Once inside Mr. Spencer’s house, Holden feels depressed. He doesn’t like the way the house smells or looks, and he can’t stop thinking about how old Mr. Spencer is. As he approaches the bedroom in which his teacher is resting, he thinks about the fact that Mr. Spencer can’t even pick up a piece of chalk when he drops it during class. Holden thinks this is unspeakably depressing—a feeling that only intensifies when he enters Mr. Spencer’s bedroom and is overwhelmed by the smell of Vicks Nose Drops and the sight of Spencer’s old, bumpy chest in his tattered bathrobe.
Holden’s thoughts about Mr. Spencer reveal how uncomfortable he is with the idea of aging. When he thinks about Mr. Spencer struggling to pick up a piece of chalk, he finds himself feeling quite sad—a feeling that only intensifies when he sees his teacher’s wrinkled skin. Simply put, Mr. Spencer serves as concrete evidence that it’s impossible to avoid growing up. Because Holden’s future is so unsure (as a result of his expulsion), he finds the unavoidable process of getting older quite troubling and depressing, since it further emphasizes how little control he has over his life’s trajectory.
Mr. Spencer greets Holden warmly and claims to be feeling great despite his appearance. Before long, he brings up Holden’s imminent departure from Pencey and asks what Dr. Thurmer said to him, adding that he heard the headmaster had a frank talk with him. Holden explains that Thurmer told him life is a game and that a person must play by the rules. Mr. Spencer agrees with this sentiment, and Holden assures him that he believes this, too, though he privately concedes that life is really only a game for people on the winning side, thinking that this entire theory is ridiculous.
Dr. Thurmer’s assertion that life is a game is a perfect example of the kind of “phony” mindset that Holden hates. Unable to get himself to care about living up to expectations, Holden rejects the general conceit that life is a game, since this theory frames existence as little more than a rat race. Since Holden doesn’t see the point of applying himself in endeavors like academics, he has trouble accepting that a person should go through life thinking of existence so narrow-mindedly, though it’s worth mentioning that he himself doesn’t seem to have thought of an alternative approach.
Mr. Spencer asks Holden if his parents know about his expulsion yet, and Holden explains that Dr. Thurmer is going to send them a letter on Monday. When Spencer asks how his parents will take the news, the young man admits that they’ll be quite upset, since this is the fourth school he’s been kicked out of. “Boy!” he exclaims, trying to show Spencer how much he cares about the situation. He then internally reflects upon his use of the word “Boy!” thinking that it’s a rather childish thing to say. Nonetheless, Holden notes that he says “Boy!” quite a lot, admitting that he’s often rather immature, though he has grey hairs on one side of his head. He also says that many people call him immature, and though he agrees that this is true, he’s quick to point out that it isn’t completely true.
That Pencey is the fourth school Holden has been kicked out of suggests that his lack of motivation is part of a larger pattern in his life. It also suggests that his expulsion from Pencey most likely won’t encourage him to apply himself in the future, since he has already gone through this process before and apparently gotten nothing out of it. When he pretends to be upset about the situation, it becomes obvious that he’s well-versed in tricking adults into thinking he’s remorseful. This behavior demonstrates that although Holden decries other people for being “phony,” this attitude is hypocritical, since he himself is not above using phoniness to get what he wants. Ironically enough, he pretends to be mature by recognizing his immaturity, giving people like Mr. Spencer the impression that he has learned something valuable when, in reality, he has no intentions of changing his ways.
Mr. Spencer comments that he once met Holden’s parents, whom he thinks are “grand” people. This statement irritates Holden, who can’t stand the word “grand” because he thinks it’s very “phony.” As he thinks this, Mr. Spencer goes on at length about how Holden needs to apply himself, reminding him that he failed History because he knew absolutely nothing about what Spencer spent the entire semester teaching. He then instructs Holden to fetch the essay he wrote about the Ancient Egyptians, which is sitting on his dresser. When Holden complies, Spencer makes him listen as he reads the essay aloud, embarrassing him as he repeats what Holden himself already knows he wrote. He even reads the postscript that Holden included in the essay, which notes that Holden will understand if Spencer fails him.
By making Holden listen to his own inadequate essay, Mr. Spencer hopes to shame the young man into wanting to apply himself in the future. He also tries to make Holden see that he will continue to regret his actions if he keeps coasting through life—after all, it’s embarrassing for Holden to listen to his pathetic essay. Unfortunately, though, Holden is more focused on whether or not Spencer is a “phony” than on learning from his own mistakes.
After reading Holden’s essay aloud, Mr. Spencer asks if Holden blames him for flunking him. Holden assures him that he doesn’t, but he can see that Mr. Spencer feels bad about having failed him. For this reason, Holden goes on at length about how he would have done the same thing in Spencer’s position and how it must be difficult to be a teacher. Although he says these things, though, he knows he’s only “shooting the bull” to make Spencer feel better. In fact, he’s so good at being dishonest in this way that he doesn’t even have to focus on what he’s saying, so he thinks about the ducks that congregate in a lagoon in Central Park, wondering where they go during the winter.
Holden is acutely aware of whether or not people are being authentic, which is why it’s rather strange that he allows himself to “shoot the bull.” This again suggests that he isn’t all that self-aware, since he doesn’t hold himself to the same rigorous standards to which he holds everyone else. The fact that he thinks about the ducks in the Central Park lagoon is also noteworthy, since it hints at his resistance to change—as he considers where they go during the winter, he grapples with the idea that living beings must constantly adapt to the world, something he himself has trouble doing.
As Holden goes on at length, Mr. Spencer cuts him off and asks how he feels about failing out of Pencey. He also points out that Holden left Elkton Hills and Whooton, and he asks why this is the case. Thinking Spencer wouldn’t understand, Holden tells him only that it’s a long story, though he privately tells the reader that he wanted out of Elkton Hills because he was “surrounded by phonies,” especially the headmaster, who only gave his time to the wealthier, better-looking parents.
That Holden left Elkton Hills voluntarily is significant, since it underscores just how much he dislikes being “surrounded by phonies.” Of course, readers have just seen that Holden is often rather phony himself, but this doesn’t bother him because he’s primarily concerned with whether or not other people are authentic or honest about who they are. For this reason, he can’t stand the idea of somebody like his former headmaster paying more attention to wealthy parents than anyone else.
When Mr. Spencer encourages Holden to plan for the future, Holden decides he has had enough. Although he recognizes that Spencer genuinely wants to help him, he thinks they’ll never be able to understand each other because of their many differences. To that end, he thinks that he and Spencer are on opposing sides of a spectrum, creating a gap he thinks is impossible to bridge. With this in mind, he lies and says he has to collect his things from the gym so that he can pack them. On his way out, he hears Mr. Spencer call after him, and though he isn’t certain what the old man says, he thinks he can make out the words, “Good luck.” This is an expression that Holden hates, and it makes him depressed to think that this is the last thing Spencer chooses to say to him.
Holden’s belief that Mr. Spencer will never be able to understand how he feels is quite naïve. Although Holden feels like he’s the only person experiencing feelings of disillusionment with the world, what he fails to recognize is that most people go through a phase (often in their teenage years) of questioning the “phoniness” of their surroundings. Rather than understanding that Mr. Spencer has most likely had similar thoughts at some point in his life, though, Holden sees him as utterly unrelatable. This is because he thinks of Spencer and himself as occupying two sides of a spectrum, forever removed from one another because of their age difference. In turn, Holden’s strange conception of what it means to grow up brings itself to the forefront of the novel once again, and he finds himself unable to appreciate Spencer’s well wishes, clearly thinking that the phrase “Good luck” is depressing because it implies that he will have to overcome challenges in his future.