The Plot

(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

Giles the goat-boy, also known as George Giles, was reared on a goat farm by a keeper. He gradually discovers that he has a special and heroic role in life. He lives in a land dominated by a school, New Tammany College, which is split into rival factions, primarily West Campus and East Campus. West Campus is controlled by an all-powerful computer, WESCAC, and dominated by a Grand Tutor. After learning more about his background, Giles decides that he has a daunting task: to displace the false Grand Tutor of the West Campus and end the control of WESCAC by entering its deep vitals and unplugging it. During the course of his adventures, he also meets such traditional heroic challenges as finding and mating with the love of his life, defeating and even killing enemies both human and animal, and performing such tasks as passing through the narrow and treacherous Scrapegoat Grate on his way to Commencement Gate.

A strange woman who later turns out to be Giles’s mother piques his interest in the world outside when she visits him at the goat farm where Max Spielman, a disgraced and outcast professor from the West Campus, has reared him from infancy. George, who has a strange half-human, half-goat body that prevents him from walking upright for long, first thinks that he was born from one of the goats on the farm. He instinctively feels called by some destiny higher than living out his life on the farm. Max and Giles, in the company of a black laborer named...

(The entire section is 571 words.)

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


University. The world.

New Tammany College

New Tammany College. Institution whose West Campus is the cultural heart of the western part of the unnamed university, which George Giles enters as a naïve aspirant Grand Tutor. (The story told by the novel is, in essence, the spiritual autobiography of the Grand Tutor in question, whose teachings have been codified in a Revised New Syllabus which—somewhat belatedly, and by far-from-universal consent—has absorbed, modified and replaced the obsolete Enochist Curriculum.)

Tower Hall

Tower Hall. Core of the West Campus, situated at the opposite end of the Great Mall from the Main Gate. The College Senate and various other committees meet there, and it is the location of the Main Stacks. The basements beneath it are the primary locations of the enormous computer WESCAC. The computer provides the ruling principle of the West Campus; its calculations determine the ultimate success or failure of all the students, and its system of examination defines the social order of the entire university, with the support of the technologically superior defensive program EAT. Within WESCAC’s Belly, Giles—or, as it turns out, GILES—was conceived and gestated. It is also within the Belly of the computer that Giles and Anastasia Stoker finally consummate their sexual relationship, contriving a significant and potentially earth-shaking climax.


(The entire section is 609 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

1. What seem to be the dominant attitudes expressed toward technology and science in this novel?

2. How do the various frames...

(The entire section is 104 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Giles Goat-Boy, Barth's greatest commercial success, is a novel concerned with the question of innocence and its loss. This narrative...

(The entire section is 89 words.)

Techniques / Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Like the manipulation of eighteenth-century novelistic conventions in The Sot-Weed Factor (1960), the use of allegory in Giles...

(The entire section is 342 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

While Giles Goat-Boy has not maintained the reputation it enjoyed when it was published, it is an important book in Barth's career. It...

(The entire section is 178 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Harris, Charles B. Passionate Virtuosity: The Fiction of John Barth. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1983. Sees the book as a search for unity, in which Barth speaks the unspeakable.

Safer, Elaine B. The Contemporary American Comic Epic: The Novels of Barth, Pynchon, Gaddis, and Kesey. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1988. Treats elements of the absurd and the parody of Emersonian ideas of education in the novel.

Scholes, Robert. Fabulation and Metafiction. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1979. Contains a pioneering treatment of the novel. Sees the book as a combination of philosophy and myth.

Tobin, Patricia. John Barth and the Anxiety of Continuance. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992. Sees George Giles as poet-as-hero. Focuses on the Oedipus story as source.

Walkiewicz, E. P. John Barth. Boston: Twayne, 1986. Treats the novel in terms of myth, satire, and parody and the idea of repetition within it.