John Irving Analysis

Discussion Topics

How is the fact that John Irving grew up without his natural father reflected in his work?

Animals often play an important role in Irving’s novels. How does he use them symbolically?

Irving admits to being a fan of Charles Dickens. Can you find evidence of Dickens’s influence in Irving’s novels?

Some have described Irving’s plots and characters as “bizarre.” Cite examples of why this epithet is appropriate.

How important is humor in Irving’s novels? Where is the humor “black”? Where is it “broad”?

Irving’s eye for detail is considered one of his strengths in his novels. Find passages that are especially appealing to you and discuss why they are successful. Consider word choice, sentence structure, and sense images.

Other literary forms

John Irving is best known for his long fiction. Some of his few published short stories have found their way into his novels, attributed to one or another of the novels’ main characters. Other stories, some originally published in magazines, have been collected in the volume Trying to Save Piggy Sneed (1996), a miscellany that also includes occasional essays and fragments of autobiography. In 1999, Irving published My Movie Business, a memoir focusing on his experiences as a screenwriter.


When The World According to Garp became a best seller in 1978, prompting the reissue of his three previous novels, John Irving captured the attention of literary critics as well as of the popular audience. His life and works were profiled in Time, Saturday Review, and Rolling Stone, and his novels entered what he calls in The World According to Garp “that uncanny half-light where ’serious’ books glow, for a time, as also ’popular’ books.” Various aspects of Irving’s works appeal to different audiences, making his fiction difficult to classify as either “serious” or “popular.” The sometimes ribald, occasionally grotesque humor and the explicit sexuality of the novels give them a sensational appeal and have made Irving—and his novelist character T. S. Garp—cult heroes. On the other hand, Irving’s representation of random violence in the modern world, his emphasis on love and family responsibilities, and his use of writers as major characters have prompted serious examination of his work among academic critics. The Hotel New Hampshire delighted Irving fans with its continuation of established motifs and themes—bears, wrestling, Vienna, children—but critics and reviewers took a cautious approach to the novel, not certain whether to place Irving in the first rank of contemporary novelists or to chide him for reiterating his themes and allowing the trivial and the clichéd to coexist with...

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Campbell, Josie R. John Irving: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998. Part of the Critical Companions to Popular Contemporary Writers series, Campbell’s book covers Irving’s career through A Widow for One Year, showing both the popular and the literary sources and appeal of his novels.

Harter, Carol C., and James R. Thompson. John Irving. Boston: Twayne, 1986. Part of the Twayne United States Authors series, this clearly written study of Irving’s fiction through The Cider House Rules emphasizes the mixture of popular and artistic appeal in the novels. The volume includes an annotated bibliography.

Miller, Gabriel. John Irving. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1982. Part of the Ungar Modern Literature series, this is a useful biographical and critical study of Irving’s career through The Hotel New Hampshire. It includes a chronology through 1982, a 1981 interview with Irving, and a bibliography of both primary and secondary sources.

Priestley, Michael. “Structure in the Worlds of John Irving.” Critique 23, no. 1 (1981): 82-96. Priestley analyzes the ways the novelist—and his characters—seek to impose order on their fictional worlds in Irving’s first four novels.

Reilly, Edward C. Understanding John Irving. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991. A concise exposition of Irving’s work through A Prayer for Owen Meany, Reilly’s volume is part of a continuing series devoted to world literature and situates Irving’s work with regard to both British and continental traditions.

Van Gelder, Lindsy. Review of A Widow for One Year, by John Irving. The Nation 127 (May 11, 1998): 52-55. A thoughtful feminist reading of Irving’s sole novel with a female protagonist, Van Gelder’s review ends on an unexpectedly positive, if still ironic, note.