Sexual Suspects - Influences of the Sexual Liberation on Lust, Sexuality and Family in John Irving's 'The World According to Garp'

Seminar Paper, 2004

16 Pages, Grade: 2,0



1) Introduction

2) The Question of Sexuality and Lust
2.1) Jenny Fields
2.2) T.S. Garp

3) Marriage and Problems in the Family
3.1) New Developments and Influences on Relationships
3.2) Marital Problems Between Helen and Garp
3.2.1) Family Roles
3.2.2) Extramarital Sex

4) Conclusion


1) Introduction

John Irving’s novel The World According to Garp gives the reader a view on the lives of its characters and, as a part of it, their attitudes towards lust and sexuality. The description of these aspects is very direct and may be offensive for some more conservative persons. Even for persons who tend to be liberal-minded, Irving’s way of writing about sex can be uncommon, although he uses lust and sexuality only to tell the story and not for sensational reasons. It is strange that after forty years of sexual liberation, or the so called ´sexual revolution´, so little seems to have changed and people still have these kinds of feelings when reading about sex being described so directly.

Despite the fact that people expected more from the sexual liberation in the 1960s and 1970s, there was indeed a change in attitude towards certain aspects, such as premarital and extramarital sex.[1] Studies in the United States in the 1970s revealed “a gradual decrease over time in the percentage of respondents who said that premarital sex is always wrong”.[2] Another important change which derived from the liberation movement was the new female sexuality, especially concerning the sexual fulfilment of women before and during marriage[3]. This is also proved by a decreasing support of the `double standard´, where men are more or less allowed to be sexual active, including premarital and even extramarital sex, but women are not.[4] You also have to consider the women’s movement, when thinking about female sexual liberation. Both, sexual liberation and feminism, somehow worked together hand in hand to achieve improvement for women’s sexuality.

In order to understand the gap between the new achievements and the nevertheless still existing resentments towards them, you need to know the situation prior to the 1960s, when the above-mentioned `double standard` and abstinence were in the focus of sexuality.[5]

They can be traced back to the Victorian era (1837-1901), which was well known for its prudery and bigotry among the middle class.[6] Most of the middle-class in Europe and also in America thought that sex was not only dirty and disgusting, but even dangerous. Famous books of that time stated that women were barely interested in sexuality. They were just interested in loving their home, taking care of children and domestic duties and it was common sense that men shouldn’t bother them with sexual intercourse too often. As a consequence, men had the possibility to take advantage of the vast number of prostitutes and were even allowed to have a mistress. Since the people in the Victorian age were not asexual, they often had to suffer under the large pressure put upon them by society.[7]

In some ways this dogma, or parts of it, survived despite the achievements of the sexual liberation in form of the new moralism, especially in the United States. This movement leaded into the New Right, a political arm with a lot of supporters from the Christian and middle class population. These people were very concerned about the social development and considered the new sexuality as a trigger for `sexual anarchy` which would result in `political anarchy'. In order to oppose this process, the members of the New Right wanted to save the values of the family and defend them against those new developments. They believed that `family` and the values this term represents , like e.g. love, stability and safety, is the crucial factor of society and a guarantor for its permanent durability.[8]

Although John Irving puts a huge emphasis on sexuality in his novel The World According to Garp, he also describes the values of the family and the importance for its members. In the following chapters I want to discuss the aspects of lust, sexuality and family – in the meaning of a close relationship - in the light of the sexual liberation as Irving mentions them in his novel. It is also interesting to analyze if and how he is able to reflect the time of the sexual liberation and its achievements through the characters of The World According to Garp.

2) The Question of Sexuality and Lust

Since sex is besides death one of the thematic obsessions in Irving’s The World According to Garp, he is able to mirror the different opinions concerning sexuality and lust, as described in the introduction, through Jenny Fields on the one side and through Garp on the other side.

2.1) Jenny Fields

Even though it is not deliberately, Jenny Fields represents in some way the conservative view on sexuality despite her unusual attitude towards men and sex, which is why she generates mixed feelings among the people in her surrounding.

For her family Jenny’s refusal to marry a man and her insistence to live on her own is very suspicious and so her mother gives her a douche bag every time they meet each other, a device to prevent pregnancies after sexual intercourse.[9] Not only her family is convinced of Jenny’s irresponsible sexual activity, even her landlady, after discovering the large number of unused douche bags in Jenny’s room, is very troubled and anxious too (p.13) and forces Jenny to move out of her room. On the other side, her colleagues in the hospital call her “Old Virgin Mary Jenny” (p.15), because of Jenny’s negative attitude towards men. Later, when they are confronted with her wish to use a man only to get pregnant, they make fun of her by making ridiculous proposals (p.16).

Both family and peer standards have influence on the sexual standard of an individual. While the family has a conservative effect, the peer standard has a liberalizing effect on a person’s sexuality.[10] But Jenny does not bow to either one of the sides. She has her own rules concerning the life with men and sexuality and refuses to obey the rules others want to force on her:


[1] Jeffrey Weeks, Sexuality and its discontents: Meanings, Myths & Modern Sexualities (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, 1985), pp. 19f..

[2] Susan Sprecher & Kathleen McKinney, Sexuality (Newsbury Park, California: SAGE Publications, Inc., 1993), pp. 9f..

[3] Jeffrey Weeks, op. cit., p. 26.

[4] Susan Sprecher & Kathleen McKinney, op.cit., pp.10f..

[5] Ibid., p. 9.

[6] Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition (Foster City, California: IDG Books Worldwide, Inc., 2001), p. 1592.

[7] Carol Tavris & Carole Offir, The longest war – Sex differences in perspective (USA: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1977), pp. 60 f..

[8] Jeffrey Weeks, op. cit., pp. 33 f..

[9] John Irving, The World According to Garp (New York, Ballantine Publishing Group, 1990), pp. 12 f.. /All further references in brackets in the text/

[10] Susan Sprecher & Kathleen McKinney, op.cit., pp.12 f..

Excerpt out of 16 pages


Sexual Suspects - Influences of the Sexual Liberation on Lust, Sexuality and Family in John Irving's 'The World According to Garp'
University of Paderborn
John Irving - Selected Novels
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Sexual, Suspects, Influences, Sexual, Liberation, Lust, Sexuality, Family, John, Irving, World, According, Garp, John, Irving, Selected, Novels
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Daniel Heuermann (Author), 2004, Sexual Suspects - Influences of the Sexual Liberation on Lust, Sexuality and Family in John Irving's 'The World According to Garp', Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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