Study Guide

The World According to Garp Chapter 1

By John Irving

Chapter 1

Boston Mercy

  • Jenny Fields (mother of the titular Garp) once got arrested for assaulting a soldier at a movie theater in the middle of World War II.
  • The year is 1942 and Jenny is twenty-two years old, has recently "dropped out of college" (1.2), and is now studying to become a nurse. You go, girl.
  • Jenny comes from a super wealthy family who look at college solely as a four-year opportunity for her to find a husband. Needless to say, Jenny's parents are disappointed with her decision to actually pursue a career. Like, why?
  • Let's get back to that movie theater, though: The soldier creeps up on Jenny and slips his hand "under her uniform" (1.33). Bad move, brohemian.
  • Jenny the Ripper pulls out a scalpel (left in her purse from work) and slices up his arm. The soldier takes a swing, but that's like going after Robocop with a weed whacker—you're not going to win that fight. Jenny helpfully removes a piece of his lip and the soldier escapes into the lobby.
  • Jenny follows and finds the theater staff crowded around the bloody soldier. Her nursing instincts kick in and she tries to help, but her blood-covered outfit is a dead giveaway, so she calls the police.
  • The cops aren't very understanding: They keep asking Jenny if she's "been dating this guy long" (1.38). Ugh. It's not until they learn that the soldier has a family that they let Jenny go—typical. Jenny, for her part, is just upset that they confiscated her scalpel.
  • Jenny's family thinks she's gone off the deep end after this ordeal. Her mother starts sending her douche bags (it's a real medical device, people—look it up) because she thinks that Jenny is promiscuous. The truth, however, is that Jenny has no interest in sex whatsoever.
  • At the hospital, Jenny loves telling new mothers with husbands who died in the war how lucky they are to have a child but no husband. Is she making her feelings about men clear yet?
  • Throughout all of this, the novel keeps referencing Jenny's autobiography called "A Sexual Suspect" (1.85). We'll find more about it later…
  • Jenny's odd demeanor makes her notorious among the hospital staff. She tells them, half-joking, that she wants to "find a man to make her pregnant" and "nothing more" (1.85). Joking aside, it doesn't take long for a bunch of lonely doctors and medical students to bury her in proposals. She turns them all down.
  • Finally fed up, the hospital staff tries to fix Jenny by taking her out of the newborn ward and sending her to intensive care.
  • Jenny sees a lot of soldiers while in the intensive care ward. She creates a categorization system for their various conditions, labeling them "Externals," "Vital Organs," "Absentees," and "Goners" (1.97-100).
  • Garp's father is one of these soldiers—a Goner, to be precise, through and through. Technical Sergeant Garp was a ball turret gunner in the war, wounded after being hit in the head with flak.
  • When the paramedics get to him, he's in a mush-brained daze, saying nothing but the word "Garp!" and touching himself in a rather intimate way.
  • Garp is sent to Boston Mercy as a publicity stunt for an embattled senator—and a "wounded orphan" (1.124) with a "one word vocabulary"(1.125) makes the perfect publicity stunt.
  • Jenny finds herself immediately sympathetic toward the childlike Garp. He's usually pretty happy, except when prevented from indulging in his daily masturbatory routine.
  • They spend a lot of time together: Jenny plays him radio shows and tries to teach him new words. In fact, it's a lot of the same stuff she did when she cared for children; Garp even tries to suckle on Jenny—and she lets him.
  • Meanwhile, Garp is deteriorating. He can't even say Garp anymore: just "Arp" and then "only an Ar" (1.146).
  • This leads Jenny to make a sudden decision: One night she approaches him in bed and takes off her clothes. Cue smooth sax music. They briefly make love.
  • Technical Sergeant Garp dies a few weeks later.
  • Jenny is fired from the hospital after she becomes pregnant, and she winds up back at her parents' home in Dog's Head Harbor to wait out the rest of her pregnancy.
  • She gives birth to a boy whom she names T.S. Garp—that was all she knew of his daddy's name, after all.