The World According to Garp is an intricate and sophisticated novel that focuses on many complex issues, such as transsexuality, gender roles, parenting, murder, death, assassination, illegitimacy, infidelity, marriage, sex, growing up, and writing. Writing in a chronological format, John Irving vividly portrays the life of a man who is born into a society on the verge of change, struggling to integrate the new feminism, nontraditional family structures, and reversed gender roles. In addition, the novel expresses concern for such feminist issues as rape, single motherhood, the aspirations of women for political power, nontraditional family structures, and domestic role reversal.
The World According to Garp is a classic example of a novel of initiation, which focuses on the life and development of a young protagonist making the passage from childhood to adulthood. This genre is especially appealing to young adult readers, who may be encountering similar problems. Young adult literature can serve as an aid and perhaps even a guide for readers as they venture through a difficult and confusing period of transition. Garp, like many young adults, goes through a painful process of maturation during which he develops his own values.
Irving continues the tradition of the young adult novel that leaves its protagonist on a positive and uplifting note. On the surface level, the epilogue emphasizes the cyclical nature of life as it is riddled with accounts of death. Irving sprinkles seeds of optimism, however, as he illustrates the positive influence that Garp has had on his family.
Irving immediately links the bipolar issues of death and sex, a connection that recurs throughout the novel as if to suggest that from sex comes life, the opposite of death. The World According to Garp begins with the unusual story of T. S. Garp’s conception: Jenny Fields, in essence, rapes a dying soldier so that she can avoid the traditional role of wife. Soon after Garp’s conception, the soldier dies and Garp is destined to be reared by a single mother. The fact that he is born fatherless affects his development as a writer as he struggles to form his own identity apart from being the son of Jenny Fields, the champion feminist.
The tone of the novel is a unique blending of the serious and the almost comically absurd. Amid the violence, the grotesque, and the craziness is an energetic, racy style that is quite appealing.