Friday, April 1, 2011

* American Literature's First Liberated Male

The thing is , most of the time when you’re coming pretty close to doing it with a girl --- a girl that isn’t a prostitute or anything, I mean ---  she keeps telling you to stop.  The trouble with me is, I stop. Most guys don’t I can’t help it. You never know whether they really want you to stop, or whether they’re just scared as hell , or whether they’re just telling you to stop so that if you do go through with it, they’ll blame it on you , not them   . . . They tell me to stop, so I stop. (Salinger, p. 92)  

The Catcher in the Rye was published in 1945 (but takes place in 1949), half a century before the term "Date Rape" was coined.   In underlined sentences below,  Holden Caulfield clearly defines, albeit with embarassed regret,  the code of behavior sought by feminists today: A male who realizes that "No!" means "No!"

Holden's embarassment is  emblematic of the peer pressure  put on males to equate sexual conquest with masculinity, a pressure at the root of the disquiet in our sexist world.


(all rights reserved: Paul D. Keane)

The dating scene of America in the 1900's is where brains and hormones collide, often with comical, but sometimes with serious, results. This collision can be seen in American literature as well as in American life itself. In Death of a Salesman, The Catcher in the Rye,and A Raisin in the Sun, authors use dating scenes to unmask a character’s true values.

In the restaurant scene of Death of a Salesman, 63 -year-old Willy Loman breaks down after telling his 30-something-year old sons that he has just been fired after thirty-four years with the Wagner Company. Happy Loman has been putting the moves on a Miss Forsythe at the restaurant, and when she reappears with a girlfriend for Happy’s brother Biff, Happy abandons his father to “paint this town” (Miller, p.91 ) with the girls. Further, Happy lies to Miss Forsythe who is reluctant to leave the father upset in the bathroom, by saying to her, “That’s not my father, he’s just a guy.” (p.91) Thus, Arthur Miller has used this dating scene to unmask Happy’s true values: pleasures of the flesh over “Honor thy Father.”

If Happy Loman will stoop to any level in DOAS, Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye is unmasked as someone who has a definite code of behavior with girls in dating situations. A 16-year-old Pencey Prep student, Holden is furious that his roommate, Ward Stradlater, may have put on his “Abraham Lincoln, sincere voice” (Salinger, p.49) to con Holden’s friend, Jane Gallagher, into having sexual relations with him. When Holden describes himself as never having gone that far, he says, “The trouble with me is, [when a girl says ‘stop’] I stop.” ( p.92) Here, the author, J.D. Salinger, has Holden unmask himself as someone who is not willing to play the macho game of using a girl on a date just to prove his masculinity, whether out of ethics or out of fear. Later, admittedly, Holden has different thoughts about a prostitute than about a date.

If the male authors unmask Happy Loman’s and Holden Caulfield’s values in dating situations, the female playwright Lorraine Hansberry, is no exception in A Raisin in the Sun. Beneatha Younger, a struggling African American pre-med student from the ghetto of Southside Chicago, dumps George Murchison, the son of a wealthy African American real estate investor. Murchison has tried to “nuzzle in” (Hansberry, p.96) on Beneatha who is not interested in kissing at the moment and wants to talk about ideas. Murchison gives a long, angry speech about education having “nothing to do with thoughts” (p.97) and makes it clear he’s not in the mood to listen to Beneatha’s ideas. Beneatha throws George out, telling her mother, “George is a fool” (p. 97) Again, an author, Lorraine Hansberry, uses this dating situation to unmask George as a fool but also to unmask for the audience – and for Beneatha herself! – that ideas are more important to Beneatha than answering the call of hormones even if she is a girl and of dating age.

Thus, in three works of American literature, the authors use dating scenes to unmask a character’s true values: pleasures of the flesh; respecting women; and prizing ideas. Happy Loman is not just girl-happy (pun intended), he is even willing to abandon and deny his helpless father for a night on the town. Holden Caulfield is not just angry that Stradlater cons girls into having sex. He makes it clear, 40 years before the term “date rape” was coined, that when a girl says “no” he accepts her word and stops. Finally, Beneatha Younger unmasks for herself just how important ideas are for her, when she dumps her boyfriend, rich George Murchison, because he is not interested in listening to her ideas if his hormones are raging. Perhaps these authors are suggesting that in the heat of the hormonal moment, the light of truth often shows through.


Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun. Vintage Books. (New York: 1994).

Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. Penguin Books. (New York: 1976).

Salinger, J.D. The Catcher in the Rye. Little, Brown and Co. (New York: 1951).