In The World According to Garp, Irving’s allows us to see the two extremes of feminism. The more positive form of feminism is represented by Garp’s mother, Jenny Fields, who doesn’t even consider herself a feminist. The more hostile feminist extreme is expressed by the Ellen Jamesians, a group of women who have purposely had their tongues removed in a protest against the rape of an 11-year-old girl Ellen James. This group views women as victims and men as violators and it is through the Ellen Jamesians that Irving seeks to contrast this view with Jenny Fields. This essay describes the Ellen Jamesian Society and their interpretation of feminism, as well as how said interpretation has tarnished their relationships with Ellen James and Garp.
The Ellen Jamesians do not see feminism as a movement advocating equal rights for women but rather as a battle between the sexes. In their eyes, all men are enemies and everything bad that happens to women happens simply because they are women, and not men. The Ellen Jamesian feminist movement is a revolution against men. It’s about switching the roles and putting women on top. They do not strive for gender equality but rather for female superiority and the ridding of men, instead of a society where men and women work together for women’s rights. By completely isolating themselves from men, however, and praising such radical ideas about a male-free society, the Ellen Jamesians actually scare away people who might have supported them had they proclaimed a more humane feminist vision. As a result, they not only cut themselves from the men, but they also cut themselves from anyone who doesn’t completely share their values. In this way, they, essentially, see everything in black and white.
The extreme feminism represented by the Ellen Jamesians is also more violent than the other feminist views presented by Irving. This violence is seen on several accounts, most notably in the assassination of Garp. What’s more, the Ellen Jamesians never really provide a feminist philosophy; the only thing that technically makes them feminists is that they hate men. At the end of the book, we see their popularity decrease to a point where no one even knows who they are anymore: “Ellen Jamesians were not much admired- they never have been, and their radicalism (now) seemed growingly obsolete and pathetic” (534). This emphasizes what little to no influence the Ellen Jamesians had on women’s rights since they did not manage to affect any real social change.
Ellen James does not support the radical ideas of feminism that are preached by the Ellen Jamesians. She actually goes as far as to write an essay, Why I am not an Ellen Jamesian, to illustrate why that is: “It recounted her rape, her difficulty with it; it made what the Ellen Jamesians did seem like a shallow, wholly political imitation of a very private trauma. Ellen James said that the Ellen Jamesians had only prolonged her anguish; they had made her into a very public casualty” (538). Unlike the Ellen Jamesians, Garp understands that Ellen James is a real person who has no wish whatsoever to be used for political purposes: “Ellen James is not a symbol” (552). However, the Ellen Jamesians are so paranoid that they don’t even care about their own symbol’s rejection of them. Ellen James considers that the Ellen Jamesian feminism is too hostile and too radical: “They make everything so black and white” (552). She means that the Ellen Jamesians do not accept anyone’s opinion unless it is the same as there’s differing opinions, especially where their image of men being the enemy is concerned.
Ellen James goes on to write: “That’s why I hate them. They force you to be like them – or else you’re their enemy” (552). All the women who belong to this group must share the same principles. However, Ellen James agrees with Garp: the Ellen Jamesians are crippling themselves counteract by removing their tongues, the one thing that could help further the struggle for an equal society. Ellen declares that she would never have cut out her tongue of her own will and thereby give up speech because she has a lot of opinions to express. The Ellen Jamesians’ speechlessness implies that maybe they don’t have any actual feminist beliefs they could share with the world if they were able to speak.
Garp is constantly raging an inner battle against the Ellen Jamesians because he really hates their manner of depicting feminism. Likewise, the Ellen Jamesians hate Garp, of course because he is a man but also because he is always questioning the usefulness of their cut tongues. Garp just can’t bring himself to leave the Ellen Jamesians alone, he feels obliged to deal with them: “Garp decided to take them on, these grown-up crazies, these devout fanatics who – even when their chosen symbol rejected them – insisted they knew more about Ellen James than Ellen James knew about herself” (552). He’s taken it upon himself to prove the Ellen Jamesians just how wrong their way of expressing feminism is. When Jenny Fields is assassinated, the Ellen Jamesians take another step forward in male discrimination by arranging “the first feminist funeral in New York” (487). Not even Garp, Jenny’s own son, is allowed to attend his mother’s funeral because the Ellen Jamesians claim that: “It’s a funeral for women…Women loved her, women will mourn her” (490). Undeniably, Jenny Fields was loved by men too, including Hernie Holm. Garp’s private battle with the Ellen Jamesians ends when Pooh Percy, an Ellen Jamesian from his past who is convinced that Garp is to blame for her sister’s death, shoots him.
Irving illustrates several feminist views in his novel, but the most negative view is seen through the Ellen Jamesians. Unfortunately, these are the only female characters that actually go forth and get actively involved in the movement. The Ellen Jamesians self-inflicted speechlessness keeps them from having any real influence in the struggle for women’s equality, and they don’t have much in the way of a feminist philosophy: they’re all about getting rid of men. As a result, the Ellen Jamesian feminist movement is ultimately useless.