As is appropriate for a modern picaresque, this novel presents numerous characters. They appear, disappear, and, when least expected, reappear. Even the minor characters are unconventional, and all in some way give definition to Garp and his family. In short, they populate the writer’s world. Usually, they illustrate one or more of the four motifs in Garp’s life: writing, wrestling, sex, and death.
Often the manner in which a character will die accompanies that character’s first appearance. For example, Tinch, Garp’s English mentor at Steering, tells his pupil that he is himself rotting on the inside, though Irving reports that “Old Stench,” as the boys call him, will actually freeze to death some years later. This minor character actually brings the novel to its second major phase, for it is Tinch who suggests Garp’s trip to Vienna, the city which becomes so important in his formation as a writer.
Similarly, Garp’s unconsummated sexual experience with Cushie occurs on the muddy banks of Steering River. The riverbank also provides Garp’s first encounter with the “Under Toad”: “An awful slorping noise pursued him through the mud flats, as if beneath the mud some mouth was gasping to suck him in.”
Symmetry also occurs in the relationships between characters. When Garp consummates his relationship with Cushie, it occurs in a bed of the Steering Infirmary, recalling Garp’s own conception in a patient’s bed at Mercy Hospital. In the same vein, Charlotte, the Vienna whore, resembles her city; her outward glamour...
T. S. Garp, a writer. Because his father dies before he is born, Garp grows up in a world created by his mother. As a result, he spends most of his life trying to create his own identity and never fully achieves one separate from that of his mother. He is educated at a private boys’ school, where his mother is the head nurse. He goes to Europe after graduation and becomes closely involved in the darker side of life in Vienna. He returns home and marries the daughter of his wrestling coach, and while she teaches, he stays home and cares for the children and writes. He indulges in a series of affairs with other women but does little to hide the fact from his wife. He writes three books and loses a son in a bizarre car accident that maims his other son and emasculates his wife’s lover. He becomes the wrestling coach at Steering School, buys the Percy mansion, and, at the age of thirty-three, is shot to death by the youngest Percy daughter, who is now hopelessly insane.
Jenny Fields, a nurse. Jenny believes in evidence and results rather than emotions. Determined to have a child but having no desire to have a husband or to have anything to do with a man, Jenny has a very clinical one-night encounter with a brain-damaged soldier, who dies shortly thereafter, and produces Garp. She subsequently takes a position at the Steering School so that Garp will have a proper education and goes about attending classes and reading voraciously so that Garp will have the benefit of her knowledge. After Garp graduates, she goes to Vienna with him and there writes her autobiography, which becomes a feminist sensation. Her family home in Vermont becomes a haven for distressed women, and, eventually, she decides to enter politics. At a political rally, she is killed by a man dressed as a deer hunter.
Helen Holm, an English professor. Abandoned by her mother, Helen is brought up by her father, a wrestling coach. She becomes introverted and somewhat shy and is given to reading books. When her father takes a position at Steering School, Helen momentarily mistakes Jenny for her mother, who also was a nurse. She earns a Ph.D. at the age of twenty-three, becomes a college professor, marries Garp, and has two children. She has a number of affairs, the last being with Michael Milton, whom she accidentally emasculates in a car accident. Eventually, she takes a position at Steering and outlives Garp by many years, dying in old age.
Ernie Holm, a wrestling coach. A small, neat man who is nearly blind, Ernie takes the position of wrestling coach at Steering School so that his daughter will have a good education. He does not realize that Steering School is a boys’ school until it is too late. He is the first friend Jenny Fields ever has, and it is because of him that Garp finds a sport in which he excels, a very important part of a Steering boy’s life. He dies of a heart attack while masturbating at home, at nearly the same time that Jenny is murdered, although the events of his death are kept quiet. He is buried at Steering School the same day as Stewart Percy.
Dean Bodger, the dean of Steering School. A short-haired, muscular man, he is a brave and kindhearted individual who becomes a friend of Jenny Fields. His grasp of reality is a little off, but he means well, and it is he who rearranges the scene of Ernie Holm’s death so that his daughter will not know what...