The World according to Garp, John Irving
The World according to Garp John Irving
(Full name John Winslow Irving) American novelist, short story writer, essayist, memoirist, and screenwriter.
The following entry presents criticism on Irving's novel The World according to Garp (1978) through 1998. See also John Irving Criticism (Volume 13), and Volumes 23, 112.
The World according to Garp, Irving's fourth novel, has widely been considered by critics and popular audiences alike to be his masterpiece. The central focus of the narrative revolves around a novelist named T. S. Garp and his unusual relationships with his mother, his wife, his two sons, and the world around him. Throughout the text, Irving also provides commentary on the causes and manifestations of the contemporary feminist movement, primarily through the character of Garp's mother, Jenny Fields, who becomes an international feminist icon. Though Garp has a loving relationship with his mother, he finds himself targeted as an enemy of feminism due to the content of his novels, which attempt to understand the role of justice, kindness, and love in the modern world through vivid portrayals of extremism and gender violence. Long excerpts from Garp's books are included within Irving's novel, as is an epilogue that provides information about what happens to the remaining characters after Garp's death.
Plot and Major Characters
The World according to Garp opens with Garp's conception and concludes with his death. The majority of the novel is narrated by a scholar who is working on a biography of Garp titled Lunacy and Sorrow: The Life and Art of T. S. Garp. Garp's mother, Jenny, works as a nurse in a Boston hospital during World War II. Discouraged by the limited opportunities available to women at the time, Jenny decides to impregnate herself, using the body of a wounded, brain-damaged soldier, whom she knows only as “Technical Sergeant Garp,” shortly before he dies. After Jenny gives birth to her son—whom she names “T. S. Garp” after his father—she accepts a position as a nurse at The Steering School, a prestigious all-boys boarding school. Garp eventually attends Steering himself, where he decides that he wants to become a writer. He falls in love with Helen Holm, the daughter of his high school wrestling coach, but Helen refuses to marry him until he becomes a true writer. After graduation, Garp decides to move to Vienna, Austria, to gain the life experience he needs to become a novelist. Jenny decides to move to Vienna with Garp and begins writing her own book, an autobiography titled A Sexual Suspect. After Jenny finishes her memoir, Garp writes the novella “The Pension Grillparzer,” which convinces Helen to marry him. Jenny and Garp move back to the United States, with both seeking publication for their respective books. Jenny meets an editor, John Wolf, who consents to publish A Sexual Suspect, which quickly becomes an international best-seller and inspires a fanatical following of women devoted to Jenny's pro-feminist ideals. She is particularly lionized by a radical organization known as the Ellen James Society—so-called because its members willingly have their tongues amputated as a show of solidarity with an eleven-year-old girl named Ellen James, who was raped by a man who subsequently cut out her tongue. With the earnings from her wildly successful book, Jenny retires from nursing and moves to her parents' home in Dog's Head Harbor, on the New Hampshire coast, where she runs a shelter for abused women. Among Jenny's devotees is Roberta Muldoon, a transsexual, formerly known as Robert Muldoon, a tight-end for the Philadelphia Eagles football team. Garp also becomes a published novelist, but his works fail to attract the popular attention that his mother's memoir received. Helen begins working as a professor of English literature and Garp assumes the role of a house-husband, taking care of their two sons, Duncan and Walt, while he writes at home. Garp eventually finishes two novels, Procrastination and The World according to Bensenhaver, though Bensenhaver is vehemently denounced by the Ellen Jamesians and feminists alike due to its graphic depictions of rape and violence. Throughout his marriage, Garp engages in sexual affairs with various babysitters, friends, and neighbors, causing a rift in their marriage which inspires Helen to begin her own affair with one of her graduate students, Michael Milton. Tragedy occurs when Garp and his sons recklessly pull into their driveway one evening, inadvertently colliding with another car in which Helen is engaged in a sexual act with Milton. Garp's youngest son, Walt, is killed in the accident, and Duncan loses an eye. The family travels to Dog's Head Harbor to recuperate and Garp and Helen are able to reconcile their marital problems. Soon after, Garp and Helen's third child, Jenny Garp, is conceived. Several months later, Jenny Fields is assassinated by a man who believes that A Sexual Suspect has destroyed his marriage. After Jenny's followers declare that no men will be allowed at her funeral, Roberta helps Garp dress as a woman in order to attend the services. After Garp is exposed during the funeral, he flees to the airport where he meets the now-grown Ellen James. Ellen informs Garp that she despises the Ellen Jamesians and commends him for portraying the reality of rape so brutally in The World according to Bensenhaver. Garp then takes Ellen home with him, effectively adopting her into his family. Roberta convinces Garp to form a charitable organization, The Fields Foundation, in his mother's honor and he returns to The Steering School, accepting a position as their wrestling coach. During a wrestling practice, Garp is shot to death by a woman named Pooh Percy, an Ellen Jamesian who blames him for the death of her sister, whom Garp knew in his youth. An epilogue entitled “Life after Garp” reveals what later becomes of many of the characters, including Helen, Duncan, and Roberta, noting that Duncan arranged for Garp's last unfinished novel My Father's Illusions to be published posthumously.
The World according to Garp examines a broad range of issues, including family relations, gender roles, feminism, and death while focusing thematically on the relationship between sex and violence as well as fiction and reality. The novel is generally regarded as a family saga due to its epic length, treatment of three generations within a single family, and emphasis on family and marital relationships. Garp's dealings with his mother, his wife, and his two sons form the core of the narrative. Irving frequently portrays Garp as a victim of obsessive anxiety about the myriad dangers that could potentially befall his wife and children. Such unforeseen dangers that lurk in Garp's world are symbolized by the “Under Toad”—Walt's term for the ocean's “undertow” he has been warned about at the beach. Garp's fanatical efforts to protect his family from harm prove futile as the book unfolds and random violence and unexpected death occur again and again. Deconstructing traditional gender roles is also a key theme within the novel—Garp is comfortable in his gender-reversed role as house-husband and remains cognizant of gender issues due to his mother's position as a feminist leader. When Garp dresses as a woman to attend his mother's funeral, he obtains a first-hand experience of how women are treated by society. The transsexual Roberta further exemplifies the novel's concern with non-traditional gender roles, transforming a football player into an ardent advocate for women's rights. Feminism, particularly in its most radical and extreme forms, is also a recurring theme in The World according to Garp. Though Jenny Fields does not consider herself to be a feminist, she is identified as such because she has no dependence on men, evidenced by the fact that she never married and intentionally impregnated herself. The Ellen James Society, which regards Jenny Fields as its heroine, represents an extreme brand of hatred toward men that ultimately leads to Garp's death. The connection between sex and violence is also examined throughout the course of the story. In addition to the two assassinations—which are both inspired by sexual politics—the novel includes a number of violent incidents that are either inspired by or directly caused by lust and sex, including the loss of an eye, women's tongues being cut out, several rapes, and an accidental castration. Irving also constructs a controlled interplay between fiction and reality in The World according to Garp, structuring the narrative along three levels of reality: the fictional world Garp creates in his novels, which closely resembles his own life; the fictional world of Garp's reality, which closely resembles Irving's own life; and the extra-textual world in which John Irving lives and works as a novelist. Through this meta-narrative structure, Irving explores the ways in which reality is processed by the imagination in the creation of fiction.
The World according to Garp has been met with enthusiasm by a majority of critics, with most commentators generally agreeing that it is among Irving's best novels. Irving's unique prose style has been described by several reviewers as original, imaginative, quirky, intelligent, powerful, and captivating. Academics have also consistently praised the novel's meta-narrative structure in which Irving juxtaposes excerpts from Garp's novels with the events of Garp's life, along with actual events from his own life, though some critics have argued that the segments of Garp's novels are overly long and bring the reader out of the central narrative. Many reviewers have commented on the effectiveness of the tragi-comic aspects of the novel, lauding how Irving portrays humor and joy as inseparable from violence and suffering. The critical opinion regarding Irving's treatment of gender issues and feminism, however, has been sharply divided, with some charging Irving with promoting an anti-feminist stance due to what they deem as his skewed, male-oriented representations of women. Others have defended Garp's open portrayals of gender-role reversals and transsexualism, but a number of feminist critics have denounced Irving's attempts at critiquing the extremism of the feminist movement in the 1960s and 1970s. The novel's graphic depictions of rape and violence have also been met with a mixed response. Some scholars have asserted that the novel's death and violence are important elements in presenting its bittersweet worldview, while others have regarded these passages as merely excessive and gratuitous sensationalism. Despite these reservations, The World according to Garp has continued to attract significant praise for its well-developed characterization, thoughtful examination of family issues, and welcoming narratorial voice.
Setting Free the Bears (novel) 1968
The Water-Method Man (novel) 1972
The 158-Pound Marriage (novel) 1974
The World according to Garp (novel) 1978
*3 by Irving (novels) 1980
The Hotel New Hampshire (novel) 1981
The Cider House Rules (novel) 1985
A Prayer for Owen Meany (novel) 1989
Trying to Save Piggy Sneed (short stories and essays) 1993; expanded edition, 1996
A Son of the Circus (novel) 1994
The Imaginary Girlfriend (memoir) 1996
A Widow for One Year (novel) 1998
The Cider House Rules (screenplay) 1999
My Movie Business: A Memoir (memoir) 1999
The Fourth Hand (novel) 2001
*Includes Setting Free the Bears, The Water-Method Man, and The 158-Pound Marriage.
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SOURCE: Wood, Michael. “Nothing Sacred.” New York Review of Books 25, no. 6 (20 April 1978): 9.
[In the following excerpt, Wood asserts that The World according to Garp is an intelligent and amusing novel, commenting on Irving's unique treatment of a writer's perceptions of reality.]
“It's everywhere” is an appropriate sentiment for The World According to Garp, except that there the phrase would refer not to a changed historical situation but to something like the condition of the universe, a place of casual overkill and uncanny bad luck. Injury time is a fairly relevant notion too, since John Irving's impressive score is three rapes, two assassinations, two accidental deaths, the loss of an eye, the loss of an arm, a penis bitten off, and a whole society of women with amputated tongues. Irving is very deft at moving from grotesque, even cruel, humor to amiable realism and back, and his novel is consistently intelligent and amusing, has an appealing equanimity in the midst of apparent awfulness. Yet the book feels rather tame in the end, in spite of its violence and timeliness, its response to the turbulences set off by the women's movement.
There is an air of unruffled cleverness about the whole work which means that even its most shocking effects are easily assimilated, perceived as effects. Nothing in The World According to Garp is quite as...
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SOURCE: Larson, Charles R. Review of The World according to Garp, by John Irving. Chicago Tribune 131, no. 113 (23 April 1978): section 7, pp. 1, 4.
[In the following review, Larson discusses the central themes of sex, marriage, and parenthood in The World according to Garp, calling the work “one of the most original (and readable) novels of the last few years.”]
Boston, 1942. Nurse Jenny Fields, the 22-year-old, head-strong daughter of a textiles tycoon, decides that she wants to be a mother—without the complicating attachments of marriage and husband. No easy matter in those pre-Women's Lib days, with all the young men away fighting in Europe, not to say anything about conventional attitudes toward pregnancy and child-rearing. But Jenn finds her man (Technical Sergeant Garp, lobotomized by the war), who impregnates her just before his fatal regression back to the fetal stage. “She never did it with him again,” the child, named T. S. Garp, writes much later. “There was no reason. She didn't enjoy it.” Her mission was already accomplished.
So begins John Irving's fourth novel, The World According to Garp, certainly one of the most original (and readable) novels of the last few years. I can't, in fact, think of any novel published in the last year (with the exception of Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon) that has given me so many hours of sheer...
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SOURCE: Des Pres, Terrence. Review of The World according to Garp, by John Irving. New Republic 178, no. 17 (29 April 1978): 31-3.
[In the following review, Des Pres examines Irving's treatment of feminism, family, and gender in The World according to Garp, describing the work as “brilliant” and “disquieting.”]
Beginning with the decision of Jenny Fields (Garp's mother) to have a child without, as she puts it, locking her life and body to a man, the life of T. S. Garp unfolds through his years as son, husband, parent and writer (each is a primary theme), ending with his assassination at the age of 33. His mother, whose autobiography, A Sexual Suspect, makes her a hero among feminists, is also assassinated. Along the way many other people die, mostly in ways unlikely and bizarre, as if Garp's world were a slaughterhouse fitted up with funhouse mirrors, and his story a string of epilogues. Garp himself thinks of the novelist as “a doctor who sees only terminal cases,” and his own death is later described as a scene “only Garp could have written.”
With his wife and two small sons, Garp spends summers in a family house (later a feminist headquarters) on the New Hampshire coast. Because one of the boys, Walt, is very young, there is much warning about the undertow along this stretch of shore. The undertow, they remind him, is very wicked today; look out...
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SOURCE: Grumbach, Doris. “1978's Most Original Novel.” Saturday Review 5, no. 16 (13 May 1978): 42.
[In the following review, Grumbach argues that Irving subtly and persuasively treats themes concerning the absurdity of modern life in The World according to Garp, describing it as an “imaginative feast.”]
Before I attempt the almost impossible task of describing a complex and fascinating new novel, I want to place The World According to Garp, by John Irving, alongside Going after Cacciato, by Tim O'Brien. They are 1978's most original—and therefore best—novels thus far.
Garp itself is a paradox: both slick and subtle, trifling and profound. (My theory is that the novel was written backward from the final sentence, which is: “But in the world according to Garp, we are all terminal cases.”) It is a rich and blackly humorous miscellany, one that I predict will sell well because it reads quickly and easily and tells startling, even shocking stories about the absurdity of modern existence. At the same time, it will interest and please demanding critics with its satire on current cultural trends: the feminist movement, educational theories, parental obsession with children, and more.
It is hard to say what Garp is about because any summary of what happens in the novel's picaresque pages would make it seem as absurd as soap...
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SOURCE: Goodman, Walter. “The Real Thing.” New Leader 61, no. 11 (22 May 1978): 25-6.
[In the following review, Goodman contends that Irving uses an effective blend of violence, horror, and humor in The World according to Garp.]
T. S. Garp is a writer, and so The World According to Garp is, naturally, an exploration of the way the novelist turns life into fiction. But it is considerably more than that. Garp's imagination is no one-way street. It doubles back upon itself, and affects life as well as art. As a writer, Garp is able to control his imagination, more or less, and make it work for him. As a son, husband, lover, father, however, he is as much in its grip as the characters in his novels and short stories. (Examples of these, by the way, are printed here, and show T. S. Garp to have a considerable offbeat talent, just like John Irving.)
The novel, and so Garp's life, begins in violence and wilfulness. His mother, Jenny, an instinctually thoroughgoing feminist, prefers to have no truck with men—she takes a knife to one persistent admirer—but she does want a child. Her means of conception, though not absolutely miraculous, leaves her, in a manner of speaking, virginal. The product, Garp, is destined to die at 33, like Jesus, an affectation that need not detain us.
For most of the book the reader attends upon Garp, as he learns what he is and...
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SOURCE: Malone, Michael. “Everything that Rises.” Nation 226, no. 22 (10 June 1978): 705-08.
[In the following review, Malone asserts that Irving is successful in his blending of comedy and pain in The World according to Garp, praising Irving's treatment of gender roles, family, and the function of the imagination in fiction writing.]
In America everything merges. And so, possibly by the same secret corporate current that consistently (and, they claim, coincidentally) elects identical covers for Time and Newsweek, everyone reviews the same books. On a trail of blurbs, reviewers race together like lemmings into a sea of print. Happily, this month's flurry of garlands is falling upon two talented young authors, Barry Hanna and John Irving, for two very impressive books, Airships (Hanna's third publication) and The World According to Garp, (Irving's fourth). Praise for Airships or Garp—or for both together, as in the recent front-page New York Times Book Review—has appeared by now in all the major periodicals. I'm glad. Both deserve all the praise they can get. They deserve anything that will carry them across the bridges of Manhattan to the tables of a thousand Waldenbooks, and so to readers. They deserve even the overpraise they are getting because we are so thirsty for good fiction, for the art of storytelling, because we so much want...
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SOURCE: Bell, Pearl K. “Family Affairs.” Commentary 66, no. 3 (September 1978): 70-3.
[In the following review, Bell extols Irving's treatment of the importance of family and the power of personal history in The World according to Garp, noting that the novel represents a definite break from recent literary trends.]
Some cultural theorists believe, though it may be self-serving, that novelists, like swallows before the storm or Noah's dove, are harbingers of the future. To the rebel like Rimbaud the poet is prévoyant, and to a conservative like Ortega writers are a sample of one whose imagination prefigures the future. This view may in fact be little more than a conceit, but it is a tantalizing one. It is therefore intriguing to find three unusually arresting novels, published within the past few months, that seem to mark a break with recent literary fashion. In these books—Mary Gordon's Final Payments, John Irving's The World According to Garp, and Tova Reich's Mara—there is a notable absence of apocalyptic fever and narcissistic lamentation, except as targets of the novelists' mordant sense of comedy. The writers hold themselves coolly aloof from modish invocations of entropy and alienation, from the orgiastic nihilism and eschatological prophecies of universal malevolence that have obsessed Thomas Pynchon, Kurt Vonnegut, William Burroughs. The disorder and...
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SOURCE: Disch, Thomas M. “Love Me, Love My Novel.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 3994 (20 October 1978): 1195.
[In the following review, Disch argues that the appeal of The World according to Garp lies in the voice and personality of the book's narrator.]
The novelist, like Cleopatra, seduces us by the infinite variety of his (and, by inference, our own) contradictions. This kind of seduction (or if you would rather, charm) is the key to compulsive novel-reading. The World According to Garp is a novel about the novel, and the novelist, as seducer. Practising what it preaches, it is also an irresistibly good read, the specific charm of which continually defies analysis. A bare summary of the plot would suggest that it is just the sort of book any novelist should most beware of writing—and any reader of reading.
The hero, T. S. Garp, is born, grows up in a New England prep school where his mother is employed as a nurse, and there forms the ambition of becoming a novelist. Leaving school, Garp goes to Vienna with his mother, where, living reclusively, she writes a memoir that becomes a world-wide best-seller, and he writes a short story, “The Pension Grillparzer”, which is so good that on the strength of it his childhood sweetheart agrees to marry him. The middle third of the book concerns Garp's career as a first and second novelist, as the father of two children,...
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SOURCE: Jamal, Zahir. “The Value of Laughter.” New Statesman 96, no. 2483 (20 October 1978): 519.
[In the following review, Jamal describes The World according to Garp as a deeply inventive narrative that blends elements of nightmare and farce in its creation of an American “puritan folk-hero.”]
The suspicion that living remains a highly experimental form of existence not unreasonably oppresses many citizens of America the Unsafe. So many incentives to keep going, the confused resident finds himself musing, yet such powerful inducements to fall dead. It's the kind of anxiety that sprouts thickly in The World According to Garp, John Irving's caringly funny treatment of tenacity and mistrust amid his nation's endless possibilities of harm.
In the compact, muscular figure of T. S. Garp, ex-schoolboy wrestler and dedicated writer, parent, husband and home-maker, Irving has supplied the American imagination with one of its last puritan folk-heroes. For Garp is a born worrier, a ceaseless, impossible, energetic, inconsolable brooder on threats to health and hearth who yearns to take his family into all-protecting custody. He's ready, at the sound of a zippy downshift, to sprint through the neighbourhood after hapless motorists and shame them with thoughts of mangled toddlers. Bed-time fables for his children mushroom doggedly into baroque allegories of the Green...
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SOURCE: King, Francis. “'Arping On.” Spectator 241, no. 7842 (21 October 1978): 27-8.
[In the following review, King praises the elements of macabre farce in The World according to Garp, but faults the novel for its lack of a central organizing theme.]
Whereas, in the days before efficient contraception, many women would worry about how to have a man without having a baby, Jenny Fields's worry is precisely the opposite. She longs for motherhood but she also longs for a life without any sexual attachment. Nursing in a hospital for second World war casualties, she gets her wish when a ball turret gunner with irreparable brain damage becomes her patient. Called Garp, he is gradually regressing into a state of infantilism, able first to say no word other than his name, then only ‘Arp’, and finally only ‘Ar’.
Jenny offers this man-sized baby her breast in order to comfort him; then, shortly before his retreat into the foetal position that precedes his death, she bestrides him and knows—since ‘she had felt Garp shoot up inside her as a hose in summer’—that she will never have to ‘do it’ again, since he has impregnated her. The result is the Garp whose name provides part of the title of John Irving's The World According to Garp.
The incident summarised above is typical, in its bizarre unpleasantness, of many that follow; and how the...
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SOURCE: Stevens, Mark. Review of The World according to Garp, by John Irving. National Review 31, no. 9 (2 March 1979): 313.
[In the following review, Stevens offers a positive assessment of The World according to Garp, commenting that the novel is an imaginative and “richly comic” satire.]
The World According to Garp, is the work of an extravagant imagination. It is also richly comic, its dialogue and scenes sometimes filled with a riotous energy worthy of the Marx Brothers. Yet for all its comic affection (and Irving does care about his characters), The World According to Garp is no slapstick celebration. Irving's special gift is narration, not style; the story moves along captivatingly despite some unremarkable language. T. S. Garp is the son of a compassionate nurse and a terminally ill tail-gunner. Garp's mother, Jenny Fields, writes a book which makes her a feminist heroine, a kind of Betty Friedan in white. Garp has trouble all his life dealing with feminists, and Irving plumbs the paradoxes of feminism for some hilarious satire (for example, one of Jenny's adorers is Roberta, née Robert, a huge transsexual who was once a tight end for the Philadelphia Eagles). Garp is also a writer—who marries, sires and loves his children, endures great and inexplicable violence, cooks marvelous spaghetti sauce, and dies. The world according to Irving is comic, but not...
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SOURCE: Horowitz, Joy. “The Gospel according to Garp.” Los Angeles Times (22 April 1979): section 7, pp. 2-3.
[In the following review, Horowitz discusses the critical and popular reaction to The World according to Garp.]
My father the psychologist will flip out when he reads this, but it's true. I've joined a cult. It's not that I've disowned my family, you understand. But I've joined another highly enlightened one—The Family of Garp.
Yes, I'm a Garpist. I've become a missionary trying to spread the word of Garp, as in John Irving's astounding novel, The World According to Garp, one of the most passionate and outrageous novels I've ever read.
Yes, I believe in Garp—just as the book's soft-cover promotion people, who have spent ＄200,000 spreading the gospel, would like to hear. Normally, I'd cringe at the thought of marketing a novel like so much soap. But in the case of Garp, I'm delighted. The fact that Pocket Books has printed nearly 2 million soft-cover copies means a potential 2 million converts to Garpism.
True, I'm relatively late in joining the Garp-bandwagon since the book's been out more than a year. But time is only relative once you've seen The Light. And no, I haven't the vaguest idea how many fellow Garp cult members exist, though I suspect there must be thousands of us out there, judging by the recent sprouting up of...
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SOURCE: Irving, John, and Larry McCaffery. “An Interview with John Irving.” Contemporary Literature 23, no. 1 (winter 1982): 1-18.
[In the following interview, originally conducted on November 9, 1979, Irving discusses the writing of The World according to Garp and the effect that the novel has had on his work and career.]
Of all the novels to appear in America during the 1970s, John Irving's The World According to Garp was probably the book which most captured the public's imagination. Perhaps just as remarkable as its commercial success is the fact that Garp is much more than a highly readable potboiler, peopled with dozens of engaging and memorable characters—though it is that, of course. Like Dickens and Günter Grass, two writers mentioned admiringly by Irving in the following interview, Irving is a natural-born story teller who transcends the categories of “academic” and “popular” fiction-writer. In all his fiction, though most effectively in Garp, Irving is able to sustain an entertaining narrative momentum without sacrificing attention to the rigorous demands of the craft of writing. Garp may be, above all, a funny and poignant family saga, but it is also a sophisticated metafictional investigation into the writer's relationship to his work, the nature of art and the imagination; in addition it speaks to us forcefully about the dangers and hatreds...
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SOURCE: Lounsberry, Barbara. “The Terrible Under Toad: Violence as Excessive Imagination in The World according to Garp.” Thalia 5, no. 2 (fall 1982-winter 1983): 30-5.
[In the following essay, Lounsberry posits that The World according to Garp functions primarily as a social satire in which excess and extremism—particularly in the realms of sex, sexual politics, parenting, and the imagination—eventually lead to violence and destruction.]
Violence, both physical and psychological, is one of the most unnerving features of The World According to Garp, John Irving's 1978 novel of mutilation and death in American society. The novel, which follows three generations of Garps from World War II into the twenty-first century, contains, to be precise, three rapes, two assassinations, two accidental deaths, the loss of an eye, the loss of two ears, the loss of an arm, the loss of a penis, and a whole society of women with amputate tongues. Irving's violent novel has provoked cries of praise, alarum, and foul from readers since its appearance, and considerable confusion regarding the purpose and value of such seemingly deliberated violence. Margaret Drabble, for example, writes in Harper's Magazine that Garp is either “the first male feminist novel or the most wicked of male chauvinist outrages.”1 Others have questioned whether Irving's baroque style is...
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SOURCE: Miller, Gabriel. “Portrait of the Artist as a Nervous Wreck.” In John Irving, pp. 88-126. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1982.
[In the following essay, Miller offers a critical analysis of The World according to Garp in regards to the development of Irving's writing style throughout the novel and throughout his career.]
When T. S. Garp gives one of his early stories to his girl friend Helen, he is at first hurt—and then made even more determined to become a great writer—by her critique: “This story shows promise, although I do think, at this point, you are more of a wrestler than a writer.” Whereas Irving's own first three novels demonstrate too much developing talent to be dismissed simply as “wrestling,” they are, nevertheless, a working out, a movement toward a design and an imaginative rendering of a world view. The World According to Garp, on the other hand, seems a kind of culmination, the completion of a phase in Irving's career. This, his fourth novel, serves in one respect as a summary glance backward at that career, for its protagonist Garp, himself a writer, pursues a course that closely parallels that of his creator, even to the writing of two novels that resemble Setting Free the Bears and The 158-Pound Marriage. Irving does not resort to such repetition of materials in order to build some mythical world like Faulkner's, but out of an apparent...
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SOURCE: Bawer, Bruce. “The World according to Garp: Novel to Film.” Bennington Review 15 (summer 1983): 74-9.
[In the following essay, Bawer compares the novel The World according to Garp to the film adaptation, asserting that the film maintains the major thematic elements of Irving's novel but presents them from a more optimistic perspective.]
No film of recent years has received a smaller proportion of the attention and admiration that it deserves, whether from critics or the viewing public, than George Roy Hill's The World According to Garp. This amazing film, which is about nothing less than what it means to be human, had the misfortune to be released in a year when everyone in America seems to have forgotten what it means to be human. Time named the Computer the “Man of the Year”; the movie public fell in love not with Garp, but with E. T. That humans can be as fascinating as hardware is fast becoming an outdated notion.
The film, scripted by Steve Tesich, is of course based on John Irving's novel [The World According to Garp] about the struggles of T. S. Garp—writer, wrestler, husband, and father—against the brutal destructive forces of life. Garp, in Irving's book, is an all-too-mortal Everyman, at war with the Undertoad, the symbolic embodiment of the omnipotent supernatural entity that lies in wait to crush us all. The book has...
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SOURCE: Horton, Andrew. “Comic Triumph in George Roy Hill's Adaptation of John Irving's The World according to Garp.” Studies in American Humor 4, no. 3 (fall 1985): 173-82.
[In the following essay, Horton compares the novel The World according to Garp to the film adaptation directed by George Roy Hill, suggesting that the film effectively preserves the spirit of the novel while adding a comic sense of the triumph of the human spirit which remains absent from Irving's novel.]
Above all else, John Irving's 1978 best-selling novel The World According to Garp fits a post-modernist view of the triumph of narrative over life.1 In hundreds of sprawling pages, Irving traces the life, creative life, and death of his protagonist, T. S. Garp, who attempts to hold together a comic-tragic “world” of his own against the “coursing waters” of American life around him. Garp dies, but the narrative remains as a tribute and an anthology of narratives within narratives. Playful and comic in individual scenes, Garp remains, overall in tone and structure less ludicrous than melancholy, sad and part cynical. In many ways, Garp seemed to be one of those modern works like the fiction of Joyce, Borges, Marques, Barth, Calvino, and others better read than screened. One critic suggested that the task of adapting such a novel for the screen was like trying to build the World...
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SOURCE: Harter, Carol C., and James R. Thompson. “The World according to Garp: Life as a Doomed Effort at Reclassification.” In John Irving, pp. 74-102. Boston, Mass.: Twayne, 1986.
[In the following essay, Harter and Thompson discuss Irving's use of narrative technique and point of view in The World according to Garp, concluding that the novel effectively integrates a comic-tragic worldview within a traditional family saga.]
In the four years following the publication of what must be considered his least successful novel, The 158-Pound Marriage, a still youthful Irving conceived and brilliantly executed his masterpiece, The World According to Garp. Previous struggles with point of view, clarity, tone, and breadth of canvas resolved themselves—by the mysterious processes that shape an artist's sensitivity and capacity to create a superbly realized work—in a novel whose voice, structure, and vision define it as a unique expression of “true” (as opposed to “real”)1 human experience.
As powerful and artistically satisfying as it is, however, The World According to Garp was nevertheless a struggle to write: “I had a shaky time in the early going with it—it was raggedly put together, and I feel about it a little like a tailor who sees somebody walking away in a suit that everybody else says looks like a good suit, but they...
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SOURCE: Cosgrove, William. “The World according to Garp as Fabulation.” South Carolina Review 19, no. 2 (spring 1987): 52-8.
[In the following essay, Cosgrove asserts that The World according to Garp bucks the literary trends of experimentation popular in the late twentieth century and revives the storytelling forms and techniques of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.]
The experimental novel of the 1960's and 1970's has been increasingly subjected to some long overdue criticism. Recently such diverse critics as Malcolm Cowley, John Gardner, and Anthony Burgess have deplored the loss in contemporary fiction of the ancient art of storytelling with plot, characters, and setting in harmony. In different ways, each writer has attacked the excessive verbal pyrotechnics, narcissistic navel-gazing, and intellectual overkill in American novels of these two decades. Burgess and Gardner call for a rehabilitation of the moral sense and the integrity of character development while all three ask writers to create characters who embody values which their actions and judgments affirm.1
John Irving's The World According to Garp was published during the time that these spirited attacks were being made on the contemporary American novel. It is one novel that all three critics would endorse in their calls for a moral fiction with adequate motivation, integral...
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SOURCE: McKay, Kim. “Double Discourses in John Irving's The World according to Garp.” Twentieth Century Literature 38, no. 4 (winter 1992): 457-75.
[In the following essay, McKay examines the dual narrative voice of T. S. Garp as both biographer and fiction writer in The World according to Garp.]
In The World According to Garp John Irving forms a type of dialogue within the narration by creating a narrator who uses a double discourse: that of the biographer and that of the fiction writer. It is not unusual in the Bildungsroman genre, to which this novel most certainly belongs, for the narrator to adopt the role of biographer to a certain extent. Bildungsroman narrators do not generally, however, adopt that stance as explicitly as Irving's narrator does. As Michael Priestly notes, the narrator “is intended to be Garp's official biographer” (87). Using evidence from secondary sources, paying particular attention to the incidents in Garp's life that appear in his fiction, and evaluating Garp's writing and artistic philosophy, the narrator often adopts an academic language—that of literary biography. The text he creates is one suitable for fictive future students of Garp's work, who also want to be informed about his life. As presented in this language, Garp is not a character created but a historical figure for study. When he does treat Garp as a character, however, the...
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SOURCE: Wilson III, Raymond J. “The Postmodern Novel: The Example of John Irving's The World according to Garp.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 34, no. 1 (fall 1992): 49-62.
[In the following essay, Wilson examines the postmodern construction of The World according to Garp, particularly the novel's elements of metafiction, irony, and the gothic bizarre.]
As a novel that recapitulates within itself a history of twentieth-century fiction, John Irving's The World According to Garp illustrates a key aspect of postmodernism, that of formal replenishment. The earlier segments of Garp exhibit strong elements of modernism whereas in its final third, Irving's book is a postmodern novel of bizarre violence and black humor, flat characters, and metafiction—a mode of writing one might expect from the pen of John Barth, Robert Coover, or Thomas Pynchon. Specifically, in its first segment, Garp is the artist's bildingsroman like James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Then Garp becomes a mid-century novel of manners dealing with the surface tone, the daily rituals, and the social patterns of American couples, its chief drama being found in adultery and sexual interaction—a novel such as one might have expected from John Updike or John Cheever. However, in John Barth's concept of a literature of exhaustion, imitation of earlier...
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SOURCE: Shostak, Debra. “Plot as Repetition: John Irving's Narrative Experiments.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 37, no. 1 (fall 1995): 51-70.
[In the following essay, Shostak analyses how Irving's body of work—particularly The World according to Garp—displays his tragic-comic vision, narrative technique, fictional form, and recurring motifs.]
Sorrow floats. So claims the narrator of John Irving's novel, The Hotel New Hampshire (1981). Sorrow is the flatulent Labrador retriever who dies but does not disappear, the free-floating dog of anxiety whose remains come to the surface even after the airplane he rides in plunges into the sea. Sorrow is the return of the repressed, punning reminder and even cause of the violence that is our human lot (one of his postmortem appearances sends a family member into cardiac arrest), and his visitations provide a symbolic structure for John Berry's narration of the Berry family's lives.
Sorrow's repetitions in the narrative of The Hotel New Hampshire typify not only Irving's tragicomic vision, but his technique as well. Irving has discussed the “refrains” or “little litanic devices” (Miller 193) that pepper his fiction—tag lines and key phrases such as “in the world according to Garp we are all …” (The World According to Garp), “keep passing the open windows” (Hotel), or “wait...
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SOURCE: Campbell, Josie P. “The World according to Garp.” In John Irving: A Critical Companion, pp. 71-86. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1998.
[In the following essay, Campbell provides an overview of the plot structure, setting, character development, and major themes in The World according to Garp.]
John Irving's first three novels have seemed to many critics merely warm-up exercises for his “major” works. Although this is not accurate—the early novels, especially The Water-Method Man and The 158-Pound Marriage, stand up very well on their individual merits—The World According to Garp was in a number of ways Irving's “break-through” novel. Garp became a household word; even for those who may not have read the novel, the movie, directed by George Roy Hill in 1982, made T. S. Garp a well-known character. Garp allowed Irving the freedom to pursue writing as his only “job.” With this one novel, Irving became both rich and famous.
The World According to Garp reiterates many themes from Irving's first three novels: random violence and death; obsessions with family and children; gender and sexuality; love and marriage; art and the artist. In Garp, as in the early novels, there are links to Irving's life: his education at Exeter Academy, his wrestling, his writing. Still, while pursuit of biographical details in Irving's work...
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Amiel, Barbara. “To Vonnegut and Heller, Add John Irving.” Maclean's 91, no. 11 (29 May 1978): 66.
Amiel asserts that The World according to Garp places Irving among such authors as Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller who represent “the best school of American writing” of the twentieth century.
Irving, John, and William McPherson. “The World according to John Irving.” Washington Post Book World (30 April 1978): E1, E5.
Irving discusses the relationship between his own life and that of his fictional character, T. S. Garp.
Rickard, John. “Wrestling with the Text: The World according to John Irving.” Meanjin 56, nos. 3-4 (1997): 714-22.
Rickard examines Irving's recurring use of wrestling as a metaphor in The World according to Garp and his memoir The Imaginary Girlfriend.
Additional coverage of Irving's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers Supplement, Vol. 6; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 8; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 2; Bestsellers, Vol. 89:3; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 28, 73, 112; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols....
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