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John Irving

John Irving Essay - Critical Essays

John Irving American Literature Analysis

Irving has combined academic status and seriousness with a popular appeal that has made him an immensely successful American novelist. His The World According to Garp won several awards, and some three million copies of the paperback version were printed. Ironically, that same popular success is the primary criticism that his detractors seem to be able to level at him. Irving does not experiment with the novel form in the postmodern sense of Gass, Barth, and others; rather, he creates his content with an eye to its uniqueness. An “academic” writer who has succeeded in pleasing a general public, Irving is often accused of retreating from the true “serious” novel form and succumbing to the temptations of financial security and popularity. Admittedly using earlier popular novelists such as Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens, and Laurence Sterne as his models, Irving maintains that academic experimentation for its own sake has no value. While he makes use of accepted narrative elements to tell his story, the events he describes rival the strangeness of life itself, according to Irving.

Several settings and situations serve Irving over and over in his novels. One is the boys’ school setting, like Exeter, but with all the changes and revisions that a novelist would like reality to assume in the fictive form. In A Widow for One Year one of the major characters attends Exeter, and his father is an English professor there. Another favorite venue is Vienna—the entire novel Setting Free the Bears, but also some of The World According to Garp, A Son of the Circus, and large parts of The Hotel New Hampshire, takes place in Vienna. It stands for Old World decadence; if the Nazis are not invading, then terrorists living upstairs in the hotel are planning to bomb the opera house. Finally, the family unit is a setting for Irving. The family is always a little bizarre, very close, and friendly, a source of warmth for the family members. The father is a strong figure, the mother creative, the siblings close to one another. When, as in the case of Owen Meany, another figure is introduced into the family, his acceptance is total and complete.

Less easy to define and describe is Irving’s predilection for the violent. Every novel contains bizarre descriptions or stories of rape, murder, mutilation, torture, or unusual sexual practice, including incest. As virtually every novel deals with the maturation of the narrator, much loss of innocence, often in odd circumstances, occurs. Garp, for example, is conceived on a hospital bed; his mother is a nurse, and his father is a dying soldier. The union is a “benign rape” of the father by the mother. The Hotel New Hampshire, too, focuses on a rape—the rape of the protagonist’s sister in high school and her subsequent overcoming of the trauma. Despite the violence, Irving manages to insert a poetic justice into each story, as though in the absence of a god of divine justice or a fair world, the fiction writer has it in his or her power to adjust the events and their consequences to bring a sense of rightness to the story.

Because of Irving’s interest in the sport and recreation of wrestling, many incidents in his novels deal with wrestling coaches and team sports. Irving manages to incorporate elements of his personal life into his novels without actually writing his autobiography. The reader senses that Irving is thinly disguised in the narrative voice, and that sense gives the novels a depth of understanding. Irving also is fascinated with bears, not only in his first novel but, for example, in The Hotel New Hampshire, where the parents’ story of a bear begins the narrative.

Irving moves his novels through time; events occur as early as the late nineteenth century (when reaching back for a story’s “prehistory”) or as recently as the Ronald Reagan administration. Irving’s novels often begin in an idyllic boyhood time shortly after World War II (Irving was born in 1942), and the narrative character is often a young boy when the novel begins but a mature young man by the end of the novel.

In this sense, they are all Bildungsromane, novels of passage from boyhood to manhood, but they are more than that. The father figure is often a dreamer, one whose dreams are never very far away. The family, often large and democratic in style, grows with the father’s dreams, usually with the narrator being the most astute observer of the whole situation. One critic has noted the importance of the narrator’s being the “third child” of the family. Occasionally the mother disappears from the picture, sometimes by death (as in A Prayer for Owen Meany and The Hotel New Hampshire), but in The World According to Garp, she is there until her murder toward the end of the novel. Ambivalent about his own childhood (his stepfather raised him), Irving seems obsessed with the ideal family in every setting—as he is with incest, usually graphically described and discussed, which becomes a metaphor for the kind of family love beyond which it is impossible to go.

In A Widow for One Year, the author changes his focus to a daughter. The father is a philandering writer of children’s books who commits suicide. The mother deserts her daughter Ruth and does not reappear until the final chapter. The novel is Ruth’s story of coping with loss and trying to find love. She is a novelist who abhors autobiographically based novels but eventually find herself writing one. In his work Until I Find You, Irving does something of the same.

In a way, Irving’s repetition of certain motifs is his own novelistic experiment. Rather than avoiding repetition, Irving uses it to build a system of signs for the reader of the entire canon; critics actually look for the motifs and complain when one or another is missing from the most recent novel. Irving is accumulating a considerable body of work, all of it interwoven by these motifs. It can be said that his life work is all one novel, told in various disguises. Irving has one task: to fix the world’s injustices by telling of them in his own “repaired” version. He never denies that the bizarre, the accidental, and the “unfortunate” occur, but he maintains that every event serves a purpose in the larger, more positive construction called life. Nothing is an accident; everything that happens is supposed to happen. As Garp says, “Remember . . . everything.”

Underneath the quirky invention, the autobiographical convolutions, and the variety of sex and violence is a message of life and hope. Yes, Irving says through the character of Garp, everyone dies, but the main idea is to live—to have an adventure. If the frightening “Under Toad” (a child’s misunderstanding of “undertow”) lurks for everyone, it can be ignored through giving life and by loving.

Setting Free the Bears

First published: 1969

Type of work: Novel

A Vienna fantasy turns into a destructive adventure when the narrator sets free some zoo animals, fulfilling the wishes of his dead co-conspirator.

Set in Austria in 1967, Irving’s first novel introduced the bizarre style and outrageous imagination that was to become his trademark. The pair of young heroes, Hannes and Siggy, undetached from any kind of worldly commitment, travel by motorcycle through the European countryside, fantasizing, planning, complaining about all manner of authoritarianism, and generally enjoying the free life. One of their imaginary schemes is to free all the animals in the Vienna zoo as a statement against the encroaching fascist mentality of Europe, which had been the cause of World War II and was still in evidence after the war. Siggy dies, however, in a strange encounter with a swarm of bees. As a tribute to Siggy, his friend Hannes brings the plan to fruition, using Siggy’s elaborate notes about the schedule of guards, the layout, and other details of the zoo.

As in his 1998 novel A Widow for One Year, Irving divides the novel into three parts. The first section describes the meeting of the two protagonists, their picaresque adventures through Europe on motorcycles, and Siggy’s bizarre, tragicomic death from bee-stings. The second section is Siggy’s diary, a prehistory in that it describes Nazi Germany before his birth. Here the grotesque elements of oppression are highlighted—bizarre, ironic deaths and meaningless slaughter. In the third section, Hannes frees the animals, only to witness their destruction, a contradiction to the philosophical idea that freedom is necessarily good. The obvious parallel between social oppression and captivity of animals in the zoo is carefully foreshadowed in an incident in part 1, in which Siggy and Hannes free some goats, only to have them be destroyed by their freedom. A third character has a love affair with Hannes, but she leaves him after the zoo incident.

The central theme of the book is the question of captivity—whether a human being is captured by the everyday obligations and responsibilities of love, country, family, and the like or whether one can choose to free oneself and submit to the implicit destruction of that freedom. In this sense, Irving is an existentialist, trying, in the absence of provable larger plans, to establish right action by means of examining cause and effect—the consequence of his actions.

Like Heimito von Doderer, the German novelist, Irving tries to discover whether every person is a murderer because of the chained effects of his or her actions and because people put themselves in self-destructive but redeeming situations. In this respect, “saints” enter Irving’s narrators’ lives, saints being defined as persons who give their lives to some larger idea than their own ego. Owen Meany (in A Prayer for Owen Meany) is an obvious example; Siggy is another, less obvious, example.

Underneath the “coming of age” or Bildungsroman style of the novel is a larger philosophical theme. Irving tells his story in a way that enforces the notion of freedom for all individuals, a freedom to find one’s own private place. As a first novel, Setting Free the Bears is a daring and imaginative work, introducing the predominant themes that were to pervade Irving’s subsequent work.

The World According to Garp

First published: 1978

Type of work: Novel

The fictive biography of a writer in extremis, watching the world around him act out its destiny.

From the opening passages of this novel, the reader knows that an unusual story is about to be told. The prehistory of Garp is a wildly unorthodox conception: His mother, a nurse, physically cuts a soldier making a pass at her in a motion picture theater, then conceives Garp from another, almost comatose, dying soldier. Her life story later becomes her autobiography, A Sexual Suspect, “said to bridge the usual gap between literary merit and popularity,” and it is in competition with Garp’s novel, which is purely literary and not successful. Like Irving himself, the two writers fight with the apparent contradiction in the two approaches. As Garp struggles with his own writing, his life takes on all the aspects of cause and effect that he is trying to express in his work: His marriage almost fails, one child dies in a bizarre automobile accident in the family driveway, and both Garp and his mother are assassinated by ultra-sexist radicals (one a man, one a woman).

As a youth, Garp attends the Steering School, another of the New England private schools that are favorite sites for Irving. One family, the Holms, consisting of Ernie and Helen, a wrestling coach and his daughter, are the nontraditional family that Irving incorporates into virtually all his novels. Garp’s first writing environment is Vienna; his mother accompanies him there, and she plans to write a little something herself. The writer as subject fills The World According to Garp with a second layer of meaning; the novel clearly represents an attempt on Irving’s part to reconcile the elements of seriousness and popularity in his own work. Bizarre deaths continue, and accidents show that the plans of the characters must take accident and contingency into account. Irving establishes the notion of improbable events compiling life’s experiences.

While Garp is constructing his first book, The Pension Grillparzer, he experiences the life of Vienna, in particular through his relations with several prostitutes. One, Charlotte, is a kind of mother substitute for Garp; she dies in a hospital where the nurses think Garp is her son. Meanwhile, his mother, Jenny, is managing to write a thousand-page autobiography, one which attains great popular success, much to Garp’s chagrin. Garp sees a family of circus performers who own a trained bear, once again touching on Irving’s preoccupation with caged and captive animals. It is as though all The World According to Garp is a reassembly of the symbols from Irving’s own life, gathered together for an inventory; “life as a doomed effort at reclassification” is what one critic calls his chapter on The World According to Garp.

One of the reasons for this novel’s success is its recapitulation of Irving’s earlier motifs and their reconstruction around a hero who is, in fact, also a changer of facts to fit a poetic justice of his own. While it is clear that Garp and Irving are two different writers (a point that Irving has made many times in interviews by pointing out that his childhood was happy and his life uneventful), they both engage in the same writer’s habits: procrastination, long planning without actual literary output, travel to broaden and enlighten, envy of—but disdain for—popular writers whose prolific output makes their own “writer’s block” even more painful, and, the ultimate novelist’s power, the ability to see in bizarre events a greater justice at work.

To live without forgiveness, without understanding, is wrong, according to Garp. He can forgive his wife’s sexual infidelity (as she forgives his), even though it is partly responsible for the death of their youngest child. In the final analysis, The World According to Garp is a large idea with many digressions, all brought together in the novel’s theme: Apparently disconnected events do, in fact, link up into a life, and forgiveness is essential to healing.

Irving’s 1998 novel A Widow for One Year returns to many of the conflicts of Garp, including that of a parent and child. The autobiographical versus creative approach to writing controversy, the death of a son(s) in an automobile accident, the New England private school, life in a foreign city, and prostitutes are all central to this later novel, often favorably compared to Garp.

The Hotel New Hampshire

First published: 1981

Type of work: Novel

A father who is a dreamer seeks happiness for his family by running a series of hotels on two continents.

It is a miracle of novel writing that, once a financially successful and comprehensive novel has been published, the novelist can come up with yet another. The critics are always ready to pounce, and the drain of ideas from the previous novel is bound to tell on the imagination of the next. Irving wrote The Hotel New Hampshire in a remarkably short time, given the notoriety of his previous hit and claims on his time from filmmakers and interviewers. Large in scope and covering two continents, it does not stint in imagination, but it does make use of the groundwork of the others. Here, the father does not die in conception but is the hero of the book. The mother dies in a plane crash, as does the youngest child (who has the symbolic name of Egg), and the entire novel moves in a different circle from The World According to Garp.

Eventually there is incest between a brother and sister (John and Franny), which is inaugurated, in a sense, by the previous gang rape of Franny, a violent event that John is helpless to prevent. There is also a sense of revenge, of justice done in the fictive world, or rather in the imagination of the author, that sets this book apart from Irving’s previous success.

The novel begins with a long remembrance, in which the father of the family, Win Berry, recalls how he met his wife and fathered five children. The couple met at a seaside resort, where among their adventures they meet a Viennese bear trainer named Freud, who has taught the bear to ride on a motorcycle. The father purchases the bear, and Freud returns to Vienna, just before World War II. The resort, called Arbuthnot-by-the-Sea, is idyllic in the father’s...

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