In J. D. Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye, the main character, Holden Caulfield, muses at one point on the possibility of escaping from the world of confusion and “phonies” while George Bernard Shaw’s main character of Pygmalion, Eliza Dolittle, struggles to become a phony. The possible reason for this is that they both come from opposite backgrounds. Holden is a young, affluent teenager in 1950’s America who resents materialism and Eliza Dolittle is a young, indigent woman who is living in Britain during the late 1800’s trying to meet her material needs and wants.
These two seemingly opposite characters do in fact have something in common: they, like every other person, are in a constant pursuit of happiness. This commonality is the basis for the themes these two stories present. Some of these themes go unconsidered and this leads to many misunderstandings in the world. This is why Pygmalion and Catcher in the Rye are not just stories but, in fact, lessons that are presented in their themes.
These themes teach that being middle or upper class does not guarantee happiness, treating others with good manners and equality are important, and pronunciation and terminology can “put you in your place” in terms of class. Throughout the world’s history, pronunciation and the way a language is spoken indicates one’s place in society. This is quite apparent in Pygmalion. Eliza is a classic victim of being “put into her place” based on the way she speaks. She goes to Professor Higgins in hope that he will give her lessons on how to speak in a more refined.
She says she wants “to be a lady in a flower shop stead of sellin at the corner of Tottenham Court Road. But they won’t take me unless I can talk more genteel” (23). This is precisely why she comes to Henry Higgins. He knows quite a bit about the study of speech. In fact, he is a professor of phonetics. He can “pronounce one hundred thirty vowel sounds” and “place any man within six miles” of their homes (15). Sometimes he can even place them within two streets of their homes. When Eliza hears this, she decides to take advantage of Higgins’ ability and take lessons from him.
She learns a new form of speech and this newfound way of speaking helps to pass her off as a duchess at an opera. Holden’s speech also manages to categorize him: not class-wise, but rather age-wise and personality-wise. He captures the informal speech of an average intelligent adolescent. This speech includes both simple description and cursing. For example, in the introduction, Holden says, “They’re nice and all,” as well as, “I’m not going to tell you my whole goddam autobiography or anything” (1). The term “nice” is an extremely broad term Holden uses to characterize his parents.
He does not want to disrespect them yet he does not feel right praising them either. This opening to Holden’s story shows Holden’s unwillingness to share his views. However, this gradually changes and he opens up. He uses the terms “and all” and “or anything” regularly throughout the novel and because not everyone speaks like this, these terms make Holden’s speech unique. Holden also feels he has to confirm what he is saying because he does not quite believe himself. For example, he says, “I’m a pacifist, if you want to know the truth” (26). When Holden is particularly angry, he swears more often.
He says “That guy Morrow is about as sensitive as a god dam toilet seat” (55). His inability to properly communicate without have to rely on profanity to express himself shows Holden as a boy suffering from what some might call “teenage angst. ” Holden, however, rarely shows his angst publicly. For the most part, he is composed in front of people; especially adults and strangers. If annoyed about something, he manages to say what he thinks in such a polite, disguised way, the people he talks to do not even notice. Holden believes in manners and treating everyone equally.
Before Holden leaves for Christmas Break, Mr. Spencer invites him to his house and asks about what the headmaster, Dr. Thurmer, said to him. Holden replies that Dr. Thurmer spoke of life being a game, and that one should play it according to the rules (8). Holden shows no animosity about Dr. Thurmer’s speech. He accepts it as part of the educator’s duty even though he knows that life is only a game if you are on the right side, where all the “hot-shots” are. Mr. Spencer also lectures and proceeds to go through Holden’s history exam with him. Holden did poorly both in class and on the exam and feels guilty because Mr. Spencer is infatuated with history.
Holden tells his teacher that he enjoys listening to his lectures in class but he didn’t care much for history because he “doesn’t want to hurt his feelings” (11). Robert Ackley, the boy living in the room next to Holden and Ward Stradlater, Holden’s roommate at Pencey Prep, are seemingly exact opposites of each other. Ackley is a boring, homely loner while Stradlater is an exiting, handsome athlete. However, Holden sees them as being quite similar. Primarily, they are both slobs. Ackley is a blatant slob: “He has lousy teeth […] they always looked mossy and awful” and “he had a lot of pimples (19) while Stradlater is a “secret slob.
He always looked all right, but you should’ve seen the razor he shaved himself with […. ] rusty as hell and full of lather and hairs” (27). They are also uncaring and self-absorbed. For example, Stradlater does not care about Holden’s feelings for Jane Gallagher. After the two fight about her, Holden goes to Ackley’s room to talk. Ackley keeps telling Holden to be quiet and go to sleep even though Holden always listens to his problems. Holden also condemns a former headmaster who is especially courteous to well-dressed, well-to-do parents and less courteous, to less sophisticated and powerful parents.
This disgusts Holden and he resents that someone he is supposed to respect is such a prime example of the materialistic society he lives in. Eliza also believes that all people should be treated equally. Including herself, she greatly dislikes the patronizing way people of low-class society are treated by people of high-class society. In an attempt to equal herself with others in society, Eliza wants to take lessons on how to “talk more genteel” (23). Even though she has virtually no money, she insists to Henry Higgins and Colonel Pickering that she has “come to have lessons, I am. And pay for em too: make no mistakes” (23).
She does not believe that she should be given any special considerations just because she cannot as readily afford the lessons as others. These lessons, she believes, will change her life and she will then be a happier person. In the beginning of Pygmalion, Eliza is a young low-class woman selling flowers on the street corner so that she can make enough money to survive. Even though this is the only way of living she knows, Eliza sees that there is more out there and she does not have to be a low-class woman forever. She wants more out of life and will not allow herself to be stomped on by others.
She is a very proud person and when Henry Higgins orders his maid, Mrs. Pearce, to “take all of her clothes off and burn them,” Eliza replies angrily, “you’re no gentleman, you’re not, to talk of such things. I’m a good girl, I am” (27). The burning of her old clothes marks the beginning of a series of changes for Eliza. In the hopes of achieving a “better” life in high-class society, she must say good-bye to everything she knows and this she does with mixed emotions. After her transformation, though, she discovers that life is not as wonderful as she thought it would be.
Eliza realizes that so-called “proper” people have problems as well. Now that she has achieved her goal, she does not know what she is going to do with her life. She does have secret hopes of marrying Henry Higgins, however, but these hopes are destroyed during a fight in which he reveals to her that he has no intentions of marrying her. He tells her she “might marry, you know. You see Eliza, all men are, not confirmed old bachelors like me and the Colonel. Most men are the marrying sort (poor devils)” (77). After this realization hits, Eliza leaves Professor Higgins’ home.
Soon after, she gets involved with Freddy Eynford Hill, a poor but classy, intelligent gentleman. He is clearly in love with Eliza and they marry. From this point on, they live a simple life, working in their own flower shop. Throughout her transformation, Eliza loses sight of her original goal which is to own a flower shop. She begins to think she needs more to b happy. Ironically, however, at the point in her life when she has the most materially, is the point she is unhappiest. This is not to say that she resents all that she has learned because now she realizes that achieving her original goal is all she needs.
Holden presents this theme in a different way than Eliza. At the beginning of the novel, he states that he does not want to explain “where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield king of crap (1). Even though he comes from an affluent family from NYC, he has problems of his own. He does not live a free and easy lifestyle, as some would expect. In fact, the life he leads could typically be expected by society to be that of someone of a lower class. For example, he is repeatedly expelled from schools for poor achievement.
In an attempt to deal with his latest expulsion, he leaves school a few days prior to the end of term, and goes to New York to “take a vacation” before returning home to deal with his parents. Throughout his journey home, he describes bouts of deep depression, impulsive spending and erratic behaviour prior to his nervous breakdown. Despite his material wealth, Holden does not appreciate what he has; he feels guilty. For example, his roommate at Elkton Hills, Dick Slagee had very inexpensive suitcases. “He used to keep them under the bed, instead of on the rack, so that nobody would see them standing next to mine.
It depressed holy hell out of me, and I kept wanting to throw mine out or something, or even trade with him” (108). Holden is a prime example that all people are human beings; one is not any better than another based on which position in society they hold. He is not pretentious because of his wealth, but actually, if a comparison of the two is going to be made, Holden is of a higher class than Eliza but he leads a more melancholy life than she. Therefore, wealth does not create happiness. These two authors, J . D. Salinger and George Bernard Shaw have created two stories that are effective in many different ways.
They are not only great literary pieces of work written with great intelligence but they are also geared toward the average reader. This method of creating a story that virtually anyone can read and find interest in is a great way to attract readers. When readers are attracted, the authors’ messages get across much more clearly and to a larger number of people. When Catcher in the Rye and Pygmalion were written, the authors had the same themes in mind. These themes provoke thought and when thought is provoked, many good things can happen.
For example, people can realize what they are doing wrong and change their ways. As these stories show, being middle or upper class does not guarantee happiness, being well mannered and treating people equally is important, and people should not always be judged based on the way they speak. If people read these stories and realize that they are not just great literary works but also important messages, much more can be learned than the mechanics of writing. If people begin to take these themes and apply them to everyday life, these stories could be considered more than just literature.