Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 717 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Jenny Fields, a generous but unconventional woman, decides that she wants, more than anything, a child of her own; still, she does not want a husband. She has a child by an Air Force technical sergeant named Garp, who, as a ball-turret gunner, has sustained brain damage. Since Sergeant Garp had lost all mental function, Jenny plans the insemination entirely on her own, and since she has never learned the man’s first name but wishes to memorialize him through the child, she calls the boy “T. S.,” the flyer’s rank.
This outrageous and absurdly dark humor characterizes nearly all the novel’s many episodes. Young Garp inherits his father’s considerable libido as well as his mother’s scrupulous honesty. His experiences at Steering, where Jenny later works as school nurse, teach him more about life than any of the courses that he takes. Like Jenny, Garp reads avidly, but he finds balance in this intellectual activity by wrestling on the Steering team. Through his wrestling, Garp meets Helen Holm, the coach’s daughter, a strikingly beautiful, supremely intellectual girl who will eventually become his wife. The purity of Garp’s feelings for Helen contrasts with his lust for “Cushie,” Cushman Percy, the daughter of an incompetent history instructor at Steering.
Unlike Helen, Garp is not intellectually inclined and does not wish to be. He is a mediocre student and, with the unconventional Jenny’s support, never applies for...
(The entire section is 533 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Jenny Fields is the only daughter of a New England shoe manufacturer and lives in her family’s enormous house in Dog’s Head Harbor, New Hampshire. After a few years, Jenny leaves the expensive private school her parents had selected for her and instead enrolls in nursing school. Attractive and self-assured, she has definite opinions about lust and sex; she is opposed to lust and abstains from sex. She is young, attractive, and self-assured, so friends and family assume she is sexually active.
Jenny had never had sex until one night at work at a hospital during World War II. She had decided to have sex for the sole purpose of procreation; she wanted a child. In the hospital where she works, many badly wounded soldiers are in recovery, or dying. Jenny sorts the soldiers into categories, including The Goners, those who are most severely injured. One night, Jenny sexually arouses one of the Goners, a soldier identified only as Technical Sergeant, or T. S., Garp, who had been horribly wounded while serving as a gunner on a warplane.
As planned, Jenny became pregnant with the soldier’s child—Garp, however, died. The baby was given the last name Garp, but because the boy had to have a first name as well, he was given the initials T and S, which officially stood for nothing; only Jenny knew the initials stood for “technical sergeant.” She never knew the soldier’s first name.
Jenny loved being a nurse. To simplify her life and solidify her identity, she wore her nurse’s uniform at all times. She took a job at Steering School, an all-boy’s preparatory school near her parents’ home. She could work as a nurse every day and provide for her young son a quality education. A lover of books, she remained committed to the rejection of lust and sex and became a curious but respected member of the Steering School community.
The Steering family, who resides in the nicest, biggest house on campus, is represented by Midge Steering Percy; her fat husband, Stewart; their three sons and two daughters; and a large, mean Newfoundland dog named Bonkers. As young Garp grows up at Steering School, he plays with the Percy children. One fateful day, Garp is viciously attacked by Bonkers, who bites off Garp’s left earlobe. The Percy sons do not play much of a role in Garp’s life, but the daughters, Cushman, or Cushie, and Bainbridge, or Pooh, are important to him. With Cushie, Garp has his first sexual experience, in the infirmary annex at Steering School.
Jenny decides that Garp should participate in a sport. After some investigation, she decides on wrestling. The wrestling coach, an Iowa native named Ernie Holm, has a bespectacled bookworm of a daughter named Helen. Helen loves to read, perhaps even more so than Jenny. Garp falls in love with both wrestling and the wrestling coach’s daughter. Garp’s other passions are running and writing. He writes poetry and stories and dreams of someday being a successful author. He believes that most successful authors had either lived in or traveled extensively in Europe. His English...
(The entire section is 1266 words.)