By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes’ is a short story by J. D. Salinger, first published in 1951. The story details a phone conversation between two men, Arthur and Lee, following a party. Arthur is worried that his wife is having an affair and Lee attempts to calm down his friend over the phone, encouraging him to calm down and wait for his wife to get home.
The plot of ‘Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes’ is fairly easy to summarise; but the story itself raises some curious questions about Salinger’s depiction of the two main male characters. Before we come to the analysis, though, here’s a brief rundown of the story’s plot.
‘Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes’: plot summary
A grey-haired lawyer, Lee, is with his girlfriend one night when he is phoned by another lawyer, Arthur, who asks if Lee has seen his wife, Joanie. They were both at a party earlier that evening, but Arthur didn’t see Joanie leave the party and has come home without her. Arthur, who is drunk, tells Lee that he suspects Joanie is having an affair.
Lee tells Arthur to go to bed and stop worrying, implying that he is his own worst enemy for always jumping to the worst conclusion and making a mountain out of a molehill where his wife is concerned. As he talks to Arthur, he motions for his girlfriend to light him a cigarette.
Arthur begins to open up to Lee as they talk, telling him that he lost a big court case earlier that day owing to a last-minute piece of evidence, and is worried he’ll lose his job. He talks about going back into the army. He regrets marrying Joanie, who he doesn’t believe loves him.
He says he both does and doesn’t love her. He recalls a poem he sent to Joanie (an anonymous medieval French poem which provides the story with its title, ‘Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes’) and says he doesn’t recognise the woman described in it any more. He then recalls a suit that Joanie bought for him and realises she does have some nice qualities which he still respects and admires.
Arthur then hangs up, leaving Lee to discuss his friend’s worries with his girlfriend, who thinks he did an excellent job trying to talk Arthur down from his drink-fuelled anger and paranoia.
The phone rings again a short while after: it’s Arthur, telling Lee that Joanie has come home (about ten seconds after their last phone call ended) and she was only out with friends after all. He tells Lee he’d like to get out of New York with Joanie and maybe move to somewhere like Connecticut, away from the ‘rat race’.
Lee cuts short their conversation, telling Arthur he’s suddenly developed a headache, and bids his friend goodnight. As he hangs up the phone, he drops his cigarette. He tells his girlfriend to leave it when she goes to pick it up for him, wanting her to sit still.
Although it isn’t openly stated, it is slowly revealed through small details at the end of the story that the girl with Lee is Joanie, Arthur’s wife, and Lee is the man she is having an affair with. Arthur phoned back and pretended his wife had come home so he could save face with his friend, but since Lee is with Joanie and knows she hasn’t gone home to Arthur, he knows this to be a lie. Joanie repeatedly tells Lee that she feels like a ‘dog’ – because she is cheating on Arthur with Lee.
‘Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes’: analysis
‘Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes’ is, fundamentally, a story about lies and deception, in which three people involved in an eternal love triangle show themselves all to be dishonest in their dealings with each other. Lee and Joanie are being dishonest to Arthur by conducting an affair behind his back.
Meanwhile, Arthur, too, is capable of deceit, phoning his friend back and pretending that his wife has come home after all. By doing so, he hopes to emerge from his drunken paranoid rant with some of his pride intact, but unbeknown to him, Lee instantly sees through his lie because Joanie is with him.
A common theme of J. D. Salinger’s fiction is adults who behave like, and have the mentality of, small children, and ‘Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes’ is another example of this characteristic of his work. Even in The Catcher in the Rye, his one novel, it is clear that Holden Caulfield romanticises childhood as an Edenic state which we leave behind at our peril, and Salinger clearly shared something of this wide-eyed wonder for that innocent time in our lives before we are corrupted by adulthood.
But at the same time, and running contrary to this Romantic idealisation of childhood, is the opposite view: that adults who remain children are pathetic, weak, petty, and self-destructive. Arthur in ‘Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes’ is a classic example.
It’s significant that Lee, his friend, is described repeatedly as ‘gray-haired’, connoting wisdom and maturity, while Lee calls Arthur out as ‘an absolute child’. He also addresses Arthur as ‘boy’. Arthur, in turn, accuses Joanie, his wife, of being a ‘grown child’, in what is itself a rather childish game of ‘I know she is, but what am I?’
And yet at the end of ‘Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes’, Arthur, for all of his paranoid and immaturity, comes off as the less objectionable and morally flawed man of the two. Lee is having an affair with his friend’s wife, and deliberately lying to him down the phone about what Joanie is like, not to reassure his friend but to deflect suspicion away from her (and therefore, from him).
His petulant treatment of Joanie at the end of the story reveals his own guilt coming to the surface (Salinger makes the lowly cigarette do, and symbolise, a great deal in this story), as he tells her to ‘sit still’.
At least, we are led to assume that the girl with Lee is, in a twist ending, Joanie herself. But this is never mentioned. It’s hard to make sense of the girl’s reference to herself as feeling like a ‘dog’ otherwise, along with her repeated reassurances to Lee that he did well when handling Arthur.
But like many of Salinger’s short stories, the style is elliptical – revealing only part of the situation to us and leaving us to fill in the gaps ourselves – and so it’s important to observe that Salinger doesn’t ever confirm that Joanie is ‘the girl’ with Lee. Nevertheless, the girl’s shocked reaction when Lee reveals to her that Arthur wanted to come round for a drink makes more sense if we assume that the girl and Joanie are one and the same.
Perhaps the hardest thing to explain, from a character perspective, is not anything that either Lee or Joanie do, but Arthur’s behaviour. Why does he really suddenly phone his friend back and make up some story about Joanie returning home after all? Is it merely to save face, so he doesn’t appear as vulnerable and paranoid about his wife’s possible adultery? And why, after he has been happy to appear vulnerable and paranoid to Lee for the duration of their previous conversation, does he suddenly experience a change of heart?
It’s possible that, just as Joanie’s identity as ‘the girl’ is only elliptically revealed to us, so Arthur’s dawning realisation of what’s going on is only partially hinted to us as well. Having been happy to talk to his friend over the phone for some time, Arthur suddenly goes silent and then proposes coming round to talk it over with Lee in person.
The fact that this takes both Lee and Joanie by surprise suggests that, as well as being worried about their secret being discovered if Arthur did show up out of the blue, such a suggestion is out of character for Arthur. He then agrees to hang up a short while after (after proving doggedly determined to remain on the line before, despite Lee’s best efforts to get rid of him), only to phone back with the ‘panic over’ message concerning Joanie’s (fictional) return, perhaps to throw them off the scent so they no longer suspect that he suspects what is really going on.
We might piece these details together and suggest that they are all meant to imply that Arthur has suddenly realised what is going on between them (or at least, has his suspicions). The fact that Salinger leaves so much room for the reader in his story is a testament to how well he had managed to perfect the elliptical style of writing, using a single phone call (or couple of calls) to tease out a whole romantic drama in which we function less as legitimate audience members than as accidental eavesdroppers.