The Characters

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 647

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...

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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 merely conceals corruption. Like Tinch, she is dying within. The implication is that there is no hope for meaningful vision, no possibility of real transcendence.

Then Garp marries Helen, and hope emerges from sordidness, though only temporarily. He increasingly doubts his ability as a writer, becomes a “house husband,” and worries about the welfare of Duncan and Walt, this despite his philandering with babysitters and the ménage à quatre with the Fletchers. His writing becomes increasingly autobiographical, and as it does, it becomes less-genuine art.

Irving’s inclusion of complete examples of Garp’s writing not only satisfies a requirement of picaresque; it also allows the reader to trace the changing nature of Garp’s style. Walt dies, Duncan loses an eye, and Garp breaks his jaw in a bizarre automobile accident which occurs in part as a result of Helen’s affair with Michael Milton, one of her graduate students. This accident, which also causes the sexual mutilation of Michael Milton, is more violent than any other episode in the novel; indeed, it is among the most violent scenes in contemporary fiction.

Garp becomes like Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor who sensed the pull of death and obscurity yet felt powerless to fight against it. Garp’s wired jaw makes him resemble an “Ellen Jamesian,” one of a group of radical feminists who have cut out their tongues to protest a child’s rape. Garp is, therefore, a writer without a voice, in actuality and in his fiction. The World According to Bensenhaver, the novel which he writes at this time, is so sensationally autobiographical that it ensures his financial security, but it ruins him as an artist. Still, the birth of his daughter Jenny, his befriending of the orphaned Ellen James, his purchase of the old Steering mansion, and his return to Steering as wrestling coach give him happiness and allow him to transcend the horrors of his life.

Jenny Fields, Garp’s mother, seems more firmly in control of her life. She is always certain of what she wants from life and almost always obtains it. Helen, though she has more formal education than any of the novel’s principals, experiences the same sorts of difficulties as does her husband. She too discovers happiness in curtailed ambition within the confines of her family and the books she loves.

Characters

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 225

The creation of memorable, even eccentric or bizarre characters is one of Irving's major contributions to contemporary literature. Never quite stereotypes, his major characters are nevertheless somehow larger than life. Like his contemporary Anne Tyler, Irving makes characters with odd behavior or obsessions curiously believable and quite sympathetic. Jenny Fields, Garp's mother, is in many ways the perfect example of the stereotypically kind, quiet nurse, yet she defies the rules of society by becoming impregnated by a dying man whose only utterance is the sound "garp" (hence her son's name), she questions prostitutes in Vienna, and she allows herself to become the focal point of a feminist movement while remaining an essentially nonpolitical person. Garp, too, has many of the characteristics of an "ordinary" man who values his family and does his work, but he lives a nontraditional life as the man who does the household chores, he chases on foot cars that speed through his neighborhood, and he dresses as a woman to attend his mother's feminist funeral, at which men are not welcome. There is some suggestion that Garp is meant to be a Christ-like figure—the almost-virgin birth, the martyr's death at thirty-three—but the novel is not an allegory. The characters are grounded in recognizable reality, and their eccentric behavior is a result of their devotion to personal or political causes.

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