Social Concerns / Themes

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 756

In Difficulties with Girls, Amis returns to the relationship between Patrick Standish and his wife Jenny Standish, the characters from his novel, Take a Girl Like You (1960). In that novel Patrick worked hard to bed Jenny. He managed to get her drunk and have sex with her while she...

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In Difficulties with Girls, Amis returns to the relationship between Patrick Standish and his wife Jenny Standish, the characters from his novel, Take a Girl Like You (1960). In that novel Patrick worked hard to bed Jenny. He managed to get her drunk and have sex with her while she was passed out. Jenny became pregnant and Patrick married her. However, she had a miscarriage and future children seem unlikely for her. Difficulties with Girls takes place seven years after the end of Take a Girl Like You, placing the time of the novel's events in 1968, just before the passing of the English law that legalized homosexuality.

Homosexuality is one of the more sensitive topics dealt with in Difficulties with Girls. For the lovers, Eric and Stevie, this new legitimacy takes some of the zest out of their relationship. No longer will it be daringly illegal. Some critics object to Amis's depiction of homosexuality. They note that in the novel people are divided into two groups: those with male qualities and those with non-male qualities. Thus, the novel's homosexual couple, Eric and Stevie, is divided into maleness and non-maleness, with Stevie being called "she" and representing the girl element in that relationship's "difficulties with girls." These critics note that many homosexuals reject the notion that any partnership is necessarily that of a person who assumes the role of the male and a person who assumes the role of a "non-male."

This criticism does not seem to have fazed Amis, who continues to include homosexual relationships in his fiction. In Difficulties with Girls, he portrays relationships in friction, and he suggests that this friction stems in part from two divergent views of sexuality, one of which he associates with males and the other with non-males. Eric explains it to Patrick by asserting that "you and I are by nature, by our respective natures, males who are irresistibly attracted by a non-male principle. In your case, straightforward, women; in my case not straightforward, not women — but, non-male, except anatomically. And it's the clash between male and non-male that causes all the trouble. They're different from us. More like children. Crying when things go wrong. Making difficulties just so as to be a person." It is no wonder that feminists in particular have attacked Difficulties with Girls as misogynistic.

Women and homosexuals are not the only ones touched by Amis's satire. He ridicules modern psychology, everyone having anything to do with the publishing industry, bosses, tavern owners, racists, and snobs. Of these, psychology and publishing receive the most attention. Psychology appears in the form of Tim Valentine, whose real name is Tim Vatcher. He is a strange man who may or may not rent a flat in the building in which Patrick and Jenny live, but who manages to impose himself on his would-be neighbors anyway. A psychologist has told him that his emotional problems stem from his latent homosexuality. In spite of the great faith he puts in modern psychology, sexuality is not really at the root of his problems. Eric and Stevie take him on an evening jaunt through homosexual hangouts, and he is horrified and repelled by the sexual behavior he witnesses. Perhaps his problem is that he is too gullible.

Amis portrays the publishing industry as capricious and silly. Patrick attends a party given in honor of the poets whose work will appear in a series of books to be published by his employer. There, he meets a young woman poet who firmly declares that she does not like reading poetry, that in fact she does not like reading, and that she writes poetry without benefit of any examples. Her work is appalling, but the publisher does not care; good work is not what is looked for — work that will fill the pages of a profitable series of books is all that is wanted. Patrick sometimes feels lost in the world of publishing. He edits a series of books about ancient peoples, and he applies high academic standards to his work. Even so, he must wade through drivel that is more fantasy than reality, with cultures being portrayed as fiction rather than as well-researched fact. In the world of publishing, it does not matter whether the book is a fraud; will it sell? Inept at office politics, unable to forcefully advocate his views, Patrick is torn by his desire to edit high quality books and to simply survive and keep his job, which could be lost anytime that his boss thinks it is not profitable enough.

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