Critical Context (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series)
Garp is Irving’s masterwork, reflecting the author’s wide reading and worldview. It follows the protagonist from conception to death, a technique used in Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1759-1767). Its outrageous tone matches Sterne’s, and several of the episodes, such as Michael Milton’s mutilation, resemble scenes in Tristram Shandy. T. S., Garp’s “name,” seems a literary joke to identify Irving’s hero with his fictional predecessor.
Other life-death references are more explicit. Irving quotes Randall Jarrell’s “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” a poem which notes the fetal position of the most vulnerable man aboard a B-17, the “Flying Fortress” of World War II. The reference is explicitly to Garp’s father, but it implicitly refers to human vulnerability to death. The poem and the reference imply the link between life and death as well as the cyclical view of history espoused by Aurelius.
Irving rejects the strongly autobiographical associations in The World According to Garp. He has Garp maintain that the autobiographical approach to literature is the least worthwhile. Still, Irving was born in New Hampshire, in 1942 (as was Garp), attended Exeter (Steering?), wrestled while there, and lived for a year in Vienna. This merely implies that a similarity exists between Garp’s frustrations and fears and those of his creator.
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., was Irving’s mentor, and Irving believes that effective storytelling is the measure of a novelist’s success. Irving admires Charles Dickens and deplores the self-reflective novel which obscures rather than clarifies.