John Irving's The World According to Garp is often referred to as a tragicomedy, a term that identifies a story as containing representations of both the lighter situations of life that cause laughter and the more sorrowful consequences of human actions that cause tears. Irving's novel definitely has large quantities of both types of these situations, spurred by unending strings of episodes that readers might conclude only Irving could successfully place into one novel. However, although the comic reactions to Irving's story are easily stirred, there is a hesitation or outright non-reaction to the more mournful circumstances and their consequences in Irving's story. Why is this true? How does Irving pull readers in and make them fascinated enough about his characters to keep his readers compelled to turn the pages to the end of his story, making them laugh at all the impossible situations, and yet barely move them or, worse yet, make them laugh at horrendous episodes of bloody and tragic circumstances?
Possible answers to these questions might be found in Irving' s own definitions of his writing. For instance, in an article by Richard Bernstein in the New York Times, Irving is quoted as saying, "I've read about myself that I am not to be taken seriously because I am a shameless entertainer, a crowd pleaser...You bet. I am." In other words, by Irving's own definition, he wants to keep his readers entertained, a pursuit that usually entails delving only lightly into the material of a story with the goal of making one's audience smile or laugh. From this definition, readers might conclude that even if Irving himself categorized his novel as a tragicomedy, he would lean toward the comedic portion of this labeling.
Later in the same New York Times article, Bernstein has another Irving quote: "I am a comic novelist," claims Irving. Then Irving adds, "It is my deliberate decision to create someone who is capable of moving you and then hurting him." So with this statement, Irving confirms that his emphasis is on the comedic side of life despite the fact that he also admits that he wants to stir other emotions—empathy, for example, for the suffering that he inflicts on his characters. But is empathy evoked in his readers? Does Irving move his readers in both directions, toward the comedy and the tragedy as the term tragicomedy implies? Or is this term misapplied in reference to Irving's writing?
In an attempt to examine this question, this essay will take up the condition that Mel Gussow describes in another New York Times article in which he describes Irving's writing with the statement, "Irving himself is expert at alternating scenes of zestful humor and deep sorrow, eventually knitting together all diverse narrative strands until there are no degrees of separation." If by this statement Gussow means that Irving knits his humor and sorrow together until there is no separation between the two, then it might be that this lack of separation is the clue as to why it is difficult to feel empathy for Irving's characters when they are suffering. Given the choice between laughing and crying, it seems only natural that readers would want to lean toward the humor in life. And maybe that is why readers of The World According to Garp find themselves laughing at the novel's scenes of death, mutilation, and rape.
At the beginning of The World According to Garp, the focus of the story is on Jenny Fields, Garp's mother. And the first blood drawn comes at the hands of Jenny in defending herself from a sexually aggressive male stranger who affronts her in a movie theater. The scene is bloody and brutal with Jenny slicing through skin and muscle and attempting to cut off the man's nose; and yet the reader feels very little sentiment, fear, or loathing for either the would-be assailant or for Jenny. The tension that might have built up from this scene is released in comic style, as with the line from Jenny: "'If I'd wanted to kill him,' she told the police, later, 'I'd have slit his wrist. I'm a nurse. I know how people bleed.'" Lines like this, at the height of a dramatic moment, cause readers to snicker, a response that comes out almost involuntarily like when witnessing someone falling down after slipping on a banana skin. The humorous aspects of the incident somehow wipe out empathy for the pain that is suffered. Forgotten in the laughter is the fact that Jenny was accosted and her assailant is in pain.
A little later in the story, Jenny meets Technical Sergeant Garp, (who is about to become the protagonist's father) whose brain has been accidentally mutilated by metal fragments, causing, in effect, a lobotomy (or severance of nerve fibers in the front part of his brain). The accident leaves the senior Garp in an imbecilic mental state, which gives Irving a chance to turn this bloody and horrific accident into another comedic scene. Irving does this by taking away all of Garp's abilities to function, except for one. Garp maintains an erection and is constantly masturbating. When Irving has Jenny taking advantage of Garp's erection by easing herself upon him, there is little thought of Jenny's inappropriateness. There is also little thought of defining Jenny as a rapist, which is what she is in essence; and had the sex of the characters been reversed, this scene might have been very controversial. Instead, this scene evokes laughter. Irving has not emotionally...
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