Women, Sex and Society in John Irving’s The Cider House Rules and The World According to Garp

In coincidence with the clear feminist undertones of his novels, John Irving proposes opposing dichotomies: hypersexualized characters and societies, and the simultaneous criticism of sex. Irving builds societies where sex is inherent. In The Cider House Rules, Dr. Larch’s first patients were prostitutes and Homer’s first encounters with sex included horse pornography. Irving’s The World According to Garp is notorious for sexual escapades such as genital injuries, affairs, and more prostitutes. Irving presents these hypersexualized societies, yet undercuts them with political matters that question the perception of sex in society, particularly in the viewpoint of women. One major tension in The Cider House Rules is issue of abortion and the necessity of it in society, and for individuals. Jenny Garp in The World According to Garp is a groundbreaking feminist, with no sexual desires, but who is only condemned for nonexistent sexual activities. Focusing on the female experience with sex in society, Irving suggests that while sex is ever present, women are shamed for it. Through his political undertones, he proposes that it is necessary to make changes to the way sex and women are perceived in society. In both The World According to Garp and The Cider House Rules, Irving’s use of parallel structure and parallelism amongst characters, to portray the condemnation of women’s sexuality by society, through the theme of choices and consequences. Thus Irving suggests that women should overcome traditional norms and make deliberate decisions reflecting their desires, as sexuality is natural and an inherent part of life.

In both novels, through Irving’s use of parallel structure, the sexual situations involving women, both deliberate and unintended, reveal the condemning nature of their societies, as their sexualities habitually lead to dire consequences. In The World According to Garp, Jenny Fields, a young, sexually uninterested nurse, is lime lighted by her peers for her notoriously inappropriate behavior. Jenny demands for her freedom of lifestyle, ironically inappropriate for this time period: “‘[She] wanted a job and [she] wanted to live alone. That made [her] a sexual suspect. Then [she] wanted a baby, but [she] didn’t want to have to share [her] body or [her] life to have one. That made [her] a sexual suspect, too.’ And that was what made [her] vulgar too” (15). The anaphora of the phrases “[she] wanted” emphasizes the peculiarity of a woman choosing the course of her own life in this patriarchal society. Ironically, Jenny shuns the lifestyle a woman would normally be condemned for–being promiscuous–however, that does not cease the societal consequences that follow a determined woman. She is seen as a “sexual suspect” and “vulgar” revealing the corrosive link between a woman’s judgment and society, as both malicious words suggest that Jenny is criminal by societal laws. Similarly in The Cider House Rules, societal beliefs regarding women and sex accentuate the beliefs’ hazardous undertones. While on a date at the movies Homer observed audience members yelling, “‘Leave her!’ […] ‘Kill her!’[and] all Homer felt sure of was that no one would ever fuck her–she seemed protected from both sex and death by something as shift as the Cape Kenneth fog” (265). The paralleled structure between the italicized texts validates the negative connection between women and sex in this 20th century society. “Leave,” “Kill,” and “fuck” are all stressed equally, suggesting that the abandonment or murder of a woman is comparable to the copulating of one. Furthermore, the nature by which the audience yells such obscenities–in vindictive tones, with an emphasis on “her”–places blame on the woman, thus suggesting that if a woman has sex, she is at fault and responsible for any consequences. Homer’s certainty that the woman in the film would never have sex however, reveals the taboo undertones accompanying the society’s attitude towards female sexuality. Contrastingly, Irving toys with gender role reversal and power disparity, in regard to sexuality, in The World According to Garp. While describing the differing impressions associated with men and women undressing, Irving averts traditional gender power structures, which place men above women: “He was still only half dressed–an attitude that was perhaps, Helen realized, the most compromising for men: when they were not one thing and also not another. A woman half dressed seemed to have some power, but a man was simply not handsome as when he was naked, and not as secure as when he was clothed.” (405). The paralleled situations are contrasted to emphasize society’s distinct perceptions of femininity and masculinity. Femininity tends to seen through the lenses of beauty and sexualization. In the scene a woman undressing possesses power. The implied sexualization of her, in context with her adjacent power, is a viewpoint that contrasts social norms. Typically the sexualization of women demeans them, however Irving suggests that the sexualization of women is empowering; they can own their bodies and sexuality. His disregard for traditional norms reveals how men are atypically sexualized, by portraying their nudity as weak. The lack of power associated with male nudity in this passage is a role reversal; the men are not being praised for their sexuality, rather it is diminishing.

The women’s feelings towards their own sexualities are conveyed through paralleled structures, exhibiting how society condemns women’s choices, through their indifference or dismissal of society’s perception of sex, suggesting that society’s denunciation of sex interferes with the natural course of human sexuality. In The World According to Garp, Jenny Fields disregards traditional norms that categorize sexuality in misleadingly simple sectors. She believed that “In this dirty-minded world, […] you are either somebody’s wife or somebody’s whore–or fast on your way to becoming one or the other. If you don’t fit either category, then everyone tries to make you think there is something wrong with you. But, she thought, there is nothing wrong with me.” (13). The repetition of “somebody’s” and the possessive case exposes the inferiority of women at this time; second-class citizens, women belong to others. Likewise, the dichotomy presented suggests that women can only be sexual in two ways—as either a “whore”, who is not a participant but is used in sex, or a “wife”, in this society the possessed counterpart in a marriage. Jenny overlooks these social norms and consciously decides that her sexuality is her own; she does need to be dependent on someone to fulfill herself. However, Jenny’s complete dismissal of sex interferes with her everyday relationships, as she is unable to understand an inherent part of human life. While talking about prostitutes with her son Garp, Jenny struck him after she learned that he was familiar with the process of buying their services. Her anger transpired because “she didn’t understand this fucking lust, lust, lust at all” (156). The epizeuxis of the word “lust” stresses Jenny’s incapability to understand lust and sexuality, emphasizing her incapability to empathize. Her emotional distraught over the situation and her violent response to Garp’s sexuality display how her own disconnect with sex has impacted other aspects of her life. Jenny first denounced sex due to its societal burdens, and is now reaping repercussions. Inversely in The Cider House Rules, Candy is content due to her dismissal of societal beliefs and her simultaneous acceptance of sex. When she learned she was expecting she “was not ashamed of Homer; she was not ashamed of being pregnant, either.” (418) The anaphora of “not ashamed” emphasizes the authenticity of Candy’s feelings and implies that her lack of shame is atypical. Normally women regret sex as it taints the perception of their purity. Pregnancy then acts a consequence that women contend as retribution for their societal sins. Candy’s dismissal of her pregnancy as a consequence reveals that she her belief that sex is an inherent and natural part of the course of life. The presence of rules in The Cider House Rules is predominant, the theme often implying that rules can be strictly adhered to. In their paper Todd Davis and Kenneth Womack suggest that just “as with Larch’s convoluted relationships with women in The Cider House Rules, Homer’s broken promise to Melony and his secret love for Candy teach him to see life’s variegated shades of meaning, to understand the foibles of human interaction, and to recognize that a legalistic approach to “rules” never reveals the full complexity of any situation.” While Homer is not a woman, and the gender-associated condemnation of sex does not apply to him, he still abides by similar rules. However, Homer’s ability to surpass societal attitudes that advocate for a traditional sex culture, display how societal rules regarding sex and sexuality cannot encompass the intricate way sex is ingrained into human life. Homer is able to maintain healthy relationships and does not suffer from consequences directly related to his sexual activity because he does not let that impede him from his innate pursuits.

The parallel sentence structure and similarities amongst the choices Jenny Garp and Dr. Larch make surrounding women’s rights, in particular their sexual freedom, reveal the peculiar nature of sex in their respective societies; through their choices Jenny and Larch convey that women should make deliberate decisions regarding sex and that all people should make conscious efforts to undermine society’s inequity towards women. Dr. Larch, an obstetrician, “delivered babies into the world. His colleagues called this “the Lord’s work.” And he was an abortionist; he delivered mothers, too. His colleagues called this “the Devil’s work,” but it was all the Lord’s work to Wilbur Larch” (Cider House Rules, 67). The parallel sentence structures and the contradictory subject matter emphasize Larch’s lack of choice, and sequentially his vast amount of responsibility. The tension created by the opposing religious language reveals how Larch’s stance on abortion differs from the societal perception of it. The public views abortion as sinful, following a pregnancy through holy, while Larch views both acts as moral; however Irving’s accepting tone of abortion is revealed through the repetition of the word “delivered” in the contradictory sentences. Both actions portray Larch as bringing something forward, providing an act or gift. While delivering a baby can bring forth joy to someone, delivering an abortion can lighten burdens and positively impact lives as well. Thus, Larch shoulders responsibility while making the choice to partake in both sinful and holy acts in order to create more opportunity and choices for women. Furthermore, Larch stresses this belief, that abortion should be available to all women and that doctors should practice it while speaking to Homer. He argued, “As long [abortions are] against the law, how can [Homer] refuse? How can [he] allow [himself] a choice in the matter when there are so many women who haven’t the freedom to make the choice themselves? The women have no choice. I know [he knows] that’s not right, but how can [he]— [he] of all people, knowing what [he] know— HOW CAN [HE] FEEL FREE TO CHOOSE NOT TO HELP PEOPLE WHO ARE NOT FREE TO GET OTHER HELP?’” (518). The repetition of “how” accentuates Larch’s tenacious position and forceful tone toward the subject of abortions. To Larch the question of “how” is rhetorical—in his mind there is no choice. Ironically, Larch pushes for Homer to lose his own freedom of choice in order to create more access for other people to have the same liberty. The responsibility Larch pushes Homer to pursue, due to his forceful tone, suggest that Larch’s desire is not singularly placed upon Homer; Larch wishes for the country and government to take the same responsibility. Contrasting Larch’s forceful tone, when explaining why she believed in feminism Jenny explained, “she felt only that women—just like men—should at least be able to make conscious decisions about the course of their lives; if that made her a feminist, she said, then she guessed she was one” (World According to Garp, 183). While Jenny displays varying levels of feminism, from placid as this passage to radical, she as a character parallels Dr. Larch as both characters act as singular forces in their respective novels, explicitly advocating for women’s rights. Jenny and Larch highlight the right to choose, whether that is reproductively or simply making decisions, in simple terms to undermine the critical politics associated with the subject of women’s rights. By offering amenable descriptions of these topics, which are often in both novels only seen in radical cases, Irving puts forth the principles of feminism. This offering indicates to the readers, that despite what other extreme views of feminism they may see in the novel, the essence of it is not radical, and actually is quite simple.

Irving uses parallel structures and parallelism amongst characters in The World According to Garp and The Cider House Rules to explore the relationship between women, sex, and society. Irving reveals the demeaning attitude towards women in society for expressing their sexualities, and ultimately condemns it. Through the character’s choices Irving suggests that sexuality, particularly of women, should not be chastised by society, rather advancements should be made towards the progression of accepting it. The overarching theme of choices reveals that making deliberate decisions provides better outcomes for all parties; however, the option of making choices is not nearly present enough. Women struggle to find access to abortions, to choose who they have sex with, and to have control over their reputation, even on account of hypothetical situations. Irving thus suggests that to progress advancement for women’s rights, and sexual liberation, the freedom of choice, the ability to decide what course to take, needs to lie in the hands of women.