Study Guide

The World According to Garp Setting

By John Irving


Jenny's World

Although the novel takes us all over the world, there are two locations in particular that define The World According to Garp: the Steerling Campus and Dog's Head Harbor. It's ironic that these two locations—both symbols of old wealth and power—become hotbeds for feminist revolution and artistic innovation. But then again, maybe that's the point.

The Steerling School

The Steerling School that Jenny Fields arrives at is way different from the one that she leaves. First off, there are no girls allowed. Although she chooses the all-boys school "for Garp's sake" (2.2), Jenny, as an ardent feminist, can't love this restriction. Furthermore, the constant presence of the snobby Percy clan only makes the school an even weirder place for someone like Jenny.

In true Jenny fashion, she doesn't give in to the system—she changes things. Think about how different Steerling becomes by the time of her death: Girls are allowed to attend the school; the Steerling house, formerly a symbol of the worst kind of wealth and privilege, is purchased by her son, T.S. Garp; they even rename the infirmary the "Jenny Fields Infirmary" (17.281). While Jenny might not be directly responsible for all of these things, her work paves the way for them to happen. The school is like a measuring stick for Jenny's power and impact.

Dog's Head Harbor

It's easy to forget that Jenny Fields comes from an upper-class family straight out of Downton Abbey. Although we never spend any time at Dog's Head Harbor while it's still the Fields's family home, it seems like it was uncomfortable to live in, to say the least. The house is huge and the people are "detached" (1.12)—in fact, it's Jenny distaste for this isolation that causes her to fall in love with nursing. She yearns for human connection.

Granny Fields would turn over in her grave if she saw what her Cribs-worthy estate becomes after her death. Jenny transforms it into a hospital and sanctuary for "wounded women" (14.31) who need help improving their lives. In fact, Dog's Head Harbor becomes so famous that it becomes a heated political issue in the New Hampshire gubernatorial race. So again, we see the setting as a site for marking Jenny's power to dismantle existing systems and build new ones that serve more people.

Jenny's World

In the end, it turns out that Jenny Fields changes a lot more lives than she might realize. Sure, there are the many women that she does know about, but she might not realize how much she transforms the actual places she lives. When all is said and done, this is one legacy that won't be forgotten.