Literature Study GuidesNine StoriesPretty Mouth And Green My Eyes Summary

Nine Stories | Study Guide

J.D. Salinger

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Nine Stories | "Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes" | Summary

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Summary

A middle-aged man with carefully maintained gray hair lies in bed smoking a postcoital cigarette with a young woman with intensely blue eyes. As the story progresses, the reader learns the man is Lee and infers the woman is Joanie, but at first the narrator only refers to them as "the gray-haired man" and "the girl."

The phone rings, and Arthur is on the other end of the line, asking if Lee has seen Joanie, who never came home after a party. Lee denies having seen her and suggests she left the party with the Ellenbogens, who have a reputation for drinking and carousing. Arthur complains about Joanie's flightiness and drunken transgressions, comparing her to Madame Bovary, the bourgeois heroine of a Gustav Flaubert novel.

Lee grows increasingly annoyed by Arthur's depiction of Joanie as so wanton she will sleep with just about any man, and he finally changes the subject, asking Arthur what happened to a case he defended for a hotel client of their firm in court that day. Arthur acknowledges the case went badly; a chambermaid revealed sheets with bedbug stains on them, ruining their defense. He asks Lee if the head of the firm will be angry with him, and Lee suggests he will be.

Eventually, Arthur returns to the subject of Joanie, but he is now nostalgic and maudlin, describing a poem he sent her when they first started dating and telling Lee how she picked out a suit for him. The lines from the poem are, "Rose my color is and white, Pretty mouth and green my eyes." Remembering the poem prompts Arthur to say Joanie's eyes aren't even green; they are the color of "sea shells," he says. He asks Lee if he can come over for a drink, but Lee tells him he better stay put and wait for Joanie to arrive.

Once Arthur hangs up the phone, the girl immediately asks, "What did he say?" Then she berates herself, a bit insincerely, saying she feels limp and like an "absolute dog!"

When the phone rings a second time, it is Arthur again. He tells Lee that Joanie just came in and tells an elaborate story to account for her whereabouts. He says he hopes they will have a chance "to straighten things out" and asks Lee for advice how he might salvage his job as well. Lee is suddenly short with Arthur and no longer as concerned or engaged in the conversation. Lee says he has a headache and quickly gets off the phone.

Analysis

This story has a Hemingway-like compression; it's up to readers to put the pieces together and learn what is happening on their own. The reader infers Joanie is the woman in bed with Lee from several provided clues: Lee is a bachelor; and Joanie repeats she "feels like a dog" once he gets off the phone. This information gradually dawns on readers of the story, allowing them to slowly absorb the situation in the same way Lee, the central character, absorbs his position. However, J. D. Salinger left it intentionally vague. Even his one clue, when Arthur says Joanie has eyes like seashells, leaves the reader uncertain. Definitively, "the girl" has blue eyes. Seashells can be blue, but they can also be light brown to gray, and typically are not blue.

The brutal situational irony (if it is Joanie in bed with Lee, of course) is that Arthur, who suspects Joanie of cheating on him with every man around, chooses to place faith on the very person with whom she has chosen to betray. This irony is only fully apparent when Arthur calls a second time. He has complete trust in Lee, never suspecting Joanie might be with him.

If it is Joanie in bed with Lee, Arthur is the obvious loser in this scenario. He is about to lose both his wife, whom he loves despite her infidelity, and his job. At the same time, Lee must live with the knowledge he is the kind of shallow cad who would ruin the life of a man who has faith in him. This information permeates his glib mask, evident by his change of attitude. Following the first conversation with Arthur, he blandly remarks it is an "impossible situation" and a "fantastic thing." After the second conversation, he merely tells Joanie to "sit still for Chrissake" and not to touch him—not even to help find a lighted cigarette that has escaped into the bed.

However, it is possible the woman in bed with Lee is not Joanie. She could be someone who knows Arthur and Joanie, or any other scenario imaginable. After all, "Green my eyes" is part of the title, and it appears in the poem within the story. The phrase "green my eyes" suggests jealousy and envy, which perhaps Salinger is trying to show happens in the mind. By leaving the ambiguity, Salinger uses the structure of the story to place the reader into a situation where the truth is unknown and all that can be accomplished is suspicion—an uneasy state to be in.

Lee does seem jealous of Arthur and as though he wishes him to fail, and is simply not a true friend when he becomes animated by Arthur's pain. It is strange how Lee, when Arthur appears happy Joanie has returned, shuts down and is no longer interested in the conversation. Is it because he knows the truth? Or is it because Joanie has come home and Lee is no longer feeling superior to Arthur? But, "the girl" does say she feels like a dog, and Lee is afraid to the answer the phone; these clues do suggest Lee is with Joanie and Arthur lies because he is embarrassed and out of control with jealousy. Either way, the focus is on the pride of the two men, the lies they tell each other ("pretty mouth") and the jealousy between them ("green my eyes"). It doesn't really matter if "the girl" is Joanie or not. These supposed "friends" are not true friends. However, if Joanie really did come home, Arthur is a sincere man. There really is no way to know for certain.

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