The World According to Garp

by John Irving

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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 account. Irving establishes the notion of improbable events compiling life’s experiences.

While Garp is constructing his first book, The Pension Grillparzer, he experiences the life of Vienna, in particular through his relations with several prostitutes. One, Charlotte, is a kind of mother substitute for Garp; she dies in a hospital where the nurses think Garp is her son. Meanwhile, his mother, Jenny, is managing to write a thousand-page autobiography, one which attains great popular success, much to Garp’s chagrin. Garp sees a family of circus performers who own a trained bear, once again touching on Irving’s preoccupation with caged and captive animals. It is as though all The World According to Garp is a reassembly of the symbols from Irving’s own life, gathered together for an inventory; “life as a doomed effort at reclassification” is what one critic calls his chapter on The World According to Garp.

One of the reasons for this novel’s success is its recapitulation of Irving’s earlier motifs and their reconstruction around a hero who is, in fact, also a changer of facts to fit a poetic justice of his own. While it is clear that Garp and Irving are two different writers (a point that Irving has made many times in interviews by pointing out that his childhood was happy and his life uneventful), they both engage in the same writer’s habits: procrastination, long planning without actual literary output, travel to broaden and enlighten, envy of—but disdain for—popular writers whose prolific output makes their own “writer’s block” even more painful, and, the ultimate novelist’s power, the ability to see in bizarre events a greater justice at work.

To live without forgiveness, without understanding, is wrong, according to Garp. He can forgive his wife’s sexual infidelity (as she forgives his), even though it is partly responsible for the death of their youngest child. In...

(This entire section contains 717 words.)

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the final analysis,The World According to Garp is a large idea with many digressions, all brought together in the novel’s theme: Apparently disconnected events do, in fact, link up into a life, and forgiveness is essential to healing.

Irving’s 1998 novel A Widow for One Year returns to many of the conflicts of Garp, including that of a parent and child. The autobiographical versus creative approach to writing controversy, the death of a son(s) in an automobile accident, the New England private school, life in a foreign city, and prostitutes are all central to this later novel, often favorably compared to Garp.


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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 college. Instead, accompanied by his mother, Garp pursues experience rather than theory through a year’s residence in Vienna. This sojourn provides a chance for Garp to write his first published work while Jenny produces her successful and sensational autobiography, The Sexual Suspect. Vienna challenges Garp’s libido, and he becomes involved with Charlotte, a prostitute who also mothers him. He visits Charlotte when she is dying and discovers his love for her is deeper than his lust ever was.

Vienna also supplies the scene of Garp’s novella, called The Pension Grillparzer. This tale-within-a-tale appears complete and deals with the recurring fear of death and of being forgotten. Garp names it for the Viennese author Franz Grillparzer, a writer whose work Garp believes did not deserve to outlive the nineteenth century.

The last half of The World According to Garp concerns his marriage to Helen Holm and the birth of their children Duncan and Walt, as well as Garp’s continuing struggle for recognition as a writer. Garp’s higher love for his family continues to be at odds with his lust. There are encounters with a degenerate mother (Mrs. Ralph), seduction of babysitters, and liaisons with Alice Fletcher, all against a background of personal unhappiness, professional frustration, and violent death. Indeed, the accident that kills Walt would not have happened had it not been for the lack of a moral sense which had come to characterize the married life of Garp and Helen.

Even Walt’s death (as well as Jenny’s assassination) appear against a background of grim humor. Garp does achieve popular, but not artistic, success as a writer, and, despite his own violent death, victory over the “Under Toad,” the sinister force which destroys the human spirit.