The World According to Garp The World according to Garp, John Irving - Essay

John Irving


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Major Themes

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Setting Free the Bears (novel) 1968

The Water-Method Man (novel) 1972

The 158-Pound Marriage (novel) 1974

The World according to Garp (novel) 1978

*3 by Irving (novels) 1980

The Hotel New Hampshire (novel) 1981

The Cider House Rules (novel) 1985

A Prayer for Owen Meany (novel) 1989

Trying to Save Piggy Sneed (short stories and essays) 1993; expanded edition, 1996

A Son of the Circus (novel) 1994

The Imaginary Girlfriend (memoir) 1996

A Widow for...

(The entire section is 92 words.)

Michael Wood (review date 20 April 1978)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Wood, Michael. “Nothing Sacred.” New York Review of Books 25, no. 6 (20 April 1978): 9.

[In the following excerpt, Wood asserts that The World according to Garp is an intelligent and amusing novel, commenting on Irving's unique treatment of a writer's perceptions of reality.]

“It's everywhere” is an appropriate sentiment for The World According to Garp, except that there the phrase would refer not to a changed historical situation but to something like the condition of the universe, a place of casual overkill and uncanny bad luck. Injury time is a fairly relevant notion too, since John Irving's impressive score is three rapes, two...

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Charles R. Larson (review date 23 April 1978)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Larson, Charles R. Review of The World according to Garp, by John Irving. Chicago Tribune 131, no. 113 (23 April 1978): section 7, pp. 1, 4.

[In the following review, Larson discusses the central themes of sex, marriage, and parenthood in The World according to Garp, calling the work “one of the most original (and readable) novels of the last few years.”]

Boston, 1942. Nurse Jenny Fields, the 22-year-old, head-strong daughter of a textiles tycoon, decides that she wants to be a mother—without the complicating attachments of marriage and husband. No easy matter in those pre-Women's Lib days, with all the young men away fighting in Europe, not...

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Terrence Des Pres (review date 29 April 1978)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Des Pres, Terrence. Review of The World according to Garp, by John Irving. New Republic 178, no. 17 (29 April 1978): 31-3.

[In the following review, Des Pres examines Irving's treatment of feminism, family, and gender in The World according to Garp, describing the work as “brilliant” and “disquieting.”]

Beginning with the decision of Jenny Fields (Garp's mother) to have a child without, as she puts it, locking her life and body to a man, the life of T. S. Garp unfolds through his years as son, husband, parent and writer (each is a primary theme), ending with his assassination at the age of 33. His mother, whose autobiography, A Sexual...

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Doris Grumbach (review date 13 May 1978)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Grumbach, Doris. “1978's Most Original Novel.” Saturday Review 5, no. 16 (13 May 1978): 42.

[In the following review, Grumbach argues that Irving subtly and persuasively treats themes concerning the absurdity of modern life in The World according to Garp, describing it as an “imaginative feast.”]

Before I attempt the almost impossible task of describing a complex and fascinating new novel, I want to place The World According to Garp, by John Irving, alongside Going after Cacciato, by Tim O'Brien. They are 1978's most original—and therefore best—novels thus far.

Garp itself is a paradox: both slick and...

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Walter Goodman (review date 22 May 1978)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Goodman, Walter. “The Real Thing.” New Leader 61, no. 11 (22 May 1978): 25-6.

[In the following review, Goodman contends that Irving uses an effective blend of violence, horror, and humor in The World according to Garp.]

T. S. Garp is a writer, and so The World According to Garp is, naturally, an exploration of the way the novelist turns life into fiction. But it is considerably more than that. Garp's imagination is no one-way street. It doubles back upon itself, and affects life as well as art. As a writer, Garp is able to control his imagination, more or less, and make it work for him. As a son, husband, lover, father, however, he is as much in its...

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Michael Malone (review date 10 June 1978)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Malone, Michael. “Everything that Rises.” Nation 226, no. 22 (10 June 1978): 705-08.

[In the following review, Malone asserts that Irving is successful in his blending of comedy and pain in The World according to Garp, praising Irving's treatment of gender roles, family, and the function of the imagination in fiction writing.]

In America everything merges. And so, possibly by the same secret corporate current that consistently (and, they claim, coincidentally) elects identical covers for Time and Newsweek, everyone reviews the same books. On a trail of blurbs, reviewers race together like lemmings into a sea of print. Happily, this...

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Pearl K. Bell (review date September 1978)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Bell, Pearl K. “Family Affairs.” Commentary 66, no. 3 (September 1978): 70-3.

[In the following review, Bell extols Irving's treatment of the importance of family and the power of personal history in The World according to Garp, noting that the novel represents a definite break from recent literary trends.]

Some cultural theorists believe, though it may be self-serving, that novelists, like swallows before the storm or Noah's dove, are harbingers of the future. To the rebel like Rimbaud the poet is prévoyant, and to a conservative like Ortega writers are a sample of one whose imagination prefigures the future. This view may in fact be little...

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Thomas M. Disch (review date 20 October 1978)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Disch, Thomas M. “Love Me, Love My Novel.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 3994 (20 October 1978): 1195.

[In the following review, Disch argues that the appeal of The World according to Garp lies in the voice and personality of the book's narrator.]

The novelist, like Cleopatra, seduces us by the infinite variety of his (and, by inference, our own) contradictions. This kind of seduction (or if you would rather, charm) is the key to compulsive novel-reading. The World According to Garp is a novel about the novel, and the novelist, as seducer. Practising what it preaches, it is also an irresistibly good read, the specific charm of which...

(The entire section is 907 words.)

Zahir Jamal (review date 20 October 1978)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Jamal, Zahir. “The Value of Laughter.” New Statesman 96, no. 2483 (20 October 1978): 519.

[In the following review, Jamal describes The World according to Garp as a deeply inventive narrative that blends elements of nightmare and farce in its creation of an American “puritan folk-hero.”]

The suspicion that living remains a highly experimental form of existence not unreasonably oppresses many citizens of America the Unsafe. So many incentives to keep going, the confused resident finds himself musing, yet such powerful inducements to fall dead. It's the kind of anxiety that sprouts thickly in The World According to Garp, John Irving's...

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Francis King (review date 21 October 1978)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: King, Francis. “'Arping On.” Spectator 241, no. 7842 (21 October 1978): 27-8.

[In the following review, King praises the elements of macabre farce in The World according to Garp, but faults the novel for its lack of a central organizing theme.]

Whereas, in the days before efficient contraception, many women would worry about how to have a man without having a baby, Jenny Fields's worry is precisely the opposite. She longs for motherhood but she also longs for a life without any sexual attachment. Nursing in a hospital for second World war casualties, she gets her wish when a ball turret gunner with irreparable brain damage becomes her patient. Called...

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Mark Stevens (review date 2 March 1979)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Stevens, Mark. Review of The World according to Garp, by John Irving. National Review 31, no. 9 (2 March 1979): 313.

[In the following review, Stevens offers a positive assessment of The World according to Garp, commenting that the novel is an imaginative and “richly comic” satire.]

The World According to Garp, is the work of an extravagant imagination. It is also richly comic, its dialogue and scenes sometimes filled with a riotous energy worthy of the Marx Brothers. Yet for all its comic affection (and Irving does care about his characters), The World According to Garp is no slapstick celebration. Irving's special gift...

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Joy Horowitz (review date 22 April 1979)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Horowitz, Joy. “The Gospel according to Garp.” Los Angeles Times (22 April 1979): section 7, pp. 2-3.

[In the following review, Horowitz discusses the critical and popular reaction to The World according to Garp.]

My father the psychologist will flip out when he reads this, but it's true. I've joined a cult. It's not that I've disowned my family, you understand. But I've joined another highly enlightened one—The Family of Garp.

Yes, I'm a Garpist. I've become a missionary trying to spread the word of Garp, as in John Irving's astounding novel, The World According to Garp, one of the most passionate and outrageous novels I've ever...

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John Irving and Larry McCaffery (interview date 9 November 1979)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Irving, John, and Larry McCaffery. “An Interview with John Irving.” Contemporary Literature 23, no. 1 (winter 1982): 1-18.

[In the following interview, originally conducted on November 9, 1979, Irving discusses the writing of The World according to Garp and the effect that the novel has had on his work and career.]

Of all the novels to appear in America during the 1970s, John Irving's The World According to Garp was probably the book which most captured the public's imagination. Perhaps just as remarkable as its commercial success is the fact that Garp is much more than a highly readable potboiler, peopled with dozens of engaging and...

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Barbara Lounsberry (essay date fall 1982-winter 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Lounsberry, Barbara. “The Terrible Under Toad: Violence as Excessive Imagination in The World according to Garp.Thalia 5, no. 2 (fall 1982-winter 1983): 30-5.

[In the following essay, Lounsberry posits that The World according to Garp functions primarily as a social satire in which excess and extremism—particularly in the realms of sex, sexual politics, parenting, and the imagination—eventually lead to violence and destruction.]

Violence, both physical and psychological, is one of the most unnerving features of The World According to Garp, John Irving's 1978 novel of mutilation and death in American society. The novel, which...

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Gabriel Miller (essay date 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Miller, Gabriel. “Portrait of the Artist as a Nervous Wreck.” In John Irving, pp. 88-126. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1982.

[In the following essay, Miller offers a critical analysis of The World according to Garp in regards to the development of Irving's writing style throughout the novel and throughout his career.]

When T. S. Garp gives one of his early stories to his girl friend Helen, he is at first hurt—and then made even more determined to become a great writer—by her critique: “This story shows promise, although I do think, at this point, you are more of a wrestler than a writer.” Whereas Irving's own first three novels demonstrate too...

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Bruce Bawer (essay date summer 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Bawer, Bruce. “The World according to Garp: Novel to Film.” Bennington Review 15 (summer 1983): 74-9.

[In the following essay, Bawer compares the novel The World according to Garp to the film adaptation, asserting that the film maintains the major thematic elements of Irving's novel but presents them from a more optimistic perspective.]

No film of recent years has received a smaller proportion of the attention and admiration that it deserves, whether from critics or the viewing public, than George Roy Hill's The World According to Garp. This amazing film, which is about nothing less than what it means to be human, had the misfortune to...

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Andrew Horton (essay date fall 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Horton, Andrew. “Comic Triumph in George Roy Hill's Adaptation of John Irving's The World according to Garp.Studies in American Humor 4, no. 3 (fall 1985): 173-82.

[In the following essay, Horton compares the novel The World according to Garp to the film adaptation directed by George Roy Hill, suggesting that the film effectively preserves the spirit of the novel while adding a comic sense of the triumph of the human spirit which remains absent from Irving's novel.]

Above all else, John Irving's 1978 best-selling novel The World According to Garp fits a post-modernist view of the triumph of narrative over life.1 In hundreds...

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Carol C. Harter and James R. Thompson (essay date 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Harter, Carol C., and James R. Thompson. “The World according to Garp: Life as a Doomed Effort at Reclassification.” In John Irving, pp. 74-102. Boston, Mass.: Twayne, 1986.

[In the following essay, Harter and Thompson discuss Irving's use of narrative technique and point of view in The World according to Garp, concluding that the novel effectively integrates a comic-tragic worldview within a traditional family saga.]

In the four years following the publication of what must be considered his least successful novel, The 158-Pound Marriage, a still youthful Irving conceived and brilliantly executed his masterpiece, The World According...

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William Cosgrove (essay date spring 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Cosgrove, William. “The World according to Garp as Fabulation.” South Carolina Review 19, no. 2 (spring 1987): 52-8.

[In the following essay, Cosgrove asserts that The World according to Garp bucks the literary trends of experimentation popular in the late twentieth century and revives the storytelling forms and techniques of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.]

The experimental novel of the 1960's and 1970's has been increasingly subjected to some long overdue criticism. Recently such diverse critics as Malcolm Cowley, John Gardner, and Anthony Burgess have deplored the loss in contemporary fiction of the ancient art of storytelling with...

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Kim McKay (essay date winter 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: McKay, Kim. “Double Discourses in John Irving's The World according to Garp.Twentieth Century Literature 38, no. 4 (winter 1992): 457-75.

[In the following essay, McKay examines the dual narrative voice of T. S. Garp as both biographer and fiction writer in The World according to Garp.]

In The World According to Garp John Irving forms a type of dialogue within the narration by creating a narrator who uses a double discourse: that of the biographer and that of the fiction writer. It is not unusual in the Bildungsroman genre, to which this novel most certainly belongs, for the narrator to adopt the role of biographer to a certain...

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Raymond J. Wilson III (essay date fall 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Wilson III, Raymond J. “The Postmodern Novel: The Example of John Irving's The World according to Garp.Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 34, no. 1 (fall 1992): 49-62.

[In the following essay, Wilson examines the postmodern construction of The World according to Garp, particularly the novel's elements of metafiction, irony, and the gothic bizarre.]

As a novel that recapitulates within itself a history of twentieth-century fiction, John Irving's The World According to Garp illustrates a key aspect of postmodernism, that of formal replenishment. The earlier segments of Garp exhibit strong elements of modernism whereas in...

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Debra Shostak (essay date fall 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Shostak, Debra. “Plot as Repetition: John Irving's Narrative Experiments.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 37, no. 1 (fall 1995): 51-70.

[In the following essay, Shostak analyses how Irving's body of work—particularly The World according to Garp—displays his tragic-comic vision, narrative technique, fictional form, and recurring motifs.]

Sorrow floats. So claims the narrator of John Irving's novel, The Hotel New Hampshire (1981). Sorrow is the flatulent Labrador retriever who dies but does not disappear, the free-floating dog of anxiety whose remains come to the surface even after the airplane he rides in plunges into the sea....

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Josie P. Campbell (essay date 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Campbell, Josie P. “The World according to Garp.” In John Irving: A Critical Companion, pp. 71-86. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1998.

[In the following essay, Campbell provides an overview of the plot structure, setting, character development, and major themes in The World according to Garp.]

John Irving's first three novels have seemed to many critics merely warm-up exercises for his “major” works. Although this is not accurate—the early novels, especially The Water-Method Man and The 158-Pound Marriage, stand up very well on their individual merits—The World According to Garp was in a number of ways Irving's...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Amiel, Barbara. “To Vonnegut and Heller, Add John Irving.” Maclean's 91, no. 11 (29 May 1978): 66.

Amiel asserts that The World according to Garp places Irving among such authors as Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller who represent “the best school of American writing” of the twentieth century.

Irving, John, and William McPherson. “The World according to John Irving.” Washington Post Book World (30 April 1978): E1, E5.

Irving discusses the relationship between his own life and that of his fictional character, T. S. Garp.

Rickard, John. “Wrestling with the Text: The...

(The entire section is 230 words.)