An essay comparing protagonists Holden Cauldfield (The Catcher in the Rye) and Meursault (The Outsider aka The Stranger) on the idea of "playing the game of life".
“Life is a game, boy. Life is a game that one plays according to the rules.”
This advice is spoken by Spenser in The Catcher in the Rye. Holden, of course, ignores this guidance and continues to rebel against “the game”, seeing any conformists towards its “phoney” regulations as insincere. According to Camus, Meursault also “doesn’t play the game” and is absurdly condemned for it as a result whereas Holden never really experiences condemnation. The difference lies in Holden’s choosing of not playing the game and his perception of condemnation. Holden perceives himself to be condemned by society as his self-destructive nature and stunted emotional maturity persuades him that he is an outsider, despite being surrounded by people willing to reach out to him. Holden, of his own volition, chooses not to play the game; Meursault simply isn’t aware that “Life is a game”.
The characterisation of Holden and Meursault shows exactly how they are – or regard themselves as – condemned for not playing the game. Because of Holden’s emotional inarticulacy and his contradictory, confused persona (such as regarding sex: “Sex is something I just don’t understand. I swear to God I don’t”), he believes he is condemned by society for not playing the game when, in actual fact, he is only criticised or pitied and brings it upon himself. For example, Holden chooses to stand “way the hell up on top of Thomsen Hill”, observing the football game as an outsider. Society did not force him to do this, and more importantly, society did not further condemn him for this act of not playing the game.
The characterisation of Meursault shows exactly how he is condemned (albeit, absurdly) by society for not playing the game. Meursault is completely indifferent towards society and is purely concerned with satisfying sensory pleasures. The inspiration for The Outsider developed from this paradoxical by Camus: “In our society any man who doesn’t cry at his mother’s funeral is liable to be condemned to death”. According to Camus the reason for his condemnation is “simple: he refuses to lie”. “Lying”, Camus states, “is not only saying what isn’t true [but] saying more than is true… saying more than one feels”. Meursault is entirely honest and therefore doesn’t hide his lack of emotion at his mother’s funeral. This indifference challenges social propriety that dictates that one should grieve over the death of one’s mother. As Meursault does not play the game making society sees him as an outsider, a stranger, and even a “monster”, condemning him as a result.
Holden sees the “game of life” as a game only for the privileged. He clearly identifies with those on the “other side” of the game and feels alone and victimized. But Holden’s sense of disadvantage and acrimony seem somewhat contradictory given his upbringing: a privileged Americana family and prestigious education. However, Holden has created a cynical outlook on world to protect himself from the complexities of the “adult” world. This is an example of how his perception is one of condemnation when in actual fact he is simply given the rules of the game:
“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?”
Unlike Holden, Meursault genuinely is condemned by society for not playing the game. This is idea is subtly referenced at his mother’s funeral. Meursault develops the impression that everyone is watching and taking note of his every move, ready to criticise his idiosyncrasies. The physical staging of this image is also indicative of his detachment with society. Physically “they were all sitting opposite [him]”, separated and continually watching. He has the insightful yet “ridiculous impression that they were there to judge [him]”, and eventually condemn him. Structurally, this is paralleled later in the novel when Meursault enters the court and first sees the jury: “It was at that point I noticed a row of faces in front of me. They were all looking at me… scrutinizing the new arrival to find his peculiarities.” Again, this draws attention to Meursault’s disconnection and his subsequent condemnation for disregarding the game.
Despite purposely flouting the rules of the game, Holden, like Meursault, is nevertheless deeply detached from society – although never exactly condemned for it. This is symbolised in a number of scenes. The symbol of the red hunting hat is one of the most famous. Holden intentionally wears the hunting hat throughout the novel: “I took my red hunting hat… and put it on – I didn't give a damn how I looked". He does it to individualise himself but is never at any point forced to wear it, despite being conscious that it is out of balance with 1950’s fashion and would have been deemed out of step with societal convention. This symbolises Holden’s detached position, caused by all his own conscious decisions. Holden knows he’s not playing the game, but society does not condemn him for this. Meursault is indifferent to the game and society severely punishes him for his indifference.
In The Outsider, the courtroom is where Meursault is on trial for his life but it also symbolises societal convention. The judge is the self-appointed "moral umpire", determining Meursault’s fate. The jury is representative of society – all players of the game – sent to cast their judgments, and their stones, at Meursault. The trial is symbolic of society’s attempt to rationalise a universe by imposing its own meaning towards situations that fail to conform to convention. The verdict therefore represents society’s rejection of Meursault’s nonconforming ways and hence condemns him as a result of not playing the game.
The language used throughout both texts also shows how Holden and Meursault are condemned (or assumed to be condemned) for not playing the game. Holden constantly comments on his demeanour being “lonesome” and “depressed”, and comments on many things as “phony”. He acts as though he’s condemned by society, when in fact, he never has been. His solidarity is a result of his own desperate actions and fully conscious activities. However, this language is used by Salinger for teenagers in 1950’s America to empathise with. Holden, like James Dean and Marlon Brando, gave a voice to a generation who felt themselves condemned by society’s conventions. This provoked a counter-cultural revolt: a generation of teens who refused to play the rules of the game. Society, however, only criticised these youths for nonconformity. It never exactly condemned them.
In The Outsider, the language is used to show how Meursault doesn’t play the game. The narrative is written in a very cold and clinical style as Meursault doesn’t appear to show any emotion. This is epitomised at the very start: “Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know.” This opening immediately sets the tone of the novel but also shows how detached Meursault is towards his mother, and more importantly, the game itself. He is later condemned for this apathy and said to have “no place in a society whose fundamental rules [he] ignored”.
In conclusion, both Meursault and Holden are isolated from society but Holden brings it upon himself. His fragile and sensitive nature causes him to paradoxically run away from connections he so desperately seeks. Meursault is condemned by society – unintentionally – for not playing the game whereas Holden chooses to ignore it deliberately but is not necessarily condemned by society for this as a result.