The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

As is appropriate for a modern picaresque, this novel presents numerous characters. They appear, disappear, and, when least expected, reappear. Even the minor characters are unconventional, and all in some way give definition to Garp and his family. In short, they populate the writer’s world. Usually, they illustrate one or more of the four motifs in Garp’s life: writing, wrestling, sex, and death.

Often the manner in which a character will die accompanies that character’s first appearance. For example, Tinch, Garp’s English mentor at Steering, tells his pupil that he is himself rotting on the inside, though Irving reports that “Old Stench,” as the boys call him, will actually freeze to death some years later. This minor character actually brings the novel to its second major phase, for it is Tinch who suggests Garp’s trip to Vienna, the city which becomes so important in his formation as a writer.

Similarly, Garp’s unconsummated sexual experience with Cushie occurs on the muddy banks of Steering River. The riverbank also provides Garp’s first encounter with the “Under Toad”: “An awful slorping noise pursued him through the mud flats, as if beneath the mud some mouth was gasping to suck him in.”

Symmetry also occurs in the relationships between characters. When Garp consummates his relationship with Cushie, it occurs in a bed of the Steering Infirmary, recalling Garp’s own conception in a patient’s bed at Mercy Hospital. In the same vein, Charlotte, the Vienna whore, resembles her city; her outward glamour...

(The entire section is 647 words.)