces Holden to listen as he reads aloud from one of Holdenís most recent papers, which is a shoddily written, half-done report on mummies. Mr. Spencer then reads the note that Holden has written on the bottom of the report, apologizing for his failure to perform well on the paper. In the note, Holden reassures the professor that he is not a bad teacher. The failure rests in Holden alone. Nonetheless, Holden is mortified by what has transpired at this meeting. He feels worse than when he came and cannot wait to escape Mr. Spencerís house.


Much is learned about Holden in this chapter. First, he expresses admiration for the elderly teacher, who "if you thought about him just enough and not too much, you could figure it out that he wasnít doing too bad for himself". Evidently he respects the old man enough to pay him a visit on a Saturday night. While visiting with the teacher, it is apparent that Holden is simply not a student. The teacher criticizes his lack of effort and even reads from one of Holdenís reports, which is unacceptably completed. It is significant that Holden himself writes a note on the bottom of the work, which reveals his sensitive side. He apologizes for not doing well on the report and confirms that he to blame for his failure, not the teacher. In other words, Holden is very aware of his own lack of effort, but does nothing to correct it. In schoolwork, like in life, Holden seems bored and unchallenged.

In a stream-of-consciousness manner, Holdenís mind begins to wander in this scene. Instead of concentrating on Spencerís words, he begins thinking about where the ducks in Central Park go when the water freezes. The imagery is symbolic, because Holden can identify himself with the ducks--hemmed in and freezing. His wandering thoughts are also an effort to avoid Spencerís questions, especially when he asks, "How do you feel about all this?" The truth of the matter is that Holden, even though he is constantly thinking, is trying desperately not to feel anything. This avoidance is the first foreshadowing that Holden is heading toward a breakdown. He does not want to feel, because it hurts too much; but running from his feelings creates desperation and resolves nothing.

This scene marks the first of many in the novel where Holden becomes disillusioned with someone. Many of the people whom Holden has once admired, such as Spencer, become suddenly pathetic and phony to him. To indicate Holdenís negative attitude toward Spencer, the boy notices, as if for the first time, that the teacher is aging and ill; he is also filled with unpleasant smells and sounds, an image of death and destruction approaching. Holden is suddenly repulsed by and alienated from Spencer. The rest of the book will be filled with similar images of Holdenís sense of repulsion, alienation, and doom.


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