The World according to Garp John Irving
(Full name John Winslow Irving) American novelist, short story writer, essayist, memoirist, and screenwriter.
The following entry presents criticism on Irving's novel The World according to Garp (1978) through 1998. See also John Irving Criticism (Volume 13), and Volumes 23, 112.
The World according to Garp, Irving's fourth novel, has widely been considered by critics and popular audiences alike to be his masterpiece. The central focus of the narrative revolves around a novelist named T. S. Garp and his unusual relationships with his mother, his wife, his two sons, and the world around him. Throughout the text, Irving also provides commentary on the causes and manifestations of the contemporary feminist movement, primarily through the character of Garp's mother, Jenny Fields, who becomes an international feminist icon. Though Garp has a loving relationship with his mother, he finds himself targeted as an enemy of feminism due to the content of his novels, which attempt to understand the role of justice, kindness, and love in the modern world through vivid portrayals of extremism and gender violence. Long excerpts from Garp's books are included within Irving's novel, as is an epilogue that provides information about what happens to the remaining characters after Garp's death.
Plot and Major Characters
The World according to Garp opens with Garp's conception and concludes with his death. The majority of the novel is narrated by a scholar who is working on a biography of Garp titled Lunacy and Sorrow: The Life and Art of T. S. Garp. Garp's mother, Jenny, works as a nurse in a Boston hospital during World War II. Discouraged by the limited opportunities available to women at the time, Jenny decides to impregnate herself, using the body of a wounded, brain-damaged soldier, whom she knows only as “Technical Sergeant Garp,” shortly before he dies. After Jenny gives birth to her son—whom she names “T. S. Garp” after his father—she accepts a position as a nurse at The Steering School, a prestigious all-boys boarding school. Garp eventually attends Steering himself, where he decides that he wants to become a writer. He falls in love with Helen Holm, the daughter of his high school wrestling coach, but Helen refuses to marry him until he becomes a true writer. After graduation, Garp decides to move to Vienna, Austria, to gain the life experience he needs to become a novelist. Jenny decides to move to Vienna with Garp and begins writing her own book, an autobiography titled A Sexual Suspect. After Jenny finishes her memoir, Garp writes the novella “The Pension Grillparzer,” which convinces Helen to marry him. Jenny and Garp move back to the United States, with both seeking publication for their respective books. Jenny meets an editor, John Wolf, who consents to publish A Sexual Suspect, which quickly becomes an international best-seller and inspires a fanatical following of women devoted to Jenny's pro-feminist ideals. She is particularly lionized by a radical organization known as the Ellen James Society—so-called because its members willingly have their tongues amputated as a show of solidarity with an eleven-year-old girl named Ellen James, who was raped by a man who subsequently cut out her tongue. With the earnings from her wildly successful book, Jenny retires from nursing and moves to her parents' home in Dog's Head Harbor, on the New Hampshire coast, where she runs a shelter for abused women. Among Jenny's devotees is Roberta Muldoon, a transsexual, formerly known as Robert Muldoon, a tight-end for the Philadelphia Eagles football team. Garp also becomes a published novelist, but his works fail to attract the popular attention that his mother's memoir received. Helen begins working as a professor of English literature and Garp assumes the role of a house-husband, taking care of their two sons, Duncan and Walt, while he writes at home. Garp eventually finishes two novels, Procrastination and The World according to Bensenhaver, though Bensenhaver is vehemently denounced by the Ellen Jamesians and feminists alike due to its graphic depictions of rape and violence. Throughout his marriage, Garp engages in sexual affairs with various babysitters, friends, and neighbors, causing a rift in their marriage which inspires Helen to begin her own affair with one of her graduate students, Michael Milton. Tragedy occurs when Garp and his sons recklessly pull into their driveway one evening, inadvertently colliding with another car in which Helen is engaged in a sexual act with Milton. Garp's youngest son, Walt, is killed in the accident, and Duncan loses an eye. The family travels to Dog's Head Harbor to recuperate and Garp and Helen are able to reconcile their marital problems. Soon after, Garp and Helen's third child, Jenny Garp, is conceived. Several months later, Jenny Fields is assassinated by a man who believes that A Sexual Suspect has destroyed his marriage. After Jenny's followers declare that no men will be allowed at her funeral, Roberta helps Garp dress as a woman in order to attend the services. After Garp is exposed during the funeral, he flees to the airport where he meets the now-grown Ellen James. Ellen informs Garp that she despises the Ellen Jamesians and commends him for portraying the reality of rape so brutally in The World according to Bensenhaver. Garp then takes Ellen home with him, effectively adopting her into his family. Roberta convinces Garp to form a charitable organization, The Fields Foundation, in his mother's honor and he returns to The Steering School, accepting a position as their wrestling coach. During a wrestling practice, Garp is shot to death by a woman named Pooh Percy, an Ellen Jamesian who blames him for the death of her sister, whom Garp knew in his youth. An epilogue entitled “Life after Garp” reveals what later becomes of many of the characters, including Helen, Duncan, and Roberta, noting that Duncan arranged for Garp's last unfinished novel My Father's Illusions to be published posthumously.
The World according to Garp examines a broad range of issues, including family relations, gender roles, feminism, and death while focusing thematically on the relationship between sex and violence as well as fiction and reality. The novel is generally regarded as a family saga due to its epic length, treatment of three generations within a single family, and emphasis on family and marital relationships. Garp's dealings with his mother, his wife, and his two sons form the core of the narrative. Irving frequently portrays Garp as a victim of obsessive anxiety about the myriad dangers that could potentially befall his wife and children. Such unforeseen dangers that lurk in Garp's world are symbolized by the “Under Toad”—Walt's term for the ocean's “undertow” he has been warned about at the beach. Garp's fanatical efforts to protect his family from harm prove futile as the book unfolds and random violence and unexpected death occur again and again. Deconstructing traditional gender roles is also a key theme within the novel—Garp is comfortable in his gender-reversed role as house-husband and remains cognizant of gender issues due to his mother's position as a feminist leader. When Garp dresses as a woman to attend his mother's funeral, he obtains a first-hand experience of how women are treated by society. The transsexual Roberta further exemplifies the novel's concern with non-traditional gender roles, transforming a football player into an ardent advocate for women's rights. Feminism, particularly in its most radical and extreme forms, is also a recurring theme in The World according to Garp. Though Jenny Fields does not consider herself to be a feminist, she is identified as such because she has no dependence on men, evidenced by the fact that she never married and intentionally impregnated herself. The Ellen James Society, which regards Jenny Fields as its heroine, represents an extreme brand of hatred toward men that ultimately leads to Garp's death. The connection between sex and violence is also examined throughout the course of the story. In addition to the two assassinations—which are both inspired by sexual politics—the novel includes a number of violent incidents that are either inspired by or directly caused by lust and sex, including the loss of an eye, women's tongues being cut out, several rapes, and an accidental castration. Irving also constructs a controlled interplay between fiction and reality in The World according to Garp, structuring the narrative along three levels of reality: the fictional world Garp creates in his novels, which closely resembles his own life; the fictional world of Garp's reality, which closely resembles Irving's own life; and the extra-textual world in which John Irving lives and works as a novelist. Through this meta-narrative structure, Irving explores the ways in which reality is processed by the imagination in the creation of fiction.
The World according to Garp has been met with enthusiasm by a majority of critics, with most commentators generally agreeing that it is among Irving's best novels. Irving's unique prose style has been described by several reviewers as original, imaginative, quirky, intelligent, powerful, and captivating. Academics have also consistently praised the novel's meta-narrative structure in which Irving juxtaposes excerpts from Garp's novels with the events of Garp's life, along with actual events from his own life, though some critics have argued that the segments of Garp's novels are overly long and bring the reader out of the central narrative. Many reviewers have commented on the effectiveness of the tragi-comic aspects of the novel, lauding how Irving portrays humor and joy as inseparable from violence and suffering. The critical opinion regarding Irving's treatment of gender issues and feminism, however, has been sharply divided, with some charging Irving with promoting an anti-feminist stance due to what they deem as his skewed, male-oriented representations of women. Others have defended Garp's open portrayals of gender-role reversals and transsexualism, but a number of feminist critics have denounced Irving's attempts at critiquing the extremism of the feminist movement in the 1960s and 1970s. The novel's graphic depictions of rape and violence have also been met with a mixed response. Some scholars have asserted that the novel's death and violence are important elements in presenting its bittersweet worldview, while others have regarded these passages as merely excessive and gratuitous sensationalism. Despite these reservations, The World according to Garp has continued to attract significant praise for its well-developed characterization, thoughtful examination of family issues, and welcoming narratorial voice.