Study Guide

Jenny Fields in The World According to Garp

By John Irving

Jenny Fields

Although The World According to Garp is ostensibly about Mr. Garp—it's named after the dude, after all—it's really the story of Jenny Fields. Say what? Stick with us and we'll explain.

A Full Life

Let's face it: If Garp were a real writer, he'd hardly be a game-changer. John Wolf says it best—Garp "would have been very, very special" (19.152), emphasis on the would. See, Garp has all the potential in the world, but the reality is that he only manages to push out one story and three novels by the time of his death.

His mother, Jenny Fields, on the other hand, has lived a massive life by any standard. Let's run through the list, shall we:

  • She becomes a single, working mother at a time when such a thing is unthinkable.
  • She defies her wealthy upbringing by devoting her life to helping others.
  • She writes the first feminist autobiography, giving hope to millions of women just like her.
  • She founds her own hospital and home for women in need.
  • She leads the political campaign of a proudly feminist candidate for governor.

In other words, although Garp's fictitious stories are great, Jenny—the person—truly is great.

A Sister and a Mother

And that's just the surface-level stuff—Jenny has helped countless individuals find their ways, too.

Garp doesn't fully understand this until he attends his mother's funeral and watches a disparate group of women become "sisters" (16.125). His mother has created a community, and this shocks Garp, who wonders if he "ever [felt] such devotion to Jenny Field as the followers among her own sex" (16.418). Probably not, Garp, seeing as how you failed to even notice what a following your own mother had. This failure to really recognize his mother is in tension with the fact that Garp owes much of his own success to his mother.

How so? Consider this: While Garp and Jenny are pretty similar as parents—both tend to worry and over-parent—Garp sinks into a dark pit of paranoia, but Jenny channels her parenting fears in a positive direction. To this end, Jenny takes every class at Steerling in preparation for Garp's attendance, a neurotic commitment to her son's success that ends up working out well for both of them—Garp gets a head-start in school, and Jenny gets access to a top-notch education for the super low price of free. Now that's what you call innovation.

A True Original

Despite Jenny's sad death, we know that the things that she achieves in life will live long past her death. Sure, it might just be in small ways—like "Jenny Fields Originals" (16.100)—but she will live on nonetheless. Nothing breaks Jenny's stride.