Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes by J.D. Salinger
In Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes by J.D. Salinger we have the theme of conflict, honesty, deception, betrayal and paralysis. Taken from his Nine Stories collection the story is narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator and after reading the story the reader suspects that Salinger is exploring the theme of conflict. Throughout Arthur’s conversation with Lee, Arthur seems to be unsure of what to do about Joanie and if anything this uncertainty causes a conflict within Arthur. Salinger also tells the reader that Arthur is unsure as to whether he loves Joanie – ‘I don’t know. I do and I don’t.’ This line is important as it further suggests that Arthur remains unsure or is in conflict with himself when it comes to his relationship with Joanie. Despite it being clear to Arthur that he can’t trust Joanie, he is unable to completely let her go (something that is also noticeable at the end of the story). Joanie too appears to be in conflict within herself (over her cheating on Arthur). This is noticeable when Joanie tells Lee that ‘I feel like an absolute dog!’ However the reader does not get a sense that Joanie wishes to end her affair with Lee or at least Salinger does not explore the possibility of Joanie ending the affair.
Salinger also appears to be exploring the theme of honesty and deception. The fact that Joanie is sleeping with Lee, who is after all supposed to be Arthur’s friend, suggests not only a level of dishonesty within Joanie (and Lee) but also serves to highlight to the reader the degree of deception that Joanie and Lee are undertaking. It may also be important that at no stage in the story does Lee appear to feel any guilt about the fact that he is deceiving and betraying Arthur. If anything Lee appears to be allowing his ego to come into play. By having Lee tell Arthur that Joanie has ‘good taste’ it is possible that Salinger is highlighting to the reader not only the lack of guilt that Lee feels over the affair but it is also possible that Salinger is suggesting that Lee has an overly high opinion of himself and the ‘good taste’ that he suggests Joanie has may be the fact that she has chosen to sleep with him.
The fact that Arthur lies to Lee when he rings Lee for a second time may also be important. It is possible that Arthur, having previously revealed his vulnerability to Lee (about Joanie cheating on him) may now feel even more vulnerable and in order to protect himself (and not display any further weakness) has lied to Lee, assuring him that Joanie has returned home. It may be a case that Arthur wishes to maintain or portray an image of happiness (to Lee) rather than having Lee know the truth. By allowing Arthur lie, Salinger may also be suggesting that image, rather than the truth is more important to Arthur. How he is perceived by others (and society) dictating how he is to live his life, rather than base his life on any sort of truth (and in turn leave Joanie).
There is also some symbolism in the story which may be significant. Salinger may be using light to put or place the focus on both Joanie and Lee (who many critics suggest are the guilty party in the story). Though it is unclear at the beginning of the story as to who the girl in Lee’s bed is, it does become clearer to the reader that the girl is in fact Joanie. By having Joanie face Lee with ‘one eye – on the side of the light closed tight’ it is possible that Salinger is placing the spot light or focus on Joanie, though the fact she has her eye shut suggests that she is unaware that the spot light is now on her (she does remain unsure of what Arthur has said on the phone). Also as Lee is reaching for the phone Salinger tells the reader that the light from the lampshade ‘was particularly, if rather vividly, flattering to his (Lee’s) mostly white hair.’ This line may be important as by using light for a second time Salinger appears to be putting the focus on Lee, just as he did with Joanie.
Salinger may also be using Joanie’s eyes as symbolism. Throughout the story the reader never knows for sure what colour Joanie’s eyes actually are. Their colour appears to change on several occasions. They are first described by Salinger as blue, then violet and later in the story Arthur describes them as being like seashells (grey). Eyes would commonly be perceived to be the window to an individual’s soul and by leaving it unclear as to the true colour of Joanie’s eyes Salinger may be suggesting that just as Joanie’s eye colour is unknown, likewise Joanie herself remains somewhat of a mystery, particularly when the reader is left unsure as to why Joanie would actually cheat on Arthur.
Other symbolism that may be important is the ash from the cigarettes that Joanie and Lee are smoking. On several occasions, Salinger makes reference to cigarette ash. It is possible that by having Joanie spill the ash from the ashtray onto Lee’s bed (and dirty or soil the bed), Salinger is also suggesting that Joanie likewise has soiled her relationship with Arthur. Also the fact that Lee drops Joanie’s cigarette onto the bed after hanging up on Arthur may also be important. It is possible that by doing so, Salinger is symbolically suggesting that Lee has burnt (just like the bed sheets) his relationship with Arthur (by conducting an affair with Joanie).
The ending of the story is also interesting as it is ambiguous. The reader never knows for sure whether Lee will discontinue his affair with Joanie or if Joanie herself, having expressed some guilt over what she is doing, will end the affair. However it may be significant that Lee does tell Joanie to ‘just sit still’ after the cigarette falls onto the bed. By doing so it is possible that Salinger is suggesting there will be no movement from Joanie that she will continue her affair with Lee and things will not change. Just as the reader suspects that things will not change for Arthur (he is to remain paralysed). Rather than leave Joanie, he will continue to accept her infidelities.