Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Irving has said that his favorite novelist is Charles Dickens. Irving’s past novels and A Widow for One Year could well qualify him as an American Dickens: a writer who loves rich and at times seemingly irrelevant details, who tells his story in a forthright manner and depends on coincidence in plotting, who masters both comedy and tragedy—which he mixes audaciously, and who develops quirky characters whose actions carry the story. To a degree, Irving’s fictional technique marks him as an old-fashioned writer. That may well be the reason that his work continues to enjoy popular success, especially in a time when so many novelists are bent on experimentation and obscurity. Irving never crosses the border of conventional fiction; nor does he fall into ambiguity and abstractions. Ruth Cole says that her novel is not about anything, that it is just a good story. While it is possible to draw thematic implications from Irving’s novels, they are also first and foremost good stories. This quality is undoubtedly the reason for the continuing popularity of Irving’s most widely admired novel, The World According to Garp (1978), as well as the broad reception of the novels that followed, which show a tremendous variety in settings, characters, and situations.

The quest on which Irving always sends his characters—that of fulfillment, security, peacefulness within a turbulent world, the attainment of love—remains a familiar one, a quest with which readers can identify. That the characters, once they have struggled and experienced setbacks and faced all manner of odds, do in the end discover a sense of oneness with others always rings true. Readers understand and appreciate this timeless discovery.