We Need To Talk: Prostitution in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “Jenny” and J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye

In Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “Jenny” and in the thirteenth chapter of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye, the main characters utilize prostitution in an unconventional way. In the end, instead of buying the prostitutes for sex they bought emotional support during their psychologically uncertainty. Despite differences in the way the main characters initial interactions are with the prostitutes they buy, the results are the same—the main characters do not have sex with the prostitutes they obtain.

Both the speaker in “Jenny” and Holden in The Catcher In The Rye went into the situation wanting to have sex with the prostitutes; however, they each purchased and approached the prostitutes for very different reasons. The speaker in “Jenny” has a distant, impersonal personality but despite that he observes Jenny, a prostitute, “laughing languid,” “fond of a kiss and fond of a guinea,” who “dances,” and is a “thoughtless queen” (Rossetti 1-7). According to Reed Keefe, in the article “D.G. Rossetti’s “Jenny”: Eschewing Thinking for Feeling,” the speaker has sympathy for Jenny and recognizes in himself that others in society would not show this kind of sympathy to her because she is a prostitute (Keefe). This observation adds to his preexisting self-righteous attitude. Most readers would disagree that he actually sympathized for Jenny solely based off of how impersonal and distant the speaker comes across in the first few stanzas of the dramatic dialogue. Rossetti never says whether the speaker approaches Jenny or if there is a medium that controls the transaction, but in The Catcher In The Rye, a pimp who controls the transactions of all his prostitutes approaches Holden in the hotel where Holden is staying. Holden takes the offer because he was “so depressed [that he] didn’t even think” about how hiring a prostitute was “against [his] principles” (Salinger). The results are the same. The speaker and Holden both end up purchasing prostitutes but their intentions are quite different. The speaker in “Jenny” purchases a prostitute because he sees her “beauty, so well worth a kiss” (Rossetti 55). Holden purchases a prostitute initially because he was not thinking, but then later Holden brings up his insecurities having sex and that last time he was trying to have sex with a girl it “took [him] about an hour to just get her goddam brassiere off. By the time [he] did get it off, she was about ready to spit in [his] eye” (Salinger). Holden believes that if he has sex with the prostitute he will be able to learn how to effectively, or more effectively, have sex later on when he has someone special.

Despite initially wanting to have sex with the prostitutes, the speaker and Holden both initiate small talk immediately after confronting the prostitutes and this small talk inevitably deters from the main characters and the prostitutes having sex. The speaker begins small talk when he enters her room, acknowledging that it is “a change from [his room]” and he does not seem to stop talking from then on. In fact, his voice is the only one the reader ever gets. The reader knows that Jenny is tired from the beginning of the poem, but the reader can further assume that the speaker does not help her stay awake by offering up entertaining conversation but instead lulls her to sleep with his ramblings. His intentions and his desire to keep Jenny awake, or “sit[ting] up,” fail because of how self-righteous, condescending, and self-centered he is as a person (Rossetti 89). It almost seems that the speaker believes that his ramblings are the most important event that the prostitute could have attended. Without surprise to the reader, Jenny is “asleep at last” and the reader never hears anything out of her (Rossetti 171). However, Holden greets the prostitute at his door with a normal greeting and she returns it with a distant, impersonal response followed by a question verifying that she was at the right room. After awhile, the prostitute grows impatient with Holden and so he makes up some tale about a recent “wuddayacallit” operation that he was recovering from (Salinger). This “wuddayacallit” operation gives him just enough excuse to request that they just keep talking (Salinger). The prostitute, probably not used to just being hired to carry on a conversation, becomes nervous, frustrated, and distrusting. The prostitute’s distrust could have stemmed from the confusion that grew out of Holden hiring her without thinking about his recovery from this operation before this point.

Inevitably, both the speaker and Holden end up with dissatisfied goodbyes. Both are left the same as they had been before their encounters with the prostitutes. The speaker knows that he will not wake Jenny, who is still fast asleep in her room, so he leaves her in her room where she will eventually wake up alone with her own shame and her own reality (although the reader, like the speaker, does not know what that is because Jenny never spoke), but so will the speaker. The speaker will also leave with only his “own shame” and his own reality, which he has indirectly been rambling about for the last three hundred and ninety-one lines (Rossetti 384). The girl in The Catcher In The Rye leaves Holden’s room like nothing had happened between them. Both of them are unchanged by the encounter, both still nervous and still alone.

Both “Jenny” by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger are meant to stand as philosophical investigations for the reader. The reader is presented with the implication that if one person in a relationship is impersonal, condescending, distant, etc., whether that relationship be with a prostitute or not, will only in one way—with a dissatisfying goodbye and an unchanged psychological uncertainty about one’s own reality. Both the speaker and Holden end up with very unconventional prostitution experiences. The reader can assume that if the stories ended differently, if both the speaker and Holden did have sex with the prostitutes, the psychological results would have been the same—isolation.

Works Cited

Keefe, Reed.”D.G. Rossetti’s “Jenny”: Eschewing Thinking for Feeling.” Web. 6 Dec. 2015. <http://www.victorianweb.org/victorian/authors/dgr/keefe5.html&gt;.

Rossetti, Dante Gabriel. “Jenny.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature. Ed. David Damrosch and Kevin J.H. Dettmar. 4th ed. Vol. 2B. Longman, 2010. 1623-1632. Print.

Salinger, J.D. Web. 2 Dec. 2015. <http://www.pu.if.ua/depart/Inmov/resource/file/samostijna_robota/Catcher_In_The_Rye_-_J_D_Salinger.pdf&gt;.

Swydky, Lissette Lopez. Survey of English Literature 1700-1900. University of Arkansas. 2 December 2015.

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