John Irving Irving, John (Vol. 112) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

John Irving 1942–

American novelist, short story writer, essayist, and memoirist.

The following entry presents an overview of Irving's career through 1996. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 13, 23, and 38.

Upon the publication of his bestseller The World According to Garp (1978), also adapted into a Hollywood film, Irving emerged as a major literary figure. The enormous success of The Hotel New Hampshire (1980) fortified his reputation as a writer whose novels bridge the gap between literature and mainstream fiction. Influenced by the sprawling, plot-driven novels of Victorian authors such as Charles Dickens, Irving's intricately developed, multilevel stories are permeated by dark comedy, perverse irony, and bizarre violence that underscore the dangerous uncertainty of human life and the erosion of conventional values in modern society. The popularity of subsequent novels—The Cider House Rules (1985), A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989), and A Son of the Circus (1994)—brought further praise for what critics describe as memorable characters, absorbing plots, and sardonic social satire.

Biographical Information

Born John Winslow Irving in Exeter, New Hampshire, Irving was the oldest of four children. Irving attended Phillips Exeter Academy, a boys' prep school where his father taught Russian history and where, as a member of the team, Irving developed a lifelong passion for wrestling. A mediocre student and undiagnosed dyslexic, Irving soon realized his desire to become a writer. After graduating from Exeter in 1961, he studied briefly at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Vienna before settling at the University of New Hampshire, from which he received a bachelor's degree in 1965. He married his first wife, Shyla Leary, in 1964, with whom he shares two sons. His first publication, the short story "A Winter Branch," appeared in Redbook magazine in 1965. Irving attended the famed University of Iowa Writers Workshop, where he studied with novelists Vance Bourjaily and Kurt Vonnegut, earning a Masters in Fine Arts in 1967. Over the next two years, Irving worked as an assistant professor of English at Windham College in Putney, Vermont, while completing his first novel, Setting Free the Bears (1969). He then returned to Vienna for several years to work on a film version of the novel which was never released.

With the aid of a Rockefeller Foundation grant in 1971–72, Irving completed his second novel, The Water-Method Man (1972). From 1972 to 1975 he was a writer-in-residence and visiting lecturer at the University of Iowa while working on his third novel, The 158-Pound Marriage (1974). He was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in 1974–75 and named a Guggenheim fellow in 1976–77. In 1975. Irving worked as an assistant professor of English at Mount Holyoke College while writing The World According to Garp. With the overwhelming success of Garp, including an American Book Award and nomination for the National Book Award, Irving earned enough to abandon teaching for full-time writing. His first three novels were soon republished together as Three by Irving (1980) and his next novel, The Hotel New Hampshire, was a Book-of-the-Month selection and instant bestseller. The World According to Garp and The Hotel New Hampshire were also adapted into major motion pictures in 1982 and 1984 respectively. Irving's subsequent novels, The Cider House Rules. A Prayer for Owen Meany, and A Son of the Circus were similarly greeted by critical approval and an eager popular audience. Irving has also published a volume of short stories and essays, Trying to Save Piggy Sneed (1996), and a memoir, An Imaginary Girlfriend (1996). Divorced from his first wife in 1981, Irving married Janet Turnball in 1987.

Major Works

Irving's structurally complex fiction revolves around the misadventures of eccentric characters involved in tragicomic searches for self-identity and meaning. Their stories are often punctuated by inexplicable violence, maiming, and death, suggesting the absurdity of good intentions in the face of fate and bad luck. Through the misfortunes and comic reversals of his characters, Irving addresses serious social concerns surrounding the family, sexuality, gender relations, and the relationship between life and art. Several recurring motifs and narrative techniques characterize his work, notably the presence of bears, prep schools, wrestlers, Vienna, rape, illegitimate children, and the incorporation of family histories, journal entries, letters, flashbacks, and multiple perspectives to present the story. Setting Free the Bears begins with the picaresque travels of two bohemian students—narrator Hannes Graff and Siegfried Javotnick, or Siggy—as they traverse Austria on motorcycle. The second half of the novel, completed by Hannes after Siggy's accidental death, consists of excerpts from Siggy's journal that detail his family's suffering under Nazi and Russian oppression and Siggy's plot to free the animals at the Vienna Zoo, a gesture intended to avenge his European ancestors. The Water-Method Man follows the disappointments of Fred "Bogus" Trumper, an endearing, though equivocal, husband, boyfriend, and doctoral candidate who struggles against boredom to translate an Old Low Norse epic poem. Trumper relates his despair through reflection on his failed marriage, fear of commitment to his pregnant girlfriend, and a friend's production of a film about himself with a less-than-optimistic title. The title of the novel refers to Trumper's treatment for a painful urinary tract ailment which becomes a metaphor for his ceaseless discomfort and dread. The 158-Pound Marriage reveals the disastrous effect of an ill-conceived mate-swapping scheme involving two married couples. Though initiated with the promise of honesty and guiltless pleasure, the adulterous relationships among the four participants soon degenerate into a source of acrimonious sexual jealousy and emotional pain. The World According to Garp recounts the life of T. S. Garp from his illegitimate conception to his untimely death. Raised by Jenny Fields, a nurse and renowned feminist whose autobiography attracts a devoted following, Garp becomes a high school wrestling champion, marries a local sweetheart with whom he has two children, and writes several modestly successful novels. After mutual infidelities, including one that inadvertently leads to the death of their youngest son and the sexual mutilation of his wife's lover, Garp befriends a transsexual ex-football player, adopts a young rape victim, and is finally assassinated by a feminist extremist. The Hotel New Hampshire, a family saga beginning in 1939, follows three decades of the troubled Berry family, headed by Win Berry and his wife, Mary, proprietors of three hotels in New Hampshire, Vienna, and Maine. The narrator, John Berry, is the middle child of five, including Frank, Franny, Lilly, and Egg. Violence and the grotesque dominate the novel: Franny is raped by prep school football players, then engages in a brief incestuous affair with brother John; Lilly, a dwarf and blocked author, commits suicide; their grandfather, Iowa Bob, is literally scared to death when their taxidermically preserved dog. Sorrow, falls out of a closet; Mary and Egg die in a plane crash en route to Vienna. Despite successive tragedies and personal crises, the family remains a positive source of collective strength and resiliency. The Cider House Rules recounts the work of Dr. Wilbur Larch, an ether-addicted obstetrician, between the 1890s and mid-twentieth century. His Maine orphanage, St. Cloud, doubles as a clinic for safe, illegal abortions. Though Dr. Larch does not encourage abortion among his patients, he recognizes the dismal plight of his parentless charges and grooms one orphan, Homer Wells, to succeed his medical practice at St. Cloud. Homer later abandons the orphanage for work at Ocean View Orchard, where he becomes involved in a love triangle and fathers a daughter. The title of the novel refers to a list of regulations intended to guide the behavior of the orchard workers, symbolizing the coercive, hypocritical rules of society that are better defied or ignored. A Prayer for Owen Meany, steeped in Protestant theology and New Testament allusions and set in a quaint New England town, relates the unusual friendship between John Wheelwright, an illegitimate child who seeks the identity of his biological father, and Owen Meany, an undersized Christ-figure distinguished by his belief in predestination and irritating high-pitched voice—his dialogue in the novel is rendered in all capital letters. Owen accidentally kills John's mother with a foul baseball, discovers his death date in a vision during a school production of A Christmas Carol, and converts John to Christianity through the example of his extraordinary sacrifice. The film Simon Birch, released in 1998, was "suggested" by A Prayer for Owen Meany and was created with Irving's blessing, although many important elements of the story were changed. As in much of Irving's previous fiction, A Son of the Circus involves a large cast of quirky characters and unusual circumstances. The novel features Dr. Farrokh Daruwalla, an Indian-born orthopedic surgeon who lives in Toronto, anonymously writes screenplays for popular crime films, and periodically returns to Bombay to work in a children's hospital and to study the genetics of dwarfism among Indian circus clowns. Rife with subplots and tangential excursions, the story essentially revolves around the long-unsolved murder of an Indian golfer.

Critical Reception

Irving is considered among the most imaginative and entertaining contemporary American novelists since Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller. An exceptional storyteller whose intelligent novels appeal to both academic and mainstream readers alike, Irving dismisses any demarcation between high literature and popular fiction and asserts the primacy of plot and content over style. An admirer of Dickens and Thomas Hardy, both of whom wrote for mass audiences, Irving is praised for his remarkable ability to immerse large casts of engaging characters in unpredictable plots imbued with provocative contemporary issues such as feminism, sexuality, and religion. As many critics note, his work effectively merges the realism and morality of the conventional novel with the sophisticated metafictional techniques of postmodern writers, especially through the frequent use of texts within texts and flashbacks. Though most critics applaud Irving's unsettling juxtaposition of life-affirming compassion and macabre brutality, others find fault in elements of melodrama and his sensational depiction of explicit sex and excessive violence. While The World According to Garp is generally considered his finest work, Irving has received considerable critical approval for his earlier novels, particularly The Water-Method Man, as well as The Hotel New Hampshire and The Cider House Rules.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Setting Free the Bears (novel) 1969
The Water-Method Man (novel) 1972
The 158-Pound Marriage (novel) 1974
The World According to Garp (novel) 1978
The Hotel New Hampshire (novel) 1981
The Cider House Rules (novel) 1985
A Prayer for Owen Meany (novel) 1989
A Son of the Circus (novel) 1994
Trying to Save Piggy Sneed (short stories and essays) 1996
The Imaginary Girlfriend (memoir) 1996
A Widow for One Year (novel) 1998

(The entire section is 60 words.)

Jack Beatty (review date 23 September 1981)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Family Fable," in The New Republic, September 23, 1981, pp. 37-8.

[In the following review, Beatty contrasts The Hotel New Hampshire with The World According to Garp.]

It's extraordinary what a little feeling can do for a novel. To prepare for The Hotel New Hampshire, I read The World According to Garp, and disliked it intensely, not for its slapstick sex or for its "comic and ugly and bizarre" preoccupation with mutilation and death, but for its shallowness, its quality of energy without feeling. The novel conveyed only one emotion—self-love. Garp, Irving's writer-hero, was so taken with himself that the title of the last chapter...

(The entire section is 948 words.)

Caryn Fuoroli (review date January 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "In the Family," in The Progressive, Vol. 46, January, 1982, pp. 51-2.

[In the following review, Fuoroli offers praise for The Hotel New Hampshire.]

Weak writers may repeat themselves in book after book, while great writers, often obsessed, reexamine their subjects persistently; F. Scott Fitzgerald returned to the very rich again and again, and William Faulkner to the psychological blood sports and themes of Mississippi, novel after novel. A world which constantly threatens to inflict violence and sudden death is set against the saving virtues and emotional risks of the family and of art.

After The World According to Garp, John Irving's...

(The entire section is 772 words.)

Evan Carton (essay date Fall 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Politics of Selfhood: Bob Slocum, T. S. Garp and Auto-American-Biography," in Novel, Vol. 20, No. 1, Fall, 1986, pp. 41-61.

[In the following excerpt, Carton examines "the issue of the individual's uncertain identity and political complicity" in The World According to Garp.]

As an idea and a commodity, the personalized life in America numbers among our most popular notions. This curious cultural circumstance reflects the disparity that various critics have observed between our governing model of selfhood and its consequences: that of a privileged, personally empowered and singularly expressive identity whose realization, in Fredric Jameson's words,...

(The entire section is 6154 words.)

Janice Doane and Devon Hodges (essay date 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Women and the World According to Garp," in Gender Studies: New Directions in Feminist Criticism, edited by Judith Spector, Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1986, pp. 60-9.

[In the following essay, Doane and Hodges examine the portrayal of strong female characters and feminist issues in The World According to Garp. Providing a feminist analysis of the novel, Doane and Hodges assert that "Garp protects narrative conventions and with them reinforces patriarchal power."]

Until recently, many feminist critics have defined the feminist novel on the basis of theme and character. One such critic, for example, writes that a novel "can serve...

(The entire section is 4386 words.)

Wendy Steiner (review date 19 May 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE; "The American Wholegrain," in Times Literary Supplement, May 19, 1989, p. 535.

[In the following review, Steiner offers a generally unfavorable assessment of A Prayer for Owen Meany.]

Suppose that your best friend accidentally killed your mother with a Little League baseball. Suppose he was a near-midget whose voice never changed and whose parents believed he was the product of a virgin birth. Suppose he saw himself as God's instrument, knew the date of his death from a vision of his gravestone that appeared during a production of A Christmas Carol, and died a hero exactly as a dream of his foretold. Would this be enough to cement your faith in...

(The entire section is 764 words.)

Robert Towers (review date 20 July 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Raw and the Cooked," in The New York Review of Books, July 20, 1989, pp. 30-1.

[In the following excerpt, Towers offers a tempered assessment of A Prayer for Owen Meany.]

During the past decade in particular, the line separating fiction from autobiography has frequently seemed on the point of being almost erased. Novel after novel has appeared in which not only the background and chronology but also the major events of the first-person narrator's life closely parallel what is publicly known of the author's. The material is offered up uncooked, so to speak, without the subtlety and depth derived from imaginative transmuting of personal experience into...

(The entire section is 1606 words.)

Edward C. Reilly (essay date 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Understanding John Irving," in Understanding John Irving, University of South Carolina Press, 1991, pp. 1-13.

[In the following excerpt, Reilly provides an overview of the settings, characters, themes, and literary techniques employed in Irving's fiction.]

Except for Setting Free the Bears, his only novel with European settings and characters, John Irving's novels take place in twentieth-century United Slates, especially Maine and New Hampshire. Irving analyzes contemporary problems and issues plaguing his characters' lives. In addition, random violence and sudden death stalk his fictional worlds, a concept that has its inceptions in Setting Free the...

(The entire section is 2627 words.)

Kim McKay (essay date Winter 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Double Discourses in John Irving's The World According to Garp," in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 38, No. 4, Winter, 1992, pp. 457-75.

[In the following essay, McKay examines the dual narrative voice of Garp as both biographer and fiction writer. According to McKay, "the narrator's struggle with the languages of fiction and biography is the mirror image of Garp's struggle as a writer with the forces of memory and imagination."]

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 entire section is 7733 words.)

Raymond J. Wilson III (essay date Fall 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Postmodern Novel: The Example of John Irving's The World According to Garp," in Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, Vol. XXXIV, No. 1, Fall. 1992. pp. 49-62.

[In the following essay, Wilson examines the postmodern construction of The World According to Garp, particularly elements of metafiction, irony, and the gothic bizarre in the novel.]

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...

(The entire section is 5735 words.)

Irving Weinman (review date 9 April 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Short Shrifts," in Times Literary Supplement, April 9, 1993, p. 21.

[In the following review, Weinman offers tempered criticism of Trying to Save Piggy Sneed.]

The dust-jacket announces this volume of eight short pieces by John Irving as "a perfect introduction to his work". But the unfamiliar reader would do better to start with any of his seven novels than with these six short stories (all separately published between 1972 and 1982, introduced here by a memoir and closed by an essay). It is not that Irving's fiction-writing virtues aren't displayed in the stories: inventive incident, deft characterization and vivid language are all here. Despite these...

(The entire section is 622 words.)

Robert Towers (review date 4 September 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Dr. Daruwalla and the Dwarfs," in The New York Times Book Review, September 4, 1994, pp. 1, 22.

[In the following review, Towers offers praise for A Son of the Circus.]

A dozen or so years ago, the newly revived Vanity Fair ran a color photograph of John Irving in his wrestler's outfit that seemed to reveal more about his fiction than about the wrestler himself. A bold frontal stance, a (mostly) good-natured aggressiveness, muscularity, an inclination to show off, to take risks—these are qualities we have come to anticipate in Mr. Irving's novels since The World According to Garp first hurtled him to fame. Like Dickens, to whom he has often...

(The entire section is 1448 words.)

Sven Birkerts (review date 4 February 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Son of the 19th Century," in The New York Times Book Review, February 4, 1996, p. 9.

[In the following review, Birkerts offers tempered criticism of Trying to Save Piggy Sneed.]

Reading Trying to Save Piggy Sneed, John Irving's ninth book but only his first compendium of assorted prose, duplicated for this reviewer the sensation of moving in a large airplane over a long stretch of tarmac before suddenly, thankfully, achieving liftoff. Mr. Irving's miscellany—divided into "Memoirs," "Fiction" (six short stories) and "Homage"—shows how one of our most widely read novelists fares in what he might consider a triathlon of lesser events. What we find,...

(The entire section is 689 words.)

Andrew Rosenheim (review date 4 February 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Catch-As-Catch-Can," in Times Literary Supplement, February 4, 1996, p. 9.

[In the following review, Rosenheim offers a generally favorable assessment of The Imaginary Girlfriend.]

Evelyn Waugh's Mr Pinfold maintained that "most men have the germs of one or two books only; all else is professional trickery". One of the appealing things about the popular American novelist John Irving is his unwillingness to use any tricks at all, or to pretend that the same themes do not recur in his work. Bears, motor cycles, Vienna and, most of all, the sport of wrestling figure prominently and repetitively in his novels, and this curious set of preoccupations has spawned the...

(The entire section is 709 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Harter, Carol C, and James R. Thompson. "The Man and the Writer: 'Novelist as Cultural Hero.'" In John Irving, pp. 1-19. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1986.

Examines Irving's artistic development, narrative concerns, and public perception.

Miller, Gabriel. "Life and Art." In John Irving, pp. 1-24. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1982.

Provides an overview of Irving's artistic development, narrative concerns, and critical reception.

Page, Philip. "Hero Worship and Hermeneutic Dialectics: John Irving's A Prayer for Owen...

(The entire section is 359 words.)