The General Instructions section on the inside cover serve an important purpose relating to how we are to read Jimmy Corrigan. One that stands out above the others is instruction five – the exam. Here, a reader is given what is essentially a flaw by flaw guide for how to approach Jimmy as a character. What stood out particularly well within the context of the exam was the volume of questions pertaining to interactions with women. Furthermore, upon reading the book, the answer to each question becomes obvious.
For lack of a better idea of how to present this, I feel that the best way to break down the exam section of the General Instructions is simply to go through the most pertinent questions to the text and answer them as the main character would.
Question one reads both, “You are: A. Male, B. Female,” and “If b you may stop. Put down your booklet. All others may continue.” Jimmy would, being a male, obviously have selected a. That, however, is not what is important. The subtext of the question, stating that, if the theoretical test-taker answered b, they are not to continue with the exam is far more interesting. Throughout the book, we see Jimmy’s relationship to women running the gauntlet from strained, to fearful, to completely unhealthy. Take, for example, his relationship with Peggy from work. He admires her from afar but that is the extent of it. She treats him poorly, even with a certain level of disdain but he keeps on coming back. He keeps thinking about her. It seems as if he keeps returning to her for more abuse because, if nothing else, it is attention. That sort of relationship dynamic with anyone, let alone a member of the opposite sex can only be classified as unhealthy. Why, though, does he allow it to come to that? The answer can be found in question one. Perhaps because of his strained, lifelong relationship with an overbearing mother providing him with his only image of a woman or because of his absent father never teaching him how to treat one (not that he treats them well once he enters the story), he is completely and totally unable to relate to women in any way. Thus, in that context, the subtext of question one may as well read “If b, put down your booklet because you will not be understood and therefore have no place within the narrative of Jimmy Corrigan’s life.” Additionally, question one provides the proper context for how to read questions six and seven.
Question number six reads, “The presence of members of the opposite and/or attractive
sex makes you feel: A. weird, B. awful, C. terrified, D. hopeless, E. like killing yourself.” Unlike with question one: there is no single definitive answer here. Jimmy would likely pick an amalgamation of all five options. This is exemplified by Jimmy’s imagined life with the doctor who treats him after getting hit by the mail truck.
Having been a teenage boy once, I feel that I am qualified to say that, as it relates to women, Jimmy thinks like he is still thirteen or fourteen years old. Upon seeing a small portion of the doctor’s bra, his imagination runs wild. He imagines himself having sex and running away with her and, eventually getting married before snapping back to the reality that she is just there to fix his nose. Now, returning briefly to the idea of being a teenager, I can attest that, when presented with the wonderfully vexing mystery that girls represented, it does not take much to get a teenage boy’s mind racing. The emotion is some uncomfortable yet essential mix of fear, embarrassment, excitement , weirdness, and every now and then (when something went wrong), a complete desire to kill yourself (in a metaphorical sense, of course). It is apparent that, in that particular scene, Jimmy is experiencing the exact same feeling that we (and I speak, of course, to the males in the class) all have.
This relative immaturity in interacting with women stems from what the reader learned in question one: that Jimmy can, in no way, relate to the opposite sex. Thus, every miniscule gesture or accidental exposure of undergarments leads to misinterpretation and deluded fantasies. So, it seems appropriate that Jimmy would, in this case, break the boundaries of the test and choose all of the answers. I conclude that, in an effort to better understand his character, a reader should do the same.
Question seven is the culmination that questions one and six have been building to. It asks, “The possibility of finding personal and/or social contact with members of the opposite sex is: A. laughable, B. incomprehensible, C. all you ever think about, D. a, b, and c, E. a, b, c, and d.” When sitting in a hospital room before the entrance of the doctor, Jimmy’s father broaches the subject of a girlfriend. Rather than simply tell the truth that he is single, Jimmy reacts with visible terror, as evidenced by the red panel featuring his horrified face and the word, “Girlfriend,” written in bold, white capital letters. He casts about for a lie and ends up unconvincingly hinting to his father through a combination of silence and appeasement (his repetition of, “Uh, I guess.”) that he does indeed have a girlfriend. This awkward conversation brings up a very real insecurity in Jimmy’s life and, when combined with the additional insecurity that is his father’s mere existence, leads only to greater despair. Without meaning to, his father has pointed out the ridiculousness of the notion that Jimmy will ever meet a woman with whom he can have a relationship. In that regard, the correct answer to the question is option D (and option E, really because they ask the same question). It is laughable in its absurdity within the context of the story. Given everything the reader has learned about Jimmy and how he interacts with women, it is incomprehensible. Clearly, the fact that he cares enough about it to lie to his father, a man who he owes nothing, combined with the scene covered by question six, it is all he thinks about.
There seem to be a great many things that Jimmy either does not understand or is too afraid to try to understand – not the least of which are women. A reading of Jimmy Corrigan without taking the test as he would could lead to an idea of him being dumb, ignorant, or even misogynistic rather than just weak and scared.