(Masterpieces of American Literature)

From the opening passages of this novel, the reader knows that an unusual story is about to be told. The prehistory of Garp is a wildly unorthodox conception: His mother, a nurse, physically cuts a soldier making a pass at her in a motion picture theater, then conceives Garp from another, almost comatose, dying soldier. Her life story later becomes her autobiography, A Sexual Suspect, “said to bridge the usual gap between literary merit and popularity,” and it is in competition with Garp’s novel, which is purely literary and not successful. Like Irving himself, the two writers fight with the apparent contradiction in the two approaches. As Garp struggles with his own writing, his life takes on all the aspects of cause and effect that he is trying to express in his work: His marriage almost fails, one child dies in a bizarre automobile accident in the family driveway, and both Garp and his mother are assassinated by ultra-sexist radicals (one a man, one a woman).

As a youth, Garp attends the Steering School, another of the New England private schools that are favorite sites for Irving. One family, the Holms, consisting of Ernie and Helen, a wrestling coach and his daughter, are the nontraditional family that Irving incorporates into virtually all his novels. Garp’s first writing environment is Vienna; his mother accompanies him there, and she plans to write a little something herself. The writer as subject fills The World According to Garp with a second layer of meaning; the novel clearly represents an attempt on Irving’s part to reconcile the elements of seriousness and popularity in his own work. Bizarre deaths continue, and accidents show that the plans of the characters must take accident and contingency into...

(The entire section is 717 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Jenny Fields, a generous but unconventional woman, decides that she wants, more than anything, a child of her own; still, she does not want a husband. She has a child by an Air Force technical sergeant named Garp, who, as a ball-turret gunner, has sustained brain damage. Since Sergeant Garp had lost all mental function, Jenny plans the insemination entirely on her own, and since she has never learned the man’s first name but wishes to memorialize him through the child, she calls the boy “T. S.,” the flyer’s rank.

This outrageous and absurdly dark humor characterizes nearly all the novel’s many episodes. Young Garp inherits his father’s considerable libido as well as his mother’s scrupulous honesty. His experiences at Steering, where Jenny later works as school nurse, teach him more about life than any of the courses that he takes. Like Jenny, Garp reads avidly, but he finds balance in this intellectual activity by wrestling on the Steering team. Through his wrestling, Garp meets Helen Holm, the coach’s daughter, a strikingly beautiful, supremely intellectual girl who will eventually become his wife. The purity of Garp’s feelings for Helen contrasts with his lust for “Cushie,” Cushman Percy, the daughter of an incompetent history instructor at Steering.

Unlike Helen, Garp is not intellectually inclined and does not wish to be. He is a mediocre student and, with the unconventional Jenny’s support, never applies for...

(The entire section is 533 words.)