Study Guide

Giles Goat-boy

by John Barth

Giles Goat-boy Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Billy Bocksfuss lives contentedly in the goat barns of New Tammany College, thinking he is a goat and the child of Maximilian “Max” Spielman, his keeper and tutor, and a goat named Mary V. Appenzeller. One day, after killing his best friend, a goat named Redfern’s Tommy, Billy learns that he is human. For his human name, he chooses George, after George Herrold, the man who found him as an infant on a booklift leading into the belly of WESCAC (West Campus Automatic Computer), the giant computer that runs New Tammany College. In a way, George’s father is WESCAC, for George resulted from an experiment in which WESCAC collected samples of human sperm to produce the GILES, Grand-Tutorial Ideal, Laboratory Eugenical Specimen.

In rescuing the baby, George Herrold was partly EATen by WESCAC. EAT stands for Electro-encephalic Amplification and Transmission, a means of disrupting brain waves and thus killing people; its first test was against the Amaterasu, against whom New Tammany College still fought after it had defeated Siegfrieder College in Campus Riot II. Max and Eblis Eierkopf pushed the EAT button, killing thousands of Amaterasus, something for which Max feels great remorse. Only partially EATen when he rescued the infant, George Herrold still lives but acts like a child.

George learns about sex from watching students make love around the goat barns. He learns about love from Max and from a woman he calls Lady Creamhair, who feeds him peanut butter sandwiches and tells him stories such as “The Three Billy Goats Gruff.” Later, he discovers she is Virginia Hector, his mother, but first he decides that her concern for him is sexual and acts accordingly, to his later shame.

At the age of twenty-two, George sets out to achieve what he feels is his destiny and to fulfill his assignment, “Pass All Fail All.” Only a Grand Tutor can enter WESCAC’s belly un-EATen. Since he had come from WESCAC’s belly by means of the booklift, he thinks he is destined to be a Grand Tutor. As Grand Tutor, he intends to enter WESCAC’s belly, destroy its AIM (Automatic Implementation Mechanism), and thus prevent Campus Riot III. One night, awakening to the sound of Max blowing the shofar, he leaves the goat barns, walking toward the central campus of New Tammany College. When George reaches a fork in the road and Max tries to get him to return to the barns, he plunges through the woods, determined to continue. George Herrold and Max accompany George. They reach a river with a washed-out bridge. There, George Herrold drowns trying to cross to Anastasia...

(The entire section is 1055 words.)

Giles Goat-boy Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

One of the attractions that Giles Goat-Boy held for its initial readers and that certainly contributed to its early commercial success was its sustained allegory. Barth employs the metaphor of the university as the ground of his setting so that the Cold War world is divided into Eastern and Western campuses, and the various quads are identified with the major powers of post-World War II politics.

For example, the United States corresponds to New Tammany, Germany to Siegfrieder College, Asia to the monastic world of T’ang, and the Soviet Union to Nikolay College. In Barth’s novel, New Tammany is lead by Lucius Rexford, also known as “Lucky,” a thinly disguised portrait of President John F. Kennedy. In addition, various political ideologies are presented in allegorical fashion: For example, communism is described as Student-Unionism. Events of twentieth century history are also represented in Barth’s allegory so that, for example, World War II becomes Campus Riot II. The Eastern and Western campuses of Barth’s world-as-university are each controlled by a separate computer, which is known by the acronym of WESCAC in the west, and Barth’s novel is presented as a transcription of tapes from WESCAC’s files.

Like the manipulation of eighteenth century novelistic conventions in The Sot-Weed Factor, the use of allegory in Giles Goat-Boy is designed to assert the fictional nature of Barth’s narrative and to suggest at the same time a correspondence between this elaborate fiction and the historical world of the early 1960’s.

Into this world Barth injects George, a young man who is raised by Max Spielman in the New Tammany goat barns. Max was essential to the New Tammany effort in Campus Riot II, but he has since been blacklisted and expelled from any place of power. George spends his early life as a goat, and his narrative gains much of its humor from its caprine perspective. After realizing his true calling, however,...

(The entire section is 813 words.)